UAE scholarship keeps a family from separating

From families with children with learning difficulties to orphans with big ambitions, START gives a stepping stone to a better life.

Noamaan Tahrir Ahmed, 7, at Dubai Autism Centre, where his care is funded by START. Razan Alzayani / The National
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DUBAI// Benazeer Khanam faced an agonising decision last year. She could stay in the UAE and struggle to provide for her son, Noamaan, who has severe autism. Or she could return to India to find affordable care - saying goodbye to her home and leaving behind her husband, an engineer in Sharjah. She prayed every day for a solution.

Her deliverance came via a scholarship from START, a non-profit organisation that works with underprivileged children.

The scholarship - awarded last year and renewed this month - pays for Noamaan's educational, occupational and speech therapy sessions at the Dubai Autism Centre. The aid allowed his parents to increase his sessions from three to nine hours a week. It also ended thoughts of splitting the family.

"I don't have words to explain that feeling," said Ms Khanam, 32. "Because we were about to get separated, our family. And because of START, we are together now."

Noamaan, now 7, is one of three recipients of this year's START scholarship, which provides educational or vocational support depending on need.

For Safiea Ahmed Khalfan, 25, who grew up in an orphanage in Al Ain, the scholarship will fund 18 months of internships, mentoring and training.

"I was very, very happy and excited - and proud of myself," said Ms Khalfan, an HR management major at Emirates College of Technology. Scheduled to graduate in May, she hopes the scholarship experience will help her to find a full-time job.

"I want to get the knowledge and skills that will make me independent and successful," she said.

The third scholarship recipient is Dana Saleh, a young woman in Jordan who wants to study interior design. The scholarship will fund her college tuition, housing and living expenses.

START was founded in 2007 to provide art education to refugees, children with special needs and other vulnerable young people. The organisation offers regular art workshops in the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, India and the Palestinian territories. This is the third year that START has also offered extended scholarships, which do not have to involve art.

"It's really to give the candidate themselves a shot to do something, change their situation, use their talent," said Tanaz Dizadji, START's director.

Ms Khalfan impressed START with her ambition and optimism.

"We interviewed quite a few candidates, but Safiea, she shines," Ms Dizadji said.

Dar Zayed for Family Care, where Ms Khalfan was brought up, is the UAE's largest orphanage. Dar Zayed children receive UAE nationality, and girls can remain with the orphanage until they marry.

"There are advantages and disadvantages, but mostly you feel that you are growing up alone," Ms Khalfan said. "But you have to be strong for yourself. I don't have anybody to stay with me. I have to be strong."

She lived in the orphanage's main branch in Al Ain until she was a teenager, then moved to Abu Dhabi, where she lives in a villa with other young women from Dar Zayed.

For 2011 scholarship winner James Casaki, the experience was a stepping stone to finding a job. Mr Casaki, now 25, loves to draw and paint but has a rare congenital condition called Kabuki syndrome. The scholarship enabled him to leave Dubai Centre for Special Needs and pursue his passion.

"It was an amazing experience for me, just to get out there and to do my art," said Mr Casaki, who was born in England and moved to the UAE when he was 17.

During his scholarship year, he interned with arts organisations around Dubai. He now works at the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre. The scholarship was not easy for Mr Casaki, but it opened a new world.

"It was a lot of hard work," he said. "But I got through it."