When you ask Emirati martial arts athlete Chaica Al Qassimi if she wants to do something, her immediate response is “why not?”.
We meet the Special Olympics torchbearer on Sunday, the day before she’s due to meet Pope Francis on his historic visit to the UAE, and she appears calm, cool and collected.
And when we ask her if she’s looking forward to meeting the pontiff, if she’s happy to have her picture taken, whether or not she wants to say a few words for the camera – to everything, her answer is “why not?”.
“It’s her sense of determination,” her grandmother, Anne Rahman, who’s sat close by, explains. “She learns so fast.”
Chaica has Down syndrome and, although her family have always known that, they only told her of her diagnosis last year.
“When I found out, I researched about discrimination,” she said, “and I [decided] I want to change that and have a humungous impact on all the people who have disabilities.”
Chaica went to the same Sharjah school as her siblings, and said she was never made to feel any different by her family or her peers.
That’s why she’s never felt that her disability has gotten in the way of her achieving her goals in life. And she has achieved many goals, including mastering not one but nine different martial arts, such as judo, capoeira, jiu-jitsu and taekwondo. She also has a black belt in karate.
Last year, she won a bronze medal at the Arab Karate Championship in Cairo, Egypt, her first win in a tournament outside the UAE. She’s also due to be a torchbearer at the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019 in March this year, as well as act as a judo referee at the games.
“There’s a big movement [towards inclusion] in the UAE and I’m very happy about it," she says. "I think the Special Olympics will make a big change because it’s sports – and people with disabilities can do sports, and the games will showcase this.”
Overall, Chaica regularly plays 20 different sports.
“Not a day goes by without her doing something active,” her grandmother Anne says.
Her favourite activities, however, are karate and jiu-jitsu, as both disciplines incorporate a range of techniques and, most importantly, have taught her how to defend herself. “Learning martial arts really empowers people. It empowers me,” she says. “Let’s say someone is getting bullied – how can they defend themselves from that? It has to be martial arts.
“I think everybody should learn martial arts before they go to college or university.”
Athletics aside, Chaica is also a strong advocate for people with disabilities in the UAE, as well as for gender equality in sports. She works with the UK’s Inclusion International to represent the Middle East and North Africa region. She also spoke at the United Nations in New York recently. “The experience was amazing,” she said, “because I spoke on behalf of the UAE for women.”
It's for all of this that she's been invited to meet Pope Francis on February 4, 2019, something she's feeling "pretty good" about, too. “The pope can help inclusion evolve for people with disabilities, and it will help society not to be afraid of us in the first place.
“With my work I help people with disabilities to have a voice in the world, and be included as an equal, like everybody else – with work, education, health, friendships.
“My biggest message [to people with disabilities] is: be yourself, love yourself and accept yourself… and don’t feel pressured from society to think you are disabled, and that you are not able.
“People with disabilities are amazing and I want them to not be alone in the world.”