UAE Portrait of a Nation: The cafe owner who empowers adults with special needs
Wemmy de Maaker’s first memory of working alongside people with special needs goes back to when she was 14 and volunteered to assist children with Down syndrome.
Now, Ms de Maaker, 53, a Dubai resident from the Netherlands, is battling society’s misconceptions about people with special needs by showing the public what people of determination can achieve.
In 2010, a cafe opened in Al Fahidi that was unlike any other in Dubai. Mawaheb, a cafe and art studio, was home to four adults with special needs who could create art and develop social skills. Artists from the cafe have gone on to host their own exhibitions, while one even had his art published on the cover of Emirates airline’s magazine.
Mawaheb was created by Ms de Maaker, a former nurse, who said she wanted to give a voice to people with special needs.
“When I moved to Dubai in 2002, I did not see any people with special needs in the malls or on the streets,” Ms de Maaker said.
“I was a volunteer at a school and I learnt that there were no facilities for adults with special needs.
“Many parents were desperate to know where they could send their children when they finished school.”
She said that many adults with special needs were simply sitting at home becoming depressed or developing behavioural problems.
“I want to integrate people with special needs into society because I believe in equality and acceptance. They are as important to society as everyone else,” she said.
Ms de Maaker came up with the concept for Mawaheb in 2008 but it took her two years to do the necessary research and create a business plan to get Mawaheb up and running.
She worked at Dutch residential homes and day care centres for adults with special needs for more than 15 years before moving to the UAE. She quit her job and moved to Dubai in 2002 when her husband was given a job as a consultant in the emirate.
Ms de Maaker said she made art part of the concept for Mawaheb because she felt it was a universal language through which UAE residents from all over the world could connect.
Mawaheb has a shop and a cafe where students learn the basics of hospitality, as well as developing their social and communication skills.
Creating a business plan and being granted approvals were far from easy, but she persisted with her ambition when many before had given up.
The art studio will celebrate its ninth anniversary in October and has worked with more than 60 students so far.
“I wanted to show the community that people with special needs can achieve so much if we have faith in them,” Ms de Maaker said.
“We should listen to them and involve them in community activities.”
She said that when she arrived in the UAE, the country did not have as strong an understanding of special needs as it does today.
She said she encouraged people to keep an open mind because people with special needs can teach many lessons.
Students at the cafe conduct workshops, yoga classes and art classes.
For Ms de Maaker, the most important goal is to increase awareness about people with special needs and make sure they are included in society.
“When I first came to Mawaheb, I had no confidence and I did not believe in myself,” James Casaki, 32, a British student at Mawaheb, said.
“Now, I am working on a solo exhibition that starts next month.
Wemmy is an amazing person and she has watched me grow in confidence.
“She gave me the chance to do art and has helped to change my life.
Cafes and businesses should give people with special needs opportunities.”
Asma Khalid Baker, 31, an Emirati student, was also full of praise for the work Ms de Maaker had done.
“She has helped the determined ones open up to the world and show them what we can do,” Ms Baker said.
“I have been here for three and a half years and it has affected me in a huge way.
“After my dad passed away seven years ago, I was alone, but when I came here I made friends and started writing songs and poems.”
Updated: September 12, 2019 07:04 PM