Maha Helali: the Egyptian Symbol of the Power in Women
Most people have the tendency to go where their needs will be met. That may entail having to pack up and leave the place they called home for a whole lifetime in order to meet their unmet needs. However, Maha Helali is unlike most people; she decided to dedicate her life to seek and provide the service she needed at a time and place where her needs simply couldn’t be attained. Maha Helali, one of the leading figures in the disabilities field in Egypt, is the founder of the Learning Resource Center (LRC) and the Advance Society for Autism and Other Disabilities (Advance).
The LRC was founded in 1996, and it serves as a center that provides services to families with children with learning disabilities in order to enable them to be integrated in mainstream education. One of the main purposes behind it is to provide different modes of therapy and services all under one roof. However, during the 1990s in Egypt, mainstream education in Egypt was not exactly ready for the inclusion of people with learning disabilities. This prompted Maha to establish her NGO, Advance. Advance is more focused on children with Autism by providing intensive programs at all ages.
LRC and Advance are both considered to be landmark institutions in the field of disabilities in Egypt, and having established them, Maha is one of the pioneers of that field. However, this was not the career she had envisioned for herself when she acquired her bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science. Maha initially worked in the banking sector for three years, and then she shifted to the education field when she moved with her family to Dubai and gave birth to her daughter. Upon her return to Egypt, Maha got a job at the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) office in Cairo. She was genuinely happy with her career at this point, until things took a sharp turn when her younger son was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 2.
By utilizing the resources she had as an employee at UNESCO, Maha reached out to many people at an international level to get a better understanding of her son’s condition and his needs. She went as far as travelling to the UK to get him assessed professionally. Despite having the services her son needed in the UK, Maha was keen on staying in her home country Egypt. Therefore, she returned, quit her job at UNESCO, and vowed to establish the services that her son needed but lacked, so that unlike her, no one would have to pack up their life and move to a foreign country to get such crucial services.
One of the most important aspects that led to Maha’s success in her establishments is networking. Not only did Maha create a strong national network within the disabilities field, but her network expanded vastly at a regional and an international level. Nationally, Maha created the Egyptian Network for Autism in 2004. This aims to collect data from all governorates all over Egypt with regards to education for people with Autism. This ensured interconnectedness and synchronization in the educational services received by people with disabilities all over Egypt. Additionally, in 2005, she launched the National Autism Awareness Campaign in Egypt, which covered 17 governorates.
Regionally, Maha took Part in UNESCO’s Beirut office regional initiative on Autism in 2002. The initiative aimed to bring together representatives of 15 different Arab countries in order to establish national networks all over the region. Moreover, it helped in harnessing knowledge from all the different schools of thought prevalent in the region.
Internationally, Advance is a Member of the International Inclusion Organization, which is a body of the United Nations that works on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Maha’s success story really does serve as strong evidence that with establishing the right networks, anything is achievable. She believes that today with the internet, “the world has become a village”.
Out of her many incredible achievements within her career, Maha is the proudest of two. The first is taking part in the creation of Law no. 10 of 2018 on the rights of persons with disabilities. For that, she got to attend meetings at the National Council for Persons with Disabilities to draft the law and to advocate in the Egyptian Parliament. Her other most valuable achievement was getting to represent Egypt as a delegate in the United Nations in discussing the implementation of the CRPD.
Maha’s story is not only inspiring but is a deeply moving one about a mother who went to all lengths to provide comfort and safety to her children. It shows that with the right motives and determination, one can really go places and alter society for the better. Maha believes that God will always help those who want to help others. To the people who have ambition and want to leave their mark on society, Maha offers three simple steps: focus, educate yourself, and just do it.
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By: Zeina Ahmed