SINGAPORE: “You want to say something to them, Ashraf?” Madam Faraliza Zainal asked her son. He let out an odd, silent laugh that shook his lanky frame, and then the 17-year-old began writing on a small whiteboard, carefully shielding the words from our view.
Then he stopped. Wiped off the words. Began again. Stopped again. Wipe. And so on.
“He’s still very shy,” admitted his mother, the only person Ashraf seemed willing to talk to – and the woman who has gone to extraordinary lengths to help her reticient, socially impaired son fit in in this world.
Some seven years ago, Mdm Fara quit her corporate career with a global company, threw herself into learning how to teach children with special needs, and – with little experience other than what she had with Ashraf – opened a school tailored to those with “learning differences”, as she put it.
What started out as a class of one – Ashraf – in the storeroom of a mosque, has today grown into a school for some 200 Muslim youths with a variety of conditions from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome.
The school, which Mdm Fara, 46, set up with her husband Mohammad Ali Dawood, is aptly named MIJ (My Inspiring Journey) Special Education Hub.
“Because everybody who was involved in MIJ has an inspiring story to tell,” said Mdm Fara with a laugh.
THE FIRST STAGE - DENIAL
That is no less true of Mdm Fara’s own journey. It began when Ashraf, at the age of 18 months, was diagnosed with a rare disease, tuberous sclerosis.
The disease caused a benign tumor to develop on a vein leading to his brain. This restricted blood flow, and a doctor warmed that Ashraf might start experiencing seizures. “And true enough, at two years old, he had an epilepsy attack,” she said.
The fits, sometimes three a night, kept them up at night. Then their problems snowballed when Ashraf turned three.
He was diagnosed with autism and sensory integrated dysfunction, a condition that makes it difficult for him to feel his body’s limits. Said Mr Ali: “At one stage, he wouldn’t stop eating until he vomited. He couldn’t feel that he was full.”
Mdm Fara admitted: ‘‘I was in denial for two years. I couldn’t accept it.”
It wasn’t until a religious teacher told her that God had given her Ashraf “because he knows that you are the only one who can bear and raise him”, that she finally embraced the situation.
She threw herself into learning about autism by taking up short courses on behavior management, alternative therapy and movement therapy. She found that Ashraf responded best to the last.
As a side effect of his condition, Ashraf found it difficult to express himself verbally. So it was in his behaviour that Mdm Fara noticed something was amiss while he was attending a weekend madrasah.
“His eyes would keep on twitching,” she recalled. Sure enough, she found out that he was being called names like gila (crazy). Fearful that it might escalate into more serious bullying, she took him out of the madrasah.
The episode got her to see her life in a new perspective. Mdm Fara, whose career at Dow Jones was on the rise – she had been promoted to regional training manager – decided that Ashraf would be her main priority.
And so, in 2010, she quit. “I was quite surprised that I was willing to do that,” she admitted with a laugh.
Ashraf, however, was still left without a madrasah to attend.
“When he saw his (two) siblings going to the madrasah on a weekly basis, he actually expressed the desire to go,” said Mdm Fara. The reason? For all his shyness, her son liked being around a group of people who were familiar to him – it made him feel safe. The ritual of praying also helped calm him.
And so, Mdm Fara began looking into setting up a school with religious elements for Ashraf and others like him.
ORIGINS AND EXPANSION
She met with industry professionals who gave her advice on how to run a school. She researched existing curriculum for special needs students. Then she started creating her own lesson plans based on her observations of how Ashraf learned best.
She and her husband, who is the regional sales director of an aviation company, even sold their three-storey terraced house in order to finance the school. “I’m a risk taker,” she said simply.
When it began in 2011, MIJ offered only weekend classes. They soon had 15 students, with Mdm Fara as the sole teacher, training her charges’ motor skills through movement therapy.
Finding a space to run classes was the biggest initial hurdle. They encountered numerous rejections before Sultan Mosque agreed to let MIJ have a space.
‘It was a storeroom,” she said. “Basically, that was our office, our teaching space.”
Her husband chimed in: “But we were thankful.”
Word soon travelled. After a local newspaper featured them, MIJ found itself rapidly growing. The school filled a gap in services for special-needs students in the Muslim community.
