Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Voice for People with Special Needs: Samah Al Shaghdari

Samah Al Shaghdari is an activist, poet and journalist. What sets her apart, is her drive to achieve more when odds are against her. Samah heads a foundation known as Voice (Sout) that focuses on people with special needs (the mentally ill or the physically handicapped) and other minorities in society. 


Samah Al Shaghdari - Right
Just a few years ago, she participated in a workshop with the Youth Leadership Center to learn how to construct an organization. While Voice is now a small organization educating society on the subject, Samah has a plan to expand it into a radio that caters to the needs of minorities in Yemeni society. Her dream is to have the first Arab channel dedicated to people with special needs within 10 years. She aims to create programs and documentaries that raise awareness of the conditions that minorities are living in. While Samah's dreams are ambitious, she is realistic and knows that only hard work and dedication will make her plans fruitful. Before creating a channel, she aims to negotiate a weekly (or even monthly) show with a local television channel on people with special needs. 

In 2011, Samah participated in the protests and is feeling heavy hearted about the progress that Yemen made in the past year. 
I think politics kills the mind and the heart. Yemen is suffering from a poverty of politicians, because many of them do not know their trade but found their way to it somehow. Therefore, I refuse to join any group because many of them are reactions to delirium (infi'alat), after all, the revolution was just that. 
As an activist, she let me know that ever since 2004, Yemen made it part of the law to dedicate 5% of all jobs in the private and public sector to disabled individuals. However, there are no recent statistics on whether that is the case. Studies reveal that 2 million people in Yemen are people with special needs, which is roughly 10% of the population. Part of Voice's work aims to hire lawyers in order to defend the rights of disabled individuals at work. Overall, she feels that international and domestic efforts are weak in supporting people with special needs. 
There are about 6000 organizations that are financed by the Social Fund from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (Al sondouq Al ijtima'ey), and 258 of these organizations are for people with special needs but only two stand out: 1) Markiz Al Noor managed Abdul Rabou Humaid and 2) Jam'iat Al Aman by Fatima Al 'Aqil (but she passed away). The other organizations isolate the disabled from themselves. They teach women to sew, and draw, etc but they all do it in isolation. There are only very few buildings that care about disabled people... As if this group of people is nonexistent. No one considers how people with special needs will get to the top floors anywhere even in public universities and governmental buildings. 
Samah's uniqueness as an activists is that she herself represents the community that she is fighting for. 
When I was 3 months old, I got sick with fever. My family took me to the doctor and she gave me a shot. While the doctor may have cured my fever, she gave me Nerve Atrophy. I am disabled now. Growing up, I lived my life like a normal person and I don't suffer from any complexities. This is because my father made me love life and learn how to follow my goals.
I began facing problems when my father died. Most of the women in my family got married at 15 and 16, and I couldn't study what I want, I had to fight for things. I was a little late in my career but that is because I had to practice diplomacy with my family as not to lose them. To be an example for others, you have to suffer. 
Samah studied philosophy as an undergrad in Sana'a and went to earn an MBA. She worked with a television channel. She states: 
I always wanted to be a television presenter. In 2008, I presented a documentary called Countenance (Malamih) on Saba'a channel; it focused on young artists, singers, actors, and artistic disabled people. I remember a man called Samih who was an extremely talented disabled artist that no one knew about although he won several art awards. Another amazing character is Liza, a blind journalism graduate, who was struggling in finding a job in the Media due to her disability. The show was ranked as one of the most watched shows on Saba and could have been nominated to participate in the Cairo Film Festival, however it was eventually canceled because of the lack of interest of some senior administrators within the channel.
Samah was one of the main faces in the revolution and made a short film focusing on the feminist movement during the Yemeni revolution that will be discussed in a future post. 

As a poet, Samah published a few collections. Her first collection came out in 2004 and the second in 2010.
My first collection was an experience of creative adolescence (Morahaqa ibda'iyah). It was a daring collection and I faced  many problems in society due to the subject matter it discussed.  I was a woman and I talked about praise (Ghazal), so it was hard... many people tried to use it against me by bringing it to the males in my family...
I am stubborn and I was scared to write some more, but I decided to go to prose (Nathr), which is typically shorter and more abstract, in order to make it harder for everyone to understand. In prose, however, I found myself. 
Samah's 2010 book, The Fabric of Darkness (Naseej Al-'Atma), her poetry is concise and witty. It reminded me of some of the famous quotes of American poet Dorothy Parker. Samah's poem, "A Vision" (رؤيا) is simple: 
To be able to see things,                          لأتمكن من رؤية الاشياء
I will shut my mouth                                           سأغمض فمي

As for her next book she says, 
It is not like fashion, it is not about producing every year, but rather about producing quality. I want it to have philosophical depth so when I am ready, I will produce more.  
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