An Abu Dhabi-backed project to help people with special needs forge new friendships is well on its way to transforming lives.
The Rab3i buddying platform encourages those with intellectual disabilities to become more socially active by pairing them with volunteers who share similar interests.
The community-spirited initiative was turned from a bright idea into a reality thanks to key investment from Maan, the Authority of Social Contribution.
Rab3i was one of 10 potential start-ups chosen through the Maan Social Incubator programme last September to receive up to Dh200,000 in funding to get their plans off the ground.
A year on, the initiative is making a difference and has matched six pairs.
Kamleh Khatib, 39, co-founder of Rab3i, was keen for people with disabilities to be afforded the opportunity to broaden their horizons.
"I started thinking how I am enjoying life because I am socially very active, so I felt that I wanted vulnerable people to have the same privilege," said the Italian-Palestinian.
“We did a survey for people with special needs and discovered that the majority either have zero friends, or friends who are like them from the school or institute they go to.
“And their social set-up mainly consists of family members; they don’t have young men and women their age to do hobbies and activities with. They are mostly under supervision by their caregivers.”
Rab3i aims to change that by building a database of volunteers and people with special needs and create suitable matches.
The buddies are then trained to prepare them for their first outing.
“We do simple training on how to communicate with one another, we give them communication tips and what to do in certain scenarios," said Ms Khatib.
“And we remind the volunteers that they are not a parent or a caregiver, their role is to help the person gain independence and have friends.
“We also explain to the volunteer that he is more of an impact-maker, we tell them not to approach the experience as a community involvement, but as a life-changing experience for both sides.”
Shaddy Gaad, 31, who was paired with Omar Al Hashimi, 21, an autistic Emirati in Dubai, is enjoying the experience.
"Every time I've been out with Omar, I had a really nice time, more than when I go out with my close friends," said the Egyptian.
The pair have been meeting every two weeks to take part in activities such as cycling, swimming, playing video games, or just to dine.
“My interests are very vast, I like bowling, cycling, swimming – there isn’t much that I don’t like, and Omar is into outdoor activities, so they matched me with him,” said the marketing manager of Guinness World Records in the Mena region.
Finding friendship and fresh motivation
Mohamed Al Aydaroos, 26, had initially signed up to be a volunteer but ended up following a different path.
He suffers from the skin condition psoriasis, which he said he did not consider a disability.
“I don’t care [about the stares and comments] it doesn’t affect me, because I know who I am and I don’t need acceptance from others," he said.
Mr Al Aydaroos first signed up to Rab3i to volunteer to befriend people with special needs.
“Then they suggested that I get paired with one of the volunteers,” he said.
When he started meeting up with his buddy, Ali Al Jabri, he said he was hesitant about meeting him in crowded places, to avoid awkward situations.
"But Ali treated me like a brother and told me that I am a member of society and should not worry about people's reactions; when we entered a gathering for instance, he proudly introduced me to them," he said.
They have been meeting every Wednesday for coffee and “valuable conversations”.
“Ali always discusses career plans with me and motivates me,” he said.
"For him time is valuable, he always has a five-year-plan, this is what I learnt from him."
While many volunteers have signed up, the challenge is for more people with special needs to come on board, said Abeer Amiri, 31, co-founder of Rab3i.
"The biggest challenge we are currently facing is getting the word out about the platform, so that more people of determination and other individuals from the community can register and participate," said the Emirati.
Volunteers who wish to be paired with people with special needs through Rab3i must be registered with volunteers.ae and have been issued a good conduct certificate from the police.