A Nobel story
The first ever Egyptian woman to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize speaks to Sara Abou Bakr
"Discovering that my son Maged was mentally challenged was a shock," said Nada Thabet, the Egyptian woman nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Thabet -- founder of the Alexandria- based Village of Hope community for the mentally challenged --is part of an initiative called 1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005. The project aims to recognise the work of 1000 women around the world who have helped improve the quality of life for people in their communities. "The [Nobel] foundation will provide each of the 1000 women's projects with a symbolic financial reward as an incentive," Thabet said.
Twenty-five years ago, when Thabet gave birth to Maged -- who was blind and unable to move or talk as a result of brain cell atrophy from the difficult delivery -- she was "shocked". "Until Maged, I never faced a real problem in my life," she said, and "my first challenge was such a huge one."
When Thabet failed to find proper treatment for her son in Egypt, she took him abroad, where doctors shocked her even more. "They told me to treat him like a cat or dog, that all I could do was love him. I was furious; after all, this was my son they were talking about."
Her life's work became caring for Maged in particular, and the mentally challenged in general. By the year 2000, the idea of a Village of Hope began to dominate her thoughts. Her family had purchased a plot of land, planning to eventually use it as a weekend getaway. Her husband supported her decision to start the village there. Thabet says her family's support was the primary factor that "encouraged me to move forward in the hope of spreading awareness regarding the needs of the mentally challenged".
Begun in 2001, and catering to just six mentally challenged children, the Village of Hope rapidly grew, hosting 45 boys and girls by 2005. In the village, child care professionals spend lots of time teaching the children different things, including how to deal with each other. They try to improve the children's communication skills, and establish healthy routines that allow them to express their needs.
Always trying to do more, in 2004 Thabet sought out ways to enhance the children's contributions to society at large. "I wanted to figure out a simple but respectable job that the children could handle," she said. As she walked past a bakery one day, the idea came to her. When she found out just how expensive it would be to actually start a bakery, however, reality struck.
She eventually turned to the Social Affairs Ministry, the IMF and the Save the Children Foundation for help. Another project Thabet wanted to start was the Village of Hope greenhouse. "Plants grow slowly and my children comprehend slowly," she said, "that's why I thought this project would fit well". Which it did: now the vegetables and different bakery products made by the Village of Hope's children are sold in several Alexandria supermarkets. Thabet said that she has seen commitment in the mentally challenged that some "normal" people lack.
Volunteers run the village, and "we hardly cover our expenses," Thabet said. Volunteers are sent to various centres to attend training courses on how to deal with the mentally challenged. "The problem here in Egypt is that there are no schools providing professional teachers for children with special needs."
Although Thabet's line of work has exposed her to numerous woes, she says her worst problems are with the government. Governmental institutions do not differentiate between psychiatric patients and the mentally challenged, she said. One problem she was able to resolve -- via a lawsuit -- involved getting military exemptions for the children. "An army recruitment committee will soon pay the village a visit to finish all the military exemption paperwork for my kids," she said.
Thabet said she does "not see the Nobel prize as a personal victory, but rather an award for all Egyptian women working relentlessly for a better future". Egyptian women are housewives, employees and social activists, she said, with a unique ability to juggle all three roles successfully at the same time.
She hopes the Nobel Prize "will draw attention to the Village, as well as the methods that can be used to help children with special needs in general".
Thabet combines her work at the village with efforts to encourage dialogue among religions and cultures. She says she refuses to "rest as long as there are people in society facing hardships and desperation".