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Saturday, 28 March 2009

Saudi VIPs Fly in for London's First Cineforum

London's first Cineforum takes place Monday March 30th 2009 and some well-known personalities are flying into the UK from the Gulf region to appear at the event. In advance of the one-day conference, where I will be facilitating, I acquired an exclusive with Jeddah-based Maha Al Juffali-Ghandour, Director and founder of the first private charity centre for children with mental disabilities in Jeddah who is one of Cineforum's headliners.

An understated pioneer, Maha, happily married, with no-one with special needs in her family, found quite early on that there was little or no provision for the disabled in Saudi Arabia. Special needs were something to be hidden away at that time, so Maha decided to create a centre to support the families of disabled children. After careful research, and using connections at the highest level, she was able to set up her centre and says,
'We experienced tremendous support...the authorities made it possible for the centre to attain a formal status, with an official charter.'

Previously, Maha told me, parents would send their disabled 'children to boarding facilities in other countries.' This meant breaking up the family. And now, even parents with unborn special needs babies can come with siblings to Maha's centre and learn how to accept and cope well with their situation.

From the VSA Arts International in Washington,, affiliated to the Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts, Maha said that she learnt how to address disability 'in a fun and creative way' as well as understanding how to 'open channels of communication between different cultures around the world...and build on and expand available local resources.' She is now Executive Director of VSA arts- Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Maha is on the Harvard Women's Leadership Board and is an adviser to many institutions all over the Gulf as well as some American schools and universities. In 2002, the Saudi Crown Prince awarded a medal to Maha, a first for a Saudi female, in recognition of her work.

The Help Centre is now a template and attracts families from all over the region. Maha also links with Japan, preferring to establish with those she knows through personal contacts.

Though she has developed a professional life away from her role as wife, mother and daughter, I asked her about emotional involvement with the special needs children after all these years. Maha replied, ' I do get moved and yes, and I still cry very often.'

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