Meet Jane Jaffer, the chairperson of Dar Al Atta’a Let’s Read Campaign, who spoke about her dreams of putting books in the hands of children all across Oman, and Zuweina Al Barwani, one of the earliest members of the Oman Down Syndrome Association whose volunteers are tirelessly working to raise awareness for children and provide better care for them.
Chairperson, Dar Al Atta’a, Let’s Read Campaign
Reading is the key to unlocking a child’s potential. Literacy is one of the most important foundations for a child’s success in school and in life, and a child who reads is a child that succeeds. It is well documented that an individual’s literacy level affects his/her opportunities in life, education, employment, income and wellbeing. But it’s more than just that. It broadens your mind. Reading helps us learn about the world we live in, and also about people.
When we read about people facing obstacles, for example, we can really sort of relate to those role models, and we think about how we would react to that sort of a situation. We kind of learn about ourselves, also, when we read. Reading has so many benefits. It stimulates the imagination, and of course, it makes good learners, because the child that reads everything avidly is the child that is more likely to succeed and do well in studies.
For children to enjoy reading, the first and foremost thing for them is to have access to good books. We know that children are definitely more motivated to reading books they chose themselves. That is my feeling. In 2007, I got a group of friends together, and we were brainstorming over ideas on how we could get children to read to make it a fun and enjoyable experience, and not about reading for homework as it’s boring and it’s something that you have been told to do.
This is literally for pleasure, so we realised that the main thing was that we needed to get books to children, so as to give them the opportunity to choose. The beginning was to create book drives. We managed to get quite a lot of books donated and so what we would do is go out to the interiors and go to schools, and go and talk to children, go and read to children, and also joined literacy activities, and of course, set up libraries, so that they could have access to their own books.
We set up libraries with some schools in the interior and in hospitals such as Khoula and Royal Hospital where we had lots of lovely books and a children’s playroom, and of course, we had trollies so that books could be taken to children who could not get out of bed. That was the starting point, it was great fun, and then in 2013, we realised that it would be fantastic if we had a big bus to do this to take books around in a bus.
The Omani Women’s Guild were incredibly helpful; they raised enough money to give us a bus, and then I was stuck with this bus, and I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to convert this bus into a library? And I found a company down in Ruwi to modify this. We had to rip out all the seats and convert it. I knew someone who actually designed the Oriental Express interior, so he pitched in. The great thing is that everyone has joined in, it is very much a joint effort, and we now have two mobile libraries.”
We do know that roughly about 11,000 books are actually distributed every year, via the Maktabati mobile library programme, and we also have the Let’s Read bookshop. One of the most important thing is how important it is for parents and family members to be actually seen reading. Children learn a lot about reading as they watch their family members read and write in everyday life, so I think that is really important.
When your child sees you reading a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or even a recipe, when they are writing an email, or even something as simple as a shopping list, reading and writing is important in today’s society, and they realised that. We are living today in the technological society, where we have to filter out so much knowledge. Being able to be a discerning reader is very important.
We have books for all interests and for all ages. We also have books for adults there as well. I would say our impact has been a drop in the ocean, but one always hopes that one gets through to people. Reading and writing go hand in hand and we have been holding this for the last 12 years now, and we have had hundreds of winners from these children, aged from five up to 18. We have actually published four books of the winning stories, so it is great for a child to see his/her own work published.
Zuweina Al Barwani
Member, Oman Down Syndrome Association
The Oman Down Syndrome Association began in 2003, and both of the founders had children with Down Syndrome. Because there weren’t enough facilities, both of them thought they should start a group to help the parents and children with Down Syndrome in Oman. I got to know about this group because I too have a child with Down Syndrome, and since then, I have been active with the group,. We are trying our best to give more information about Down Syndrome, raise awareness, and gather parents of children with Down Syndrome together in a group so that we can learn from each other and provide simple services such as physiotherapy, speech therapy, and special needs teachers.
In the beginning, it was only once a week, and we had to work under the umbrella of the Association for Early Intervention for Children With Disabilities. We were raising our own funds and arranging for part-time specialists to come and work with our children.
Down Syndrome is a condition where you have an extra chromosome. This normally happens when the 21st chromosome is triplicated, when normally, it is only duplicated. Until now, why children are born with this is not exactly known, despite so much research being done.
Down Syndrome shows on the face. The eyes and nose are diamond-shaped, for example. Doctors will know about this the moment the child is born, and there is a way to know if the child has Down Syndrome when he or she is still in the womb. But these children are not suffering.
This is just a condition that they are born with. People often say that they are suffering, but it is not a disease that will go away when you give them medicine. It is just something they are born with.
They will be as they are, but they are very loving and happy children.
The stigma that exists against those who have such mental conditions is because of a lack of awareness, and we try to educate people about this. The problem is that we need to get people to be interested in this, because the moment they get interested, there will be awareness. We hold lot of events, we work with schools, and we try to do a lot of work on social media.
We also have a centre in Azaiba, and there, we welcome anyone who wants to learn about Down Syndrome. If someone wants to work with us as a volunteer, we will be more than happy to accept them. We request families and friends to take an interest to learn about Down Syndrome.
When I first learned that my daughter had Down Syndrome, it was definitely a shock. I didn’t know much about Down Syndrome, just like anyone else. I had to search for resources online, and I was so worried about how she would be able to learn, what her future would be. I found out about the support group, and it gave me great relief.
My daughter has grown up well. Even her siblings are very fond of her. I have two other children, a girl who is older than her and a boy who is younger than her. My daughter, Ruiya, is 16 years old now, and she goes to the rehabilitation centre in the school. She really loves school and enjoys it. She is very social, enjoys different activities, has done horse riding, roller skating, and also went to the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi last March.
She came back with two silver medals and I am so happy about it. My advice is to forget about any stereotypes about Down Syndrome, and look at how they can learn.
Give them support, and find places where you can take them, and engage them in a lot of activities. Don’t keep them at home doing nothing. Give them confidence, so that they feel like they belong somewhere.
The most important things for these children are the speech and physiotherapy. When they are young, they need physiotherapy because some of them delay walking and crawling. There are special material for them to learn, and most of the Down Syndrome children learn more with visual aids. They will use visual aids such as pictures and sounds. Ruiya, for example, learned very quickly about colours through signs and sounds.