What progress do you feel has been made in the region over the last few years to increase inclusion and unity towards those with intellectual disabilities?
Okay. So, first of all I’ve been in the position of Regional President of Special Olympics for the Middle East and North Africa region since 2001. When I joined, there were only 20,000 athletes across 13 participating countries in the whole region. At the last census in 2016 it has grown to 150,000 athletes in 23 countries.
This is even in the face or a number of challenges. The first challenge was in 2009, when we had the global recession, which of course impacted our fundraising and affected our growth. At the same time, there was the so-called Arab Spring, great unrest and instability that also affected our growth. To the extent that what we have been doing for the last few years we were trying our best to maintain the success we had.
And how about on a personal level, are there any moments that particularly stand out for you?
When you are in this field of work, you have many great experiences and also emotional ones. I will never forget when I was the main speaker in one of the conferences. And it happened that one of the mothers interrupted me and just wanted to ask me a question. And she started this way. She told me… “Mr Ayman, we are the only mothers in the world that are praying that their son or daughter die before us.”
Can you imagine this sentence? Can you imagine this interruption when I was talking. It’s really very emotional, because really they are the only people in the world that are praying for their children to die before them because they are worried about them after they pass away.
The message is to the point. What we are trying to do – we are trying to change lives, because sports is not the main aim or the main goal. But really the goal is changing lives and promoting inclusion through sports.
What about when it comes to these MENA Games? What are your hopes and aspirations surrounding this event in terms of promoting social inclusion?
The Special Olympics movement features seven regions in total, one of which isthe Middle East and North Africa. We are proud to be the only region in the world that has been holding the regional games continuously since 2001. We are also the only region in the world that will be holding its ninth regional games – the MENA Games in Abu Dhabi.
We are in excellent shape to host the regional games, with the scope of activities and programs expanding with every single games we host and the number of athletes and sports increasing too. The first regional games saw just 100 athletes from the whole region compete in three sports. The upcoming one will witness more than 1,000 athletes from across the MENA region participating in no fewer than 16 sports. For the first time ever, we will also be inviting 12 guest countries from all over the world, because we are also treating these games as a test case for the World Games in 2019. Therefore, 19 countries from the region outside the region, spreading unity even further.
So, obviously we know an extremely important element of those games and the World Games are the volunteers. I believe you previously worked as a volunteer yourself, and achieved quite a great deal for the Special Olympics movement. What would you say to encourage people in the UAE and in the region, to get involved and to volunteer and to be a part of this momentous occasion?
Volunteers are an essential part of the whole movement, and without volunteers we can’t make it happen. According to the numbers for example while you are talking about the 7,000 athletes in the World Games, then you need at least 35,000 volunteers. Which is a ratio of one to five.
Also, we can’t use the excuse of saying the population is not that big in the UAE meaning we will not be able to recruit volunteers. This is not true, by the way. For instance, in 2003, we were in Dublin, Ireland with a population of three million people at that time and we were able to recruit the 35,000 volunteers needed.
So it’s really, as I told you we are changing lives here, changing people. Not only the athletes, but entire families. We are also changing ourselves. It’s really a change to our behaviour towards others, acceptance, inclusion. This sense of inclusion and acceptance comes from the volunteers, and will be supported by the volunteers. The volunteers also experience a return on their invested time with this type of work.
What do you feel is that return for them? What does it feel like to be a volunteer?
First of all, the experience is something that you gain. There is no class in school that talks about people with intellectual disability. I believe the new generation is luckier than us, having this being introduced to them and to learn about people who have different abilities. It’s really a win-win. Because yes, you are helping the athletes, you are changing their life, you are trying to include them in the community, but at the same time you are learning that there are people with different abilities and you need to be patient enough to work with them to get the best out of everyone.