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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Portrait of a Nation: Emirati 'Mama' devotes her life to orphans with disabilities

Senses centre in Dubai cares for children who have no place to go 

Nadia Al Sayegh founded Senses, a centre for children with disabilities, in 2004. John Marsland for The National
Nadia Al Sayegh founded Senses, a centre for children with disabilities, in 2004. John Marsland for The National

The name ‘Mama Nadia’ rings out across the corridors of a villa in Umm Suqeim as children call out to Nadia Al Sayegh when she steps into the centre for special needs she founded more than a decade ago.

The centre was borne from an idea Ms Al Sayegh had after working for 20 years with the Ministry of Social Affairs. During that time, she met large families with limited income who could not adequately support children with special needs. It was then that she saw the need for Senses, a non-profit residential and day care, that she established in 2004.

“Through my position I met a lot of parents sometimes with two or three children with disabilities. If anything happened to the parents, there was nobody to take care of the child. Or if the child was an orphan then he was put in a hospital. From then I got the idea of Senses,” says Ms Al Sayegh, who often pauses during conversations to wave at and hug children who drop by her office.

Pupils are cared for at the Senses centre in Dubai. John Marsland for The National
Pupils are cared for at the Senses centre in Dubai. John Marsland for The National

The buildings and land were gifted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.

Over the past 13 years the centre’s enrolment has grown from four children to 85 children in residential care. Some 44 children attend the day care facility where they are provided with physiotherapy, speech, music and occupational therapy sessions.

Most of the children are orphans with disabilities including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and Autism. Some of the children arrived at the centre because they cannot be looked after by their surviving parent, others require constant care which their families are unable to provide them with.

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“We have some orphans with special needs who are severe cases and must be constantly monitored. This is the only residential place in Dubai and the Gulf area for orphans with physical and mental disabilities. They are the ones who need our help and love the most,” she says.

The centre depends on donations from the public and requires continuous support from companies to afford rehabilitation for the children, who represent 18 nationalities.

Dr Lina Owies, executive manager, is among the core, dedicated staff who also calls out to ‘Mama Nadia.’

“For me, she is the mother of all these kids with a really big heart. She always pushes the team to see different ways we can support the child if the family cannot. She is loved a lot because of this,” Ms Owies says.

Dr Lina Owies, executive manager of Senses. John Marsland for The National
Dr Lina Owies, executive manager of Senses. John Marsland for The National

Ms Al Sayegh learnt about the importance of giving at a young age when she and her six sisters and two brothers, would see their parents set up public tents every Ramadan to feed the under-privileged. As a child, she also set aside pocket money to buy school supplies for children from low-income families.

A full-time commitment, the centre requires the support of her six children who understand her passion as does her husband.

Mahmoud Ali Kayani says his wife taught the family by example to accept people with special needs.

“She led our family here. I never know about this field because all my life I was in the army. Now this is our second house. Before I didn’t know how to feel for these children but now it’s very hard for me not to come even one day,” he says.

The centre is her life, says Ms Al Sayegh.

“If I go once a month with my children to celebrate a birthday or for lunch or dinner that is more than enough. My life is here, where I can see I am needed so I have to be here. Even my husband spends his days here. I couldn’t have done this without my family because they have accepted this life. I feel I’m lucky that god gave me this chance to take care of these children because the life they are living is not in their hands.”

Pupils take part in class activities at Senses. John Marsland for The National
Pupils take part in class activities at Senses. John Marsland for The National

The biog

Nickname: Mama Nadia to children, staff and parents

Education: Bachelors degree in English Literature with Social work from UAE University

As a child: Kept sweets on the window sill for workers, set aside money to pay for education of needy families

Holidays: Spends most of her days off at Senses often with her family who describe the centre as part of their life too