Fatima Al Mahanadi, a student at Qatar Academy Al Khor – part of QF’s Pre-University Education – writes about her journey with her sister, and how it has made her a better person.
My sister Haya.
Soon you will see, among the shelves of Qatar National Library, a new book titled You Are Not Alone. Inside it, you will find our story, you and I, from the moment we first met on the day you were born until today.
On the first page, you will read a special dedication from me to you; the person who inspired me to write, and taught me so much about life, family, and success!
I decided to write a letter to tell you how grateful I am to you. First, because you are my sister, who I love. And second, because without you, I would never have become the person I am.
Yesterday, when I arrived home, I didn’t find you waiting for me on the lunch table. I was told that you fall asleep before I came, and when I looked at your innocent face while you were in your bed, I had a thousand thoughts.
I remembered my joy when you came to this life, and how much I was waiting for a friend to share my journey in life, grow up and play with her - with puppets, or the ball in the garden. But I didn’t realize that I would have something greater than that: a sister who will be on my side, and in my life, to the end.
When you were three years old, and I was five, I was too young to understand why you didn’t talk to me; why you sometimes screamed at night; why you suddenly got sad, and hid under the bed. But when you were diagnosed with autism, I started to understand. I wanted to skip my age and grow up quickly, to be your backbone, and to defend your rights so that you can have the life you deserve.
The warm house
We have lived beautiful moments we lived together - but the painful moments were also there.
When it was time for you to go to school, I thought that we would go together, play in the break time together, as all sisters do. But we couldn’t do that, because you joined Al Shafallah Center for Persons with Disability. I accepted this, because i knew it was the best place for you to learn and develop your skills, and I made sure to always visit you. Our mother also used to send me your picture every morning while you were going to school, and this was how she made my day.
Perhaps the classroom didn’t bring us together, but what did is the warmth of our house, in which we learned that each member in the family matter, and deserves equal love and appreciation, and that difference is a value in itself.
Autism didn’t prevent us from living our childhood as everyone does; don’t you remember how we wore similar dresses? And how we would be photographed together? And how we were competing for who would eat the first piece of cake on our birthday? And how you would eventually give up and let me have the chocolate and candy while you had the juice and popcorn?
What has compensated for the fact that you don’t communicate by talking is that you listen to me while talking about my sadness, because you understand my feelings.
I also remember how I used to play with you when I was sad. Your world, my sister, is very innocent and pure. It makes me forget my sorrows. And what has compensated for the fact that you don’t communicate by talking is that you listen to me while talking about my sadness, because you understand my feelings, and this is what makes you my best friend.
We had our difficult moments. Sometimes we were sad, and when you were angry, you hit your forehead in the wall and bit your fingers. But a little moisturizer would relieve you pain, and some encouraging words would make you calmer.
Speaking may be one of the most challenges you face, and it may prevent you from expressing your feelings, but I understand you very well.
When you hug me, this means you are telling me “I love you”.
And when you jump in the air and laugh loudly, this means that we were able to make you happy!
Protection from judgment
I know what it means to not be comfortable in public places, where people give you a stranger look, wondering “What is wrong with her?” And I found myself justifying to others some unfamiliar behaviors that you displayed. To address this, I thought of a solution for you and all children with autism: to print the phrase ‘I have autism’ on T-shirts designed for them, to protect them from people`s judgments. I will do my best to make this idea real.
The lack of awareness about autism, and about the fact that children with autism are not sick or in need of pity, and deserve respect as much as everyone else, pushed me to create a special project.
I want to tell everyone that children with autism are just like us, but they have their own way of expressing themselves. And that the child with autism is an ambassador of love.
I start working on my You Are Not Alone project last year when I was a Grade 6 student at Qatar Academy Al Khor, through an Autism Awareness Month campaign which included a diverse range of educational opportunities, awareness-raising events, and activities involving teachers, students, and parents.
As part of the campaign, a banner was hung on the school’s facade highlighting the theme of autism, encouraging them to view a video of students expressing this theme in seven different languages.
Additionally, autism awareness assemblies were held, where I told everyone our story. I wanted them to better understand autism and be more tolerant, by understanding and accepting differences.
I’m currently preparing for the second version of the You Are Not Alone campaign, with Qatar Foundation and Qatar Academy Al Khor. Soon, I will release a book about our childhood, and how love and acceptance were the keys to providing a better life for you and for every child with autism.
Together we grow up
I want to tell everyone that children with autism are just like us, but they have their own way of expressing themselves.
And that the child with autism is an ambassador of love, sowing joy around them, a gift that can change our lives and make us better people.
And for you, I will continue my studies and look to excel, and be active within my society and the world, in order to spread the message that all people, of all races and abilities, are equal, and have the right to live in safety and peace.
We have grown up now. You are 10 years old. But you remain so beautiful and so close to my heart.
I promise that I will always love you, and will stand by you, so that we can grow together and to keep laughing together for the rest of our lives