‘Hi, my name is Farah and I stutter. Please bear with me.’

When 17-year-old Zayed University student Farah Al Qaissieh first introduced herself thus in 2007, it was an attempt at shaking off years of apprehension, insecurity and diffidence, and to slowly emerge from the shell she had deliberately closeted herself in. ‘The moment I spoke those words aloud in front of my class, I was admitting to myself that I stutter, and with that, I was taking control of my situation,’ she says. ‘Those words suddenly set me free – free from the fear of stuttering, and free from the introverted person I had turned myself into.’

This newly-gained confidence and steely resolve that she displayed in challenging herself, eventually led her to found Stutter UAE in 2013, a support platform seeking to encourage people who stutter to meet and interact while also helping raise awareness on the issue. Hundreds dealing with the disorder in the UAE have since been empowered to communicate effectively and confidently through this network of support and development.

Currently working with a government organisation in Abu Dhabi, 28-year-old Farah remembers that she had stuttered ever since she was a little kid. ‘I believe the initial years of school went just fine,’ she laughs, but an incident in Grade 7 forcibly made her conscious of her stuttering. Asked to read aloud a passage in Arabic, the scathing comments of the teacher was to have a traumatic effect on the young child.

‘I felt so humiliated,’ she recollects. ‘It was a painful experience to be mocked at in front of the entire class. In my mind, I could read clearly but when I spoke aloud, the words didn’t fall through the way I wanted them to. Almost overnight, I withdrew into a shell; from a bubbly, cheerful person, I turned into a loner.’

Shutting herself off ‘opened my eyes and ears to the teasing and the bullying – something that had escaped my notice until then,’ she says.

Farah’s solace and companion during these trying years was her younger brother, Mansour. ‘His stutter was more severe than mine, and I would seethe with anger at the constant bullying he endured. We knew that something had to be done – although we didn’t know what or how.’

Years of staying a recluse soon began to take its toll. ‘I felt trapped in the persona I was forced to become; it was frustrating to not be my real self,’ she says. Not wanting to endure years of loneliness and living in fear of being laughed at, she decided to boldly confront her innermost fears as she embarked on university life.

‘The first time I spoke those words,’ remembers Farah, ‘I felt an immediate sense of relief. It was as if a weight had been taken off my shoulders. As I kept repeating those sentences to everyone I met, my fears dissipated, and I finally felt okay with stuttering. I had now begun to embrace my disability wholeheartedly.’

Up until she graduated, Farah believed that Mansour and she were the only two people in the world who stuttered. ‘Imagine my surprise therefore when I spoke to Faisal Al Hammadi, my colleague at office and found that he too stuttered,’ says Farah. ‘By sharing our experiences, we felt it helped us cope better. Just talking about it had a therapeutic value and we wanted to expand this to the wider community. That is how Stutter UAE came about.’

The idea was to destigmatise stuttering and create a space for people with the disability to meet and learn from each other, she explains. ‘Everyone who stutters should know they are not alone. More importantly, that it is not your fault. Stuttering will not go away but by socialising with people who go through the same struggles; we can learn to manage it better.’

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Stutter UAE originated in 2013 as a Meetup group. For the initial eight months, Farah, Faisal and Aliya Paula Sardar, a speech-language pathologist in Abu Dhabi, were its only members. ‘That didn’t deter us,’ she says. ‘We knew it was not easy for people to accept they had a problem, let alone attend an event dedicated to people who stutter.’

Meanwhile, Farah’s Snapchat sessions in Arabic was gaining popularity. ‘I deliberately chose to do it in Arabic because I stuttered more in my mother tongue. With English, I tend to slide over just a few words, but Arabic is a completely different story – I struggle to even say my family name.’

Her hard work and self-discipline paid off for Farah is now adept at handling even live TV interviews in Arabic. ‘I still stutter; that is now part of the journey of my life,’ she says. ‘Today, I enjoy it as it gives me an opportunity to understand what’s going on internally that is causing me to stutter.’

Her infectious confidence and wholehearted acceptance of her condition soon got her social media followers with the disability or parents of those affected wanting to meet her. A newspaper article that appeared around the same time stirred the interests of many more. Soon, the numbers of people registering for Stutter UAE’s monthly events swelled to several hundreds.

According to the Stuttering Foundation in the US, ‘Stuttering is a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (lllllike this), or abnormal stoppages (no sound) of sounds and syllables.’

Farah likens the act of stuttering to the intense emotional rollercoaster one would go through ‘when trying to reverse park a car in a tight space, say on a late Thursday evening in a busy UAE mall to watch a movie that starts in 15 minutes, and for which tickets have not been booked yet. Several attempts later, and as the honking from those behind you grows louder, you begin to wonder: is it really worth it? Do I even want to see the movie anymore? Then, you make one last try and the car swings in perfectly.’

She elaborates: ‘This is the kind of frustration, anxiety, fear and worry that people who stutter endure on a daily basis – every time we speak. Like with the car, we know we will get it right eventually, but it requires us to be patient and calm.’

Stuttering affects one per cent of the population worldwide, says Farah, ‘which, in the UAE, is close to 100,000 individuals. We have therefore launched a survey to compile data of UAE residents with speech disorders.’

Stutter UAE holds two big events in a year – the annual International Stuttering Awareness Day in October; and an iftar gathering during Ramadan. Regular meetup sessions are attended by friends and family of those who stutter and even others who are genuinely interested in knowing more about the disability.

Says Farah, ‘We hear positive stories of transformation at these events. For instance, a 13-year-old who had attended just three sessions, found the confidence to give a talk about her stutter issues. In 2015, Rueben Kaduskar, confided his interest in stand-up comedy while sharing his fear of taking that first step. Stutter UAE served as a safe space for him to perform and today, he is a successful stand-up comedian in India.’

Removing the negative connotation around stuttering comes only with acceptance of the condition, believes Farah. ‘The walls we erect around us are self-built. Only acceptance will allow us to celebrate our uniqueness. Otherwise, we end up victimising ourselves.’

At Stutter UAE, stuttering is not viewed as a speech impediment. ‘We view it as an accent. People around the world speak with different accents. Why should stuttering be seen as any different?’ she asks.

Farah’s use of her speech condition as a catalyst to improve the lives of others became the subject of a documentary, Just Another Accent, by filmmakers Khadija Kudsi and Samia Ali who focused on aspects of stuttering that affects self-esteem and turned the spotlight on how to transform a stumbling block into a strength. The film was showcased at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and Malmö Arab Film Festival in Sweden.

Earlier this year, Farah Al Qaissieh became one of the nine individuals to win the prestigious Abu Dhabi Award, the emirate’s highest civilian honour, for positively impacting lives and raising awareness on stuttering. ‘We hear you; we are listening – this is the message the UAE leadership has sent out, through this award, to each and every person who stutters in the UAE.’

Despite being an inspiration to those around her, she admits there are ‘bad stutter days that can wear you down. For the many times that I wanted to give up and I didn’t – this award has been an overwhelming validation of the work that we do, and also reinforces why we need to push ourselves harder.’

For Farah, everything that is done today within the Stutter UAE initiative is in memory of her brother Mansour (who passed away three years ago) ‘and so I will not rest until every child and adult who stutters in the UAE is free from the trauma of stigmatisation merely because he/she speaks differently.’