By Isabel Ovalle
Making friends is easier said than done, especially after childhood. Past a certain age one can’t go up to another kid in the playground and ask, “can we be friends?” And what can be a bit difficult for some of us is a bigger challenge for those with intellectual or physical disabilities.
Best Buddies Qatar is a non-profit organisation that works with the sole aim of enhancing the lives of persons with intellectual disabilities, particularly by paving the way for them to make lasting friendships with individuals who don’t have any impairment. It’s a two-way street that enriches the lives of both the parties involved.
Best Buddies International was founded in 1989 by Anthony Kennedy Shriver. Since then, it has grown from one chapter in Miami to programmes in more than 60 countries on six continents.
In Qatar, it has helped over 1,000 people (and more than 350,000 worldwide), who not only have made friends but have also received help to find integrated employment.
The organisation was established here in 2008 under the umbrella of Shafallah Foundation as a special project of H H Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Best Buddies Qatar provides opportunities for socialising to people with intellectual disabilities through five programmes: for schools, colleges, citizens, jobs and e-Buddies.
Mubarak bin Hamad Al Thani, Communication Manager of Best Buddies Qatar, explained: “Our mission is to end the isolation of children with special needs…. In the past 60 years, people with disabilities have started to go out in the public. Now it’s time to give them their rights, given that we live in times of a lot of knowledge. It’s time to blend these kids in society.”
In its mission statement, the organisation notes that the intellectually challenged are often excluded from society because of their disability. Best Buddies Qatar is determined to end the social isolation of those with intellectual disabilities by helping them forge meaningful and lasting one-to-one friendships with their peers without such disabilities. These friendships help develop self-esteem, confidence and abilities in the differently abled persons as well as their friends.
Al Thani said: “Qatar is one of the leading countries in the Arab world in this field, with projects like Shafallah Foundation, which has amazing expertise and cutting edge technology.”
At Best Buddies Qatar, a team of 25 works to help the kids integrate socially, by matching friends by gender, age and other criteria.
As in any other relationship, the child with disability and his/her potential friend must accept each other and, ultimately, like each other. If there’s a spark and the pair become friends, they should contact each other at least once a week and get together once a month. Membership cards get the participants discounts at movie theatres and most restaurants.
Best Buddies programmes cover a wide range of ages, with the elementary school programme catering to those aged six years or more, the college programme covering those aged 18 to 24, and the citizens’ one covering those older.
The organisation approaches schools and encourages them to open a chapter or club, with their own president and treasurer. “We teach them about leadership, taking responsibility and treating everyone equally,” Al Thani said.
The organisation now covers all of Doha and has reached out to Al Khor and Al Wakra. “Even though not all kids want to renew their contract with us, we try to study every case individually and look for a solution,” added Al Thani.
The organisation carried out a summer programme which, the Best Buddies official admitted, “was a leap of faith which went really well; I was crossing my fingers and it was amazing, we had fun activities for kids and lots of games.”
For its initiatives, the organisation has tie-ups with hotels, including Four Seasons and Renaissance, “which has one of the best managements in Qatar in terms of serving the community. Everyone should follow their example,” said Al Thani. It also has partnerships with Reach out to Asia and the Qatar Assistive Technology Center.
For Al Thani, work with children with intellectual disabilities is very satisfying. “You see the results of your work right away. If the kid is happy, he is happy.” The staff at Best Buddies Qatar is handpicked, and “everyone is working their teeth out; most of them are women. There is a lack of men in the field of community service, but things are changing,” he added.
The Qatar chapter is the most active in the region, and encourages people to invest their time, energy and know-how in this project. The “message of special needs people is not properly managed, that’s why people should sit down with us and ask questions, because what you don’t know you always fear,” said Al Thani.