No child deserves to be left behind. Children with special needs have the same right to a suitable education as any other child. In 2003, Ms. Faraliza Zainal and Mr. Mohammad Ali Dawood’s first child, Mohd Ashraf Mohd Ali, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a form of autism. The early days were difficult. It was not uncommon for onlookers to stare and judge when Ashraf had public meltdowns. While raising him, they began to realize that children with special needs require education that is unique. On top of that, they wanted Ashraf to have a balanced education with Islamic knowledge and values. Unfortunately, there were no centers that could provide such learning at that point in time.
That’s when they were inspired to start My Islamic Journey (MIJ), a full-time English-language holistic program that combines religious education with numeracy, literacy and life skills. Ms. Faraliza was so adamant about filling the gap that she was willing to stop working as a regional training manager for Asia Pacific at Dow Jones. She is now the director of learning and development at MIJ. MIJ’s programs are conducted by qualified religious teachers, who are also certified in early childhood and special needs education. The center was so well-received that it currently has 200 students. Ms. Faraliza and Mr. Mohammad have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents. Their children are now more well-behaved and able to communicate smoothly.
They can see how their son has changed as well. “Many do not realize that Islamic education brings many benefits to children with special needs. Ashraf never misses his prayers. When he is surrounded by many people, he will calm himself with ‘dhikr’ (remembrance of God). He brings a ‘dhikr’ counter wherever he goes,” said Ms. Faraliza.
MIJ does not turn away students. Most of the full-time students are from low-income and troubled families. When they are unable to pay the full fees, MIJ absorbs the shortfall. Additionally, the learning center is no longer big enough for the students, and only has one toilet that is shared by other tenants. This toilet is not equipped for those with disabilities.
On 17 January, MIJ launched a crowdfunding campaign on LaunchGood.com for a new center. The new space will have six classrooms that can accommodate up to 40 students at a time, a gym, a therapy room, three toilets with facilities for the disabled and a room for teachers to calm down students who are having a meltdown. In less than a week, the campaign raised $21,538 out of the $40,000 goal.
“We are thankful for the immense support from everyone. We started from scratch, and the kids are our teachers. They are the ones who have taught us so much. We also have fabulous, dedicated teachers. They are a gift from God to these kids,” Mr. Mohammad remarked.