x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Rawan Barakat provides a voice for the visually impaired

When Rawan Barakat was young her mother read to her. As a visually impaired child, there were few Braille books but an idea had been planted. Now she has created her own company that brings stories alive for thousands of children across the region.

Rawan Barakat speaks at a conference on women as social agents of change in Dubai this month. Her workshops have reached 5,500 children from across the Arab world. Razan Alzayani / The National
Rawan Barakat speaks at a conference on women as social agents of change in Dubai this month. Her workshops have reached 5,500 children from across the Arab world. Razan Alzayani / The National

When Rawan Barakat was young her mother read to her. As a visually impaired child, there were few Braille books but an idea had been planted. Now she has created her own company that brings stories alive for thousands of children across the region. Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry reports

Spoken words have beautiful voices for Rawan Barakat.

When Rawan, 27, was growing up in Amman, Jordan, there were few books in Braille for visually impaired children such as her, and audiobooks were unknown. The little girl felt no loss because her mother constantly read aloud to her, but that ended when her mother was found to have a rare form of oral cancer. Rawan was only nine, but the idea of creating Arabic audiobooks had been firmly planted.

Fast forward to 2013 and a refugee camp on the outskirts of Amman, where a gaggle of children sit in a shabby classroom listening, enraptured, to a story being played on a CD. It is the tale of The Giraffe's Company for Happy Dreams. Through the amazing vocal talents of the actors and lively sound effects, the children are transported from their drab surroundings to a magical kingdom where the giraffe tricks the animals into climbing up a tree and then threatens to leave them up there unless they pay him to bring them down.

After listening to the story, the children have an interactive session with Rawan and her team. They make puppets, and then have to recreate and retell the story as a puppet show using their own imagination.

Since Rawan launched her company, Raneen, which means echo in Arabic, more than 5,500 children, most of them from deprived areas, have benefited from such expressive workshops. For Rawan, hearing the wonder and excitement in the voices of the children is the best reward for her efforts to create the audiobooks.

She modestly attributes her success to her family, especially her late mother, who worked tirelessly to give her the best education despite a long battle with cancer which she lost when her daughter was 17. When Rawan was a child there was only one special primary school for visually challenged children that taught Braille. The school, which also had a hostel for children who came from rural areas, was in a bad state and suffering from a lack of resources.

"My mother took it upon herself to improve the conditions at the school," Rawan recalls.

"She would go to the ministry of education and petition them to increase the number of teachers; she started a parents' committee, involved the local community in the school affairs; and fundraised to buy extra buses. Not only that, she also appointed herself as a guardian of the kids in the school's hostel, who were mostly poor, ensuring that they had clean rooms and provided them with all the necessities."

While the idea of how to help other visually impaired children came when Rawan was a child, it was only during her first year in college in 2006 that it became a reality. "We were asked as part of our theatrical arts college assignment to come up with projects to serve our community. I came up with the idea of an audio library for kids in Arabic," she says.

Despite being the first and only blind student in her college, Rawan wasn't daunted and with her trademark zest and enthusiasm, she got to work on her contacts. Her persuasive skills came to good use, as she convinced professional actors and a director to volunteer for the project. "Being in drama school helped me immensely, as I was in touch with many of the actors who were happy to narrate the stories."

But a limited budget made securing a professional recording studio difficult.

Determined as always to succeed, she called the owner of a famous studio, Tareq Abu Loghd, and convinced him to give her 50 hours of recording time free.

"He was very welcoming and allowed me to use his studio facilities, despite the fact that he didn't know me. If not for his help, I don't think Raneen would have seen the light. Mr Abu Loghd is now on our board of trustees and has contributed immensely to the success of Raneen," she says. It took Rawan two months to produce 13 audio stories as part of her pilot project.

The project slowed for three years while she tried to obtain funding and support to buy the copyrights of the books so she could distribute the audio CDs.

She wasn't discouraged and kept knocking on doors despite the constant disappointments. Then, just after she graduated from university in 2009, her tenacity paid off when she won the King Abdullah Award for Youth at the World Economic Forum in Jordan.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to win the award. I was going against a lot of odds, competing against established organisations that were doing great humanitarian work.

"It was fated for me to win, as the king decided at the last minute to award all the projects that attained the first 10 positions, instead of only the first three as was planned," she says.

Winning the award was Rawan's big break and opened many doors of opportunities for the development of Raneen. The award money of US$50,000 (Dh184,000) was used to produce 30 stories in four audiobooks.

"When I first started the project I thought I would just produce the books, distribute them to schools and relax," she says.

Little did she know this was the beginning of something much bigger than just producing audiobooks.

Later, the expressive workshops were added to the company.

"We have reached about 5,500 children with these workshops from all over the Arab world. But we realised that even if our team grew, we could never reach as many children as we would like, so we came up with the second idea of developing the skills of teachers, librarians or parents who work with the auditory material," she explains.

So far, Raneen has trained 300 in the basic skills of how to interact with the stories, what kind of questions to expect and the art of putting on a puppet show.

Another recent project is the creation of school audio libraries in destitute areas of Jordan.

"So far we have equipped 73 libraries with a CD player, the audiobooks, and trained the librarians how to use the books."

Rawan often makes her achievements sound like an easy feat in a society that is not very accepting of people with special needs, says her sister Lina.

"We were very encouraging of her as a family" she says, "she was never treated with kid gloves, she always took part in all children's activities and has been actively doing voluntary work since she was 11.

"Our mother, in particular, was a pillar of support. She encouraged all of us, her three daughters, to be strong and independent and always taught us not to look at ourselves as victims but individuals who can be agents of positive change."

Rawan's advice to others who suffer from disabilities is to be assertive and not sit idly expecting society to accept them.

"We should be proactive to change the perception society has of us. People do not discriminate against us deliberately, and do not mean to hurt us, we just need to change the ignorance in our societies when it comes to people with special needs."