I had arrived at the AlKharafi Center for my first time on a breezy November evening in a purple shirt and worn-in sneakers, hoping I would seem approachable and down to earth. The butterflies in my stomach would not pipe down; I was so nervous and worried that I may not be able to accommodate to the Center’s conditions. Imagine my surprise when after only taking two steps into the Center’s reception, a little boy of six or seven years old runs up to me and hugs me with a kind of enthusiasm and force that only long-lost loved ones greet each other with. All the butterflies in my stomach vanished; I bent down to his level and took his small, paint-stained hand in mine and asked him what he was doing here. I would soon learn that Bader preferred to communicate through touch and gestures, and that it was up to me to interpret them. He did not give me a verbal answer to my question, but he did pull me to a theatre room.
It was a jungle in there. I learned that these kids were not simply autistic. Some had Down Syndrome, others Autism, others still were both mentally and physically challenged, and another group of kids only suffered from physical challenges – I learned this when I observed and then interacted with the kids, and saw major differences between every child. Many have scoffed at the AlKharafi Center “lumping” all the kids together, even though they each have different handicaps. I do understand why this is frowned upon, and see that it can put one physically disabled child who suffers from no mental handicap whatsoever with others who have great difficultly communicating without being aggressive, but I also understand why the AlKharafi Center does this.
At the theatre, one of the supervisors was playing music for the children. Most of them had excitedly run up to the stage, dancing and clapping along with the songs – all but one girl, who seemed to be around eleven or twelve years old. I listened to her crying out in indescribable grief and frustration at her inability to join them, and to rush up to the stage the way they did. The little boy who had brought me here at that point had already run halfway up the stage, but heard her cry and without hesitation ran right back to her, stood behind her wheelchair, and pushed her up along with them. Her cries ceased immediately, and this small act of kindness drew a gleeful smile upon her face. On stage, though she couldn’t dance like the rest of them, she was quite content with her ability to clap and to be a part of an activity.
Bader suffered from ADD and mediocre autism, and barely spoke. Sheikha also suffered from mediocre autism, though her communication skills were slightly better than his; she was born paralyzed from the waist down, and would never be able to walk. They could not have possibly been ‘friends’; they couldn’t play together or talk to each other, but Bader saw someone in need and without skipping a beat, rushed to her aid, without waiting for her to thank him. He jumped right into the dance routine once the deed was done, like he had not just committed an act that transformed my very essence.
They promote acceptance, and not tolerance. They teach the children, and indirectly, the volunteers, that differences are to embraced, and not put up with; that differences do not necessarily hinder our ability to reach out to each other and give love and support. Two of their staff members are physically challenged. Khaled is in a wheelchair, and Maisa, the art instructor, is deaf. The children have never once behaved in a manner that implied that they were conscious that Khaled and Maisa lacked something that at least half of them had, and it is so awe-inspiring.