As the founder of Stutter UAE, Farah Al Qaissieh heads up a support group to lift the spirits of those struggling to make their voices heard
If her memory serves her right, Farah Al Qaissieh’s verbal struggles started at a very young age.
“I stuttered ever since I was a kid, I think from when I was three or four years old,” Farah recalls.
“But I did not really realise that I had an issue until the seventh grade when my teacher embarrassed me in front of the class. That’s when I thought I was different, that there was something wrong with me.”
The experience shook Farah so much that her personality changed. She went from being a cheerful young girl to a withdrawn, self-conscious individual.
“It wasn’t easy dealing with a stutter at school. At that time, I was just starting to learn more about it and I was trying to understand what stuttering actually is. Why do I have to stutter? Why am I different?”
Farah found comfort in her family’s support. Without the help of a speech therapist, it was the encouragement from her parents and siblings that helped her regain her confidence.
“I have a younger brother who also stutters, so that allowed us to talk through our troubles,” she confides.
“It was only when I entered university that I realised that I was finally in control of my stutter, rather than letting it control me.”
Eager for a fresh start, Farah took it upon herself to deal with the condition by simply being honest and upfront with everyone she came across.
“Initially, what I did was inform everyone in my class that I stutter. So, I would start my presentations with ‘Hi, my name is Farah and I stutter’,” she says.
“That made me realise that the more I confronted it, the more I became comfortable with it, which also resulted in me not stuttering as often because I was at ease with myself and my surroundings.”
In 2013, a much more confident Farah founded Stutter UAE in an effort to help other people who stutter to connect with others with similar speech conditions.
“With Stutter UAE, I wanted to create a safe zone for people who stutter, something that I didn’t have growing up,” says Farah.
The group didn’t get off to the greatest start. Farah recalls announcing events and having people relay their interest, only to not show up on the actual day of the meet-ups. This went on for eight months.
“Finally people started to come, and that’s when I realised that there was really a need for this,” smiles Farah.
“I was overwhelmed because people who stutter tend to feel alone as we hide it. Every person who stutters hides the fact that they do, which makes it hard to find others with similar conditions. But through this group we are able to create that bridge.”
She continues: “Now, we have regular meet-ups, which we call stutter-ups. We just meet over coffee, talk about our day and any challenges. It’s a way for us to stay connected. Also, we don’t look at our stutter as a speech impediment, but rather as an accent that all of us share.”
The group now has participants aged from 13 to 64 years old and hosts occasional workshops to help members develop and hone their communication and public speaking skills.
“We host two events annually. The first is during Ramadan where we have an iftar with members and their families just for a chance for them to get together and enjoy good food. The second coincides with International Stuttering Awareness Day, which is marked worldwide on 22nd October.”
With the group having been instrumental in making the public more aware of stuttering and the daily challenges faced by those who have the condition, Farah’s work was recently recognised when she became one of the recipients of the prestigious Abu Dhabi Award.
Established in 2005, the award recognises people who are making significant contributions to the community across various fields.
“I’m still overwhelmed,” beams Farah, speaking about the award.
“It’s such an honour to be recognised for the work that we’re doing. It’s a positive assurance for us, the people who stutter, that the leadership of this country are very much aware of what’s happening and that they’re supporting us to continue with the journey.
“I think the main thing that people who stutter want is for the wider community to know not to look at us differently because of it,” says Farah.
“Just because we might take five or maybe ten seconds to get the word out, it doesn’t mean that we are incompetent, it doesn’t mean that we don’t know what to say. So just give us a chance, be patient with us and you’ll realise that we are just as capable as anyone else.”
Her recognition does not mean that Farah is about to rest on her accomplishments. Even in her personal journey she has some new goals: “The first is to be more comfortable speaking in Arabic because I stutter more in Arabic than in English. Second is to be more comfortable in talking on the phone.”
Part of Stutter UAE’s objective is to raise more awareness in the workplace and in schools around the country about stuttering. The latter hits close to home for Farah, given her own personal struggles inside the classroom many years ago.
“We want a big push on school outreach programmes because that’s where the seeds are planted. If kids are bullied at school, there’s a chance that it will stay with them for the rest of their lives and we want to avoid that.”
She adds: “I also want to raise more awareness and support others to realise that having a stutter should empower us to chase our dreams, rather than limit us.
“If you have a stutter, it’s important to be a good ambassador of our accent. We can’t expect someone else to understand or accept us if we’re not accepting of the condition ourselves.
“We need to be comfortable enough to realise that this is not something that will ever go away. There’s a chance that our condition might improve, but we might have to live with it for the rest of our lives.
“Acceptance and appreciating that we have been given a gift that is different from what most people have is key.”
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez