Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 July 2019

I lost my compass in life when my father died. The Special Olympics helped me find it​​​​​​​ again

My father believed in an inclusive society – and even though he wasn't there to witness it, the Games gave me hope that could happen

From the stage of the closing ceremony of the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, I gazed out at a packed stadium, feeling conflicting emotions of joy and deep sadness at the moment I had been waiting so long for, but could not share with the two people I wanted there most. I had been invited to speak as a volunteer for the Games to mark the end of a remarkable week for my city and country. But for me personally, it had been a week of heartache and terrible sadness after my father passed away.

As Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver welcomed me on stage, I could not help but think of the two people who helped me get there in the first place and should have been in the audience – my father Abdulaziz Ahmed Alblooki, who would have been so proud to see me up there, and my mother, Ayesha Mohammed Khoori, who has stood by my side but was at home observing iddah, the period of mourning after laying my father to rest. It was those overwhelming emotions that led me to tell Mr Shriver as I went on stage: “I’m really, really tired.”

Abu Dhabi, March 21, 2019. Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Closing Ceremony. T. SHriver and Noura.Victor Besa/The National Victor Besa/The National
Abu Dhabi, March 21, 2019. Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. Closing Ceremony. T. SHriver and Noura.Victor Besa/The National Victor Besa/The National

That day was exceptional for other reasons, too. It was supposed to be my graduation ceremony from Zayed University. As much as it saddened me, I chose to miss that once-in-a-lifetime event to give my co-volunteers, my country and my father a piece of my heart, in a speech that I knew would make them all proud. I got on that stage with a trembling heart and I gave them not my grief-stricken self, but a super-powered woman confident and brave enough to speak to an audience of thousands. Being there without my family was painful but I felt a strangely calming presence. “Even if I’m tired today, the experience of the past few weeks are the fuel that will help me keep the spirit of tolerance and the Special Olympics alive,” I said.

My preparation for the Games had actually first begun when I travelled to Baku in Azerbeijan last year to represent the UAE as a youth leader at the Global Youth Leadership Forum. There, I discovered the true meaning of volunteering as a means to spread a message of inclusion.

When the Flame of Hope arrived in Abu Dhabi in February this year, it was a moment I had been waiting a whole year for and sparked the spirit of inclusion on every street corner. As I took part in the Flame of Hope Torch Run on March 13, my heart was dancing to the beat of hope. I was over the moon and ready for the change that my native city was about to witness.

I decided to volunteer as a team leader, overseeing other volunteers of determination, with the Services for Educational Development, Research and Awareness for Inclusion (Sedra) foundation in Abu Dhabi, a partner of the Special Olympics. In the process, I discovered all it took was a simple hello to shatter barriers. The experience helped me become more understanding and less judgmental.

My father always held the dream of every home and heart being inclusive. Yet as his dream was coming true, he was not there to witness it

However, the night before the Special Olympics opening ceremony, when I was supposed to give a speech to the Global Youth Leadership Forum in New York University Abu Dhabi, my father tragically passed away and my own flame of hope dimmed. I felt like I was slipping back into that same dark hole that I had dug years earlier when I was nine years old and first developed a neurological condition called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, which meant I lost the ability to walk. My heart was drowning in the pain caused by his sudden loss. I felt like I had lost my compass in life. The Games had begun and I couldn’t bring myself to speak of hope at a time when I felt anything but in my grief.

A young Noura and her father. Courtesy Noura Alblooki
A young Noura and her father. Courtesy Noura Alblooki

After the first day of mourning his departure from my world, but not my heart, I started to recall how after I was diagnosed, my life turned upside down and I lost myself in the midst of my struggle to accept my new self. However, my father, my friend and my rock, was there for me through my darkest times. He pulled me out of the hole and taught me to live in the light. He never gave up on me. He taught me to make decisions for myself, made sure I continued my education and loved me wholeheartedly. He would tell me: “My dear, you will do wonderful things in life and your voice will echo and it will be heard one day, so use it well.” My father always held the dream of every home and heart being inclusive. Yet as his dream was coming true, he was not there to witness it.

Noura Alblooki learned that being ordinary is overrated. Victor Besa / The National
Noura Alblooki learned that being ordinary is overrated. Victor Besa / The National

So as I began to find peace, I thought to myself: what would my father have wanted? Would he want me to quit or fight and persevere? The answer was easy. My father never gave up, and neither was I about to. My father, my volunteers, my country and my message of inclusion needed me and I wasn’t going to let them down. On the last day of the Games, I put on a brave face and went on duty as a volunteer. I saw how fellow volunteers of all abilities came together and witnessed bridges of love, inclusion and acceptance being built everywhere. That was when I realised it is okay to fall apart and grieve, as long as you never give up.

A young Noura and her father. Courtesy Noura Alblooki
A young Noura and her father. Courtesy Noura Alblooki

I had waited my entire life to graduate from university but I decided to forego my ceremony to go to the Games instead, for the speech that I hoped would send waves of change, not just across the UAE but around the world. I have kept the lanyard I wore, not just as a sentimental reminder but as a call to action.

To Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, I would like to say thank you for opening the UAE and the hearts of thousands of people to the beauty of tolerance and acceptance of each other’s differences, for breaking the negative stereotypes of people of determination and for sending a humanitarian message to the world.

And to my father, I would say this: you raised a warrior in me. I am so proud to be an Emirati, a person of determination and your daughter.

Noura Alblooki is the head of the Mohtawa Hemam social media platform and a volunteer team leader for the Special Olympics World Games

Updated: March 25, 2019 12:42 PM

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