By 2015, MIJ had 120 students and had to move to a bigger location. That same year, Ashraf, who attended Pathlight School on weekdays, was due to take the Primary School Leaving Examination.
The stress of preparing for it triggered his daily fits. It was what prompted Mdm Fara to turn MIJ’s classes into a daily affair, where its students wouldn’t have exams, “only quizzes, which don’t scare them”.
She earned a Diploma in Teaching and Supporting Children with Special Needs, and consulted her friends who were teachers and vice-principals on how to draw up a proper curriculum. She also hired Wendy Choh, an education psychologist, to help train her teachers.
Expansion, however, brought financial and other troubles.
FIGHTS AND ACCUSATIONS
The school relied on getting a constant stream of private donations, which made for an uncertain financial situation.
At the same time, because Mdm Fara couldn’t bear to turn away cases in need, the school was absorbing up to 100 per cent of the fees for some students from low-income families. It often teetered on the brink of going into the red.
These problems affected the couple’s relationship. They would argue about what the best way to get funding was and how much fees they could absorb.
Mr Ali, 46, recalled that fights were becoming so frequent, their daughter, Nur Aliah Mohammad Ali, told them: “Whatever it is, I don’t want you to end up in divorce.”
He also admitted that so occupied were they, they ended up neglecting Ashraf’s two siblings. Aliah herself recalled: “When I was younger, I was jealous.”
Then there were some who questioned the couple’s motivations. Mdm Fara recounted one person who called her up. “She said, ‘why are you making use of these special needs children?'” – implying that they were exploiting them for money.
With all these difficulties, Mdm Fara said, “there were times when I just wanted to quit”.
“(But then) I go back to my intentions: For Ashraf’s sake, for the sake of helping others. That’s what keeps me going.”
WATCH: The magic that happens at MIJ (7:55)
VICTORIES, BIG AND SMALL
She and her husband are believers that “when one door closes, another one opens”. Somehow they stayed afloat, and in February 2017, through an online crowdfunding campaign they managed to raise S$120,000.
The money was used to secure a new location for MIJ.
The new premises occupy an entire floor in Fragrance Building along Changi Road, with space for seven classrooms and a multi-purpose room kitted up with a rock wall, trampolines and even a climbing net, where teachers can plan more “active” lessons.
Today the school has programmes for both children and adults, with their adult learning programme endorsed by the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association, or Pergas.
While Islamic elements are part of its lessons – all taught in English – it’s a holistic education that includes life skills, language, maths, music and sports. Teachers are trained to deliver customised lesson plans based on what works best for each student.
And very often, it’s the small victories that are celebrated.
Said Mr Ali: “They learn the simplest of things which we take for granted. We have parents who tell us their child can now sit with legs crossed for five minutes. You can see the cheer on the parents’ faces.”
Then there is Nurazah Mazlan, 19. Wheelchair-bound since the age of 18 months, she has been learning to walk through the school’s Fun Fit programme led by volunteers from Evolve MMA.
Nurazah had graduated from Rainbow Centre a year earlier but could not find a suitable job. Her mother enrolled her in MIJ so that she would not end up “doing nothing”, like some of her friends with special needs.
WATCH: The volunteer who's helping her walk (4:56)
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
For all the impact that MIJ has made, more needs to be done, Mdm Fara says. “They need vocational skills in order to be integrated into society,” she said.
Part of the school’s seven-year adult programme involves exposing students to such skills and getting them internship experience, before launching them into the big wide world.
With the help of Ms Choh, the students also learn how to cook, order food and commute on their own - daily living skills “you need for survival,” the education psychologist noted.
Mdm Fara hopes to eventually welcome students of all ages and races. “We want to be more inclusive. Our doors are open.”
But her main source of inspiration has been, and will remain, her son.
She tells her teachers that Ashraf “is our best teacher”. Indeed she continues to learn by observing him and applying this knowledge to the school’s methods.
In turn, the school that was built for Ashraf, is also his future insurance plan.
“This is the place where he can become comfortable; maybe he can take up the role of a teaching assistant one day,” said his mother. “They are accepted here - it is a place they can call their own.”
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