Stroke of genius: carpet goes on sale in Dubai inspired by disabled children's painting

A carpet designed by young people from Senses Centre for Special Needs will be a focal point of Dubai Design Week

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One paint stroke may not mean much to most able-bodied people, but to some, it is an utter triumph. That is the message from the operators of Dubai's Senses Centre for Special Needs, where a painting created by a group of disabled children has been transformed into a magnificent carpet, now on display at Dubai Design Week.

Emirati philanthropist Nadia Al Sayegh founded Senses in 2004 as a way to help severely disabled children in Dubai.

Senses Painting. Courtesy Hands
The Ghaf tree was chosen for the design as it is used in the Year of Tolerance's logo, and is an important symbol of the UAE. Courtesy Hands

Al Sayegh had been working at the Ministry of Social Affairs, where she had seen several cases of families unable to care for their disabled children, or parents struggling to care for three or four children who had severe disabilities. Then there were those who had been orphaned and had nowhere to go.

When she secured a villa in Jumeirah to start her non-­government organisation, she had children coming to her by the dozen. "What makes ­Senses different is that we take severely disabled children," says Nadia's sister Khawla Al Sayegh, who now works for Senses as the vice ­executive manager. "We take abandoned orphans, ­disabled children in low-income families, children with multiple disabilities, and children who have low support from families."

Through specialised programmes that combine speech and music therapy, art, life skills, sports and physiotherapy, the centre welcomes children with disabilities from the age of 2 to 19. It relies on the generosity of strangers, mainly through donations, and financial support from Al Sayegh's father to keep it running. But in 2010, with finances strained, the centre could no longer afford to rent the villa. The team were ­packing up and moving out when fate intervened, in the shape of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

Senses founder Nadia Al Sayegh with two children who helped with the design of the carpet at its launch. Courtesy Senses.
Senses founder Nadia Al Sayegh with two children who helped with the design of the carpet at its launch. Courtesy Senses.

"Nadia was packing everything to move out when Sheikh Mohammed was driving past. He asked someone what it was, and within a week he had called us to see if we needed anything or if he could help. Nadia said she just needed a shelter for the children," Khawla says. And so Sheikh Mohammed gave the centre some land and got them a building to ensure it could stay open.

These days Senses has 127 children under its charge, with a waiting list of more than 300. Currently, 76 children live there full-time. Though they no longer have to worry about paying rent, Khawla says operational costs are still high. The centre is open 365 days a year, and can cost up to Dh700,000 a month to run. Nadia and Khawla still rely on their father for financial assistance, and on charitable donations, but often that is not enough. "We provide food, education, nursing, and outings every Sunday," Khawla says. "We don't have stable sponsors and we are thankful to Sheikh ­Mohammed. He wanted to give the community a chance … but it is still very expensive to run."

Children from Senses painting a Ghaf tree to be made into a carpet for Dubai Design Week. Courtesy Hands
Children from Senses painting their Ghaf tree to be made into a carpet for Dubai Design Week. Courtesy Hands

That is where Hands comes in. The Indian carpet manufacturer, which has a showroom in Dubai, worked with Senses during Ramadan this year when it organised a reading event for the children. And so, as Dubai Design Week approached, the company decided it wanted to do something a little different – and it wanted to include the children of Senses again. "It was a matter of chance that I came across the logo for the Year of Tolerance," Hands owner Pranay Patodia says. "This symbol looked very interesting to me."

In many parts of the world, having a disability is looked down upon. Dubai makes it easy for people with disabilities to be part of society.

Patodia runs Hands with his brother and father. It's a well-known brand in India, having existed since 1881 as an English company. In the 1980s, the Patodia family took over. Charity work was especially important to not only the ­family, but the company as well, Patodia says. "We want to give back [to Dubai]. It's not about just coming here and making some money and taking it back to India."

So in June this year, the children at Senses were asked to paint artworks, creating "their own depictions of the ghaf tree", which is featured as the Year of Tolerance's logo. The children even used the leaves and branches of the ghaf tree to paint the pictures, instead of brushes.

Hands then pledged to transform those pieces into a special carpet; 54 combinations of colours were used, with at least 25 different people involved in various parts of the process from design, dyeing and weaving to backing and finishing. The Senses painting has been reconstructed as a seven-foot-long carpet; the ghaf tree made in pure silk and the rest New Zealand wool. The carpet is on sale at Hands's stall at Dubai Design Week, which runs until Saturday, where it will have a Dh25,000 price tag. All profits will go to Senses.

Khawla says it means a lot to the centre. Six to seven children were involved in painting the design, she says, and it wasn’t an achievement that came easily. “It could be one child with CP [cerebral palsy] painting one straight line. One straight line that means nothing to people from the outside, but if you see this child and see how much effort he has done, it is a lot,” she says. “Even Dh100 makes a lot of difference for these children.”

While Patodia had initially hoped to auction the carpet to raise more money for Senses, he didn’t get the auction approvals in time. He says he’s simply happy at this point to be able to give back. And he’s especially pleased to be able to do it in the UAE.

“In many parts of the world, having a disability is looked down upon,” he says. “Dubai makes it easy for people with disabilities to be part of society.”