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‘University for All’ at Saint-Joseph U. Opens Doors for Special-Needs Youth

BEIRUT—Nour Abu Ayyash has recently launched her “Mariposa” brand of bags and purses that depict her drawings. She achieved this long-held dream with the help of an inclusive education programme offered by the “University for All” programme at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut.

The 21-year-old, who suffers from epilepsy, was among 12 students with special needs who graduated last June in the first cohort of the two-year programme.

“Nour is talented and has loved drawing since she was a child,” says her mother, Hilda. “Her drawings on fabric were used to make bags and purses, and this makes her very proud. The training she had at the artisanal workshop ‘Hartouka’ as part of the programme helped her achieve her dream. She is happier and feels useful and productive.”

A Syllabus Adapted for All

French and Lebanese teachers specialising in people with special needs devised the course in collaboration with Include, a local nongovernmental organisation that promotes the social and professional integration of people with special needs.

“Since it is a University for All, why not open it to all, including people with special needs?”

Gérard Bejjani
Director of University for All (Université pour Tous) at Saint-Joseph University of Beirut

“Since it is a university for all the people, why not open it to all, including people with special needs?” asked Professor Gérard Bejjani, director of University for All, which is known by its French abbreviation UPT (Université pour Tous). “It was not an easy venture. It demanded a lot of effort, but we reaped the fruits with the graduation of the first group last year.”

The programme trains people for jobs they are able to do, Bejjani said. “Of the 12 graduating students, eight have already landed a job,” he added.

Claudine Moubarak, coordinator of the inclusive education programme, explained that the syllabus is adapted to people with special needs, whatever their specific difficulties. “Whether they read or not, write or not, speak Arabic, French or English, the programme is accessible to all.”

“Every person over 16 who has no access to a specialised establishment is welcome to enrol in the programme,” Moubarak said. “The only criterion for admission is not to have behavioural issues, especially violent behaviour that could put the group and the instructors at risk.”

Theoretical and Practical Training

The programme is composed of four primary modules that prepare students for a career in horticulture, catering, hospitality, or the arts. It also has four secondary modules designed to enhance personal development, autonomy and self-dependence.

“In all modules you have a theoretical part and in-depth practical training,” Moubarak said. “Practice is very important. Through the various internships, the students experience what they have learned in theory, which allows the development of skills that prepare them for professional life.”

Gallery: University for All

Moubarak stresses the benefits of inclusive education in universities. “Young people with special needs feel normal and more like adults when they dwell in a university environment. Going to a normal university makes them feel responsible and proud. They mingle with each other, visit the coffee shop, and have meals together … act as any other university student.”

Jobs and Self-Confidence

Among the graduates who have jobs are Alceste Darazi, who suffers from dysphasia; and Marie Ashi and Charbel Khairallah, both of whom have Down syndrome.

Darazi, who is 22, is working in the kitchen of the Bossa Nova Hotel. Khairallah, age 24, is a housekeeper in the same hotel, and Ashi, 25, is an apprentice at a flower shop.

“When I look back, I can say that Alceste has changed 100 percent,” says her mother, Lydia Darazi. “She is more responsible, disciplined and sociable and assumes her duties fully. … She is a new person.”

Paul Khairallah, Charbel’s father, is equally happy with the progress his son made after joining the programme.

“His personality changed drastically. He felt he was no longer a child, but like any other young person going to university,” Khairallah said.

“Every person over 16 who has no access to a specialised establishment is welcome to enrol in the programme,”

Claudine Moubarak
Coordinator of the inclusive education programme

“He gained more autonomy and self-confidence after entering the job market and earning an income. He is very committed to his work, and his employers are extremely happy with him. The inclusive education programme definitely offered him an opportunity for life and for the future.”

Ashi found her vocation in flower arrangement and cultivation. Working in an exclusive flower shop, she has to follow a strict work discipline, which she has fully assumed.

“She feels equal to me and her father,” says her mother, Nada Ashi. “She has to go to work every day, has a profession and earns an income.”

Going to the university made a big difference in Ashi’s life, her mother said. “Marie has become more sociable and now has a group of friends from her class. … When she graduated, she was a completely different person.”

Hope for Parents and Students

Moubarak, the programme coordinator, says that parents play a crucial part in the development of their children.

“They are main actors in inclusive education’s succeeding,” she said, “because they know their children better and can support the teachers’ work. As a coordinator, I can say that it was a beautiful experience because we have given hope to both the parents and the students. In a matter of a few months, we have observed how much they have developed and matured.”

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Bejjani, UPT’s director, says inclusive education has “changed the face of
Saint-Joseph University.”

“I was never alone on this journey,” he said. “Many of us have believed, hoped, acted, fought hand in hand. Today, together, we have succeeded.”

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