Sheikha Shamma follows footsteps of grandfather Zayed

Granddaughter of nation's founder takes the lead in fundraising to provide education for students with special challenges.

Abu Dhabi, UAE - March 7, 2010 - Students from Sheikh Zayed University build a wall made of bricks purchased by community members and students to raise funds for a special needs school in Abu Dhabi. (Nicole Hill / The National)
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ABU DHABI // It is the sort of project that Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation, would have approved of. So it is fitting that his granddaughter, Sheikha Shamma bint Mohammed bin Zayed, 18, has been busy rallying fellow students at Zayed University to support a stalled effort to raise funds for a new building at the special-needs centre at Al Bahia, on the outskirts of the city.

Sheikha Shamma, a first-year student, has organised 12 students on the project and on Sunday she oversaw their first fundraiser, selling food, T-shirts and styrofoam bricks that will be used to create a temporary wall at the campus charting the campaign's progress. "This is what Zayed would have done," she said. "It's about ... following in the footsteps of our fathers. "People don't need to do this. The Government can do this and people don't need to sweat it, but we need to remember our forefathers and what they did to come here."

The Donate a Brick campaign was launched to raise funds to expand the Special Care Centre and a new building was to have opened last year, but that has been delayed until September of next year. Sheikha Shamma's father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has said if she can raise half of the Dh50 million (US$13.6m) needed to build the project, he will match it.

Good Heart, the fund-raising arm of the centre, has already raised Dh9m towards the project. "The community must start to contribute and they will, they are very generous," Sheikha Shamma said. "It's just that we need to raise awareness of the cause." The centre, the only facility of its kind in Abu Dhabi, serves 60 students with problems including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Down syndrome. There are more than 100 people on its waiting list.

The centre is too small and lacks the equipment and teachers to meet the demand that has grown since it opened 18 years ago. When finished, it will be able to cater for 300 students of all nationalities. It will also serve adults and offer on-site counsellors and therapeutic facilities, including a hydrotherapy pool, gardens and gymnasium. Sheikha Shamma, who hopes to major in political science or philosophy next year, plans to do more charity work.

But for now, the centre is her priority and she urges people to donate whatever they can, even as little as Dh5 for one brick. "What touched me the most was when we were at the Sheikh Zayed Private Academy and the first person to give money was the cleaner," she said. "She's not even local so if she can do this for me, why am I not doing this for us too?" In Abu Dhabi, the issue of special needs, once a taboo subject, is one close to many people's hearts.

"Because here we marry within our family, it is this that causes many deficiencies, which is why we have so many special-needs cases," said Sheikha Shamma. "It gets spoken about openly. It's important to be honest with what you have and what you're lacking." Sara al Meharibi, one of the girls on the team, said: "Before, people were ashamed if they had a special-needs child. Times have changed and these children just need to be educated like we are.

"Society needs to know that even if someone has a disorder, they can still do something in society, they are not just left out. We want to help give hope to these people." Miss al Meharibi has an aunt with Down syndrome. The students are also using Facebook, Twitter and radio to deliver the message. Good Heart has sold more than 1.8 million of the 5 million bricks. Further donations can be made by sending the SMS "Brick" to Etisalat 9050 or du 9100 on mobile phones. Each SMS will contribute Dh5 to the school building fund.

The project's website is