Ashar Hussain is a dancer, graphic designer, photographer and recently became a waiter.
The 19-year-old Pakistani student, who is deaf, is being taught how to communicate with coffee shop patrons.
“I tell them to speak slow or write their order down,” says Hussain, who reads lips.
His addition marks the latest triumph and development of Mawaheb from Beautiful People, a non-profit art studio for adults with special needs. Located in Dubai’s historical Al Fahidi district, the studio began in a villa provided by Princess Haya, wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in 2010.
They recently expanded to a new studio that is three times bigger to open an art shop and coffee corner, where the students are assigned jobs. There are also art therapy sessions, exhibitions and sales of artworks created by the students.
The organisation is run by Wemmy de Maaker, a 44-year-old Dutch social worker, who says the coffee corner is a way to create further opportunities for social interactions for those uncomfortable around people with disabilities.
“A lot of people haven’t met deaf people and don’t know how to treat people with disabilities,” she says.
The reverse can also be true. De Maaker recalls that Hussain initially was not keen on his role in the coffee shop.
“He was in his own circle of friends who can communicate with him,” says de Maaker. “We asked him to step out of his comfort zone, so that he would become confident and learn new skills.”
Hussain credits the coffee corner experience as one of the reasons for a newfound confidence gained from his time with Mawaheb from Beautiful People.
“My parents allow me to take the metro and come here by myself now,” he says. “I dream of going to university to become a professional photographer.”
Ryam Omar is chatty. One afternoon this week, the 36-year-old Yemeni saleswoman eagerly approached customers in the art shop. She pulled out a few greeting cards splashed with violet brush strokes, and informed them that her friends had created them. However, she struggled to make eye contact.
“You need to look up, look them in the eyes,” said de Maaker, who took her aside for a chat once the visitors left. “You also have to keep your distance when talking to them. No hugging.”
After being mostly confined to her home since birth because of a developmental delay, Omar’s parents enrolled her at Mawaheb. The studio has 14 students, between the ages of 18 and 58, who attend a full day of art-related activities three to five times a week.
While art is a way for the students to express themselves, the 25 volunteers have an equally rewarding experience, as they watch them become independent adults.
“Ryam had no purpose in life, no reason to wake up or dress,” says de Maaker, who moved to Dubai from the Netherlands more than a decade ago. “Then she started here and now is a chatterbox, wakes up early, dresses up and ‘owns’ the shop. She is almost like the manager of the shop. She calls it her shop.”
The students’ disabilities don’t mean that they are excused for childlike behaviour.
“We understand that we work with adults with varying degrees of special needs but it doesn’t mean that they can act out,” says de Maaker, who has been working with people with special needs for more than 15 years.
“It’s not easy for every person with autism, but our aim here is to make them independent individuals and, through art, the shop and coffee corner, we bring out the best in them.”
When Omar first arrived, she wouldn’t leave de Maaker’s side.
“She had to learn that it’s not cute to hug just anyone or throw things to gain attention,” de Maaker says. “If I had left her, she would sit with me and hold me all day. Deep inside I would love to do that but I wouldn’t be helping her.”
The large colourful canvases hanging in the shop, paintings mounted on easels, and metal bust sculptures in the airy courtyard of the new studio space are the students’ interpretations of works by 19th-century Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.
They are on display until the end of the month. Visitors that walk in are often impressed and enquire about the artists.
“A well-wisher who has followed our progress told me today that it doesn’t look like a place for people with special needs anymore – it looks like a proper gallery,” says de Maaker, as she proudly draws attention to a large, unfinished canvas that 32-year-old Zaid Jafar is painting.
Jafar, from Iraq, hunched over in his paint-splashed artist’s apron, was drawing an outline of tree bark and birds under the guidance of 52-year-old art teacher, Gulshan Kavarana, from India.
At the other end of the long art table, sculptor Alan Mongey is helping two students to create the wire foundation for figures of birds. They are preparing for an upcoming exhibition at the Sikka Art Fair next month.
“Art helps them take control of their emotions and improves focus,” says Kavarana, who also run the Special Families Support Group in Dubai. “A painting is like a window to their thoughts and journey.”
Art is particularly beneficial for children with disabilities, as it encourages them to express their feelings and build motor and cognitive skills. At Mawaheb, it is also an opportunity to gain knowledge.
De Maaker says Jafar, who has been coming to the studio since 2010, has learnt to manage his frustration.
“He would throw his paintbrush on the floor to gain our attention,” she says. “We ignored the behaviour and now whenever he is frustrated he goes for a walk or talks to us.”
Jafar says he likes the increased self-reliance.
“I travelled to Holland for the first time without my family and I was happy,” he says. “I went to the shop to buy something and left my passport there. I panicked but Wemmy explained how to look after my paperwork.”
Kavarana says the organisation’s biggest achievement continues to be changing parents’ and the public’s perception of what those with special needs can achieve.
“The parents have started seeing their adult children as adults and giving them the responsibility that they deserve,” she says. “A lot of them have started travelling themselves and are loving it.”
• Full-year tuition at Mawaheb starts from Dh18,000. The studio is also looking for volunteers. For more details, visit www.mawaheb-dubai.com