Reem Alfranji

Reem Alfranji

Reem Alfranji left Gaza in 2010 in search of better support for her two sons who had been recently diagnosed with Global Development Delay (GDD). The network, resources and education that Reem was seeking to help her and families like hers weren't there, so Reem and her husband set up, an Arabic-language website that Reem hopes will become the go-to resource for Arab parents of children with learning difficulties, featuring specialised content, video interviews with experts and parents, an online library and directory as well as tele-coaching.

Reem also co-produced Team Hero Cartoon, the Arab world’s first ever animated cartoon series featuring disabled children as leading characters in an inclusive community.

Ogunte: Where does your story begin and can you describe your journey into the work you currently do?

Reem Alfranji: My story started in 2009, in Gaza, when I discovered that both my sons, Aboud and Amro, had developmental disabilities. The news changed my life, and created an immediate need for me and my family to find resources and most crucially a network of support. I quickly realised that the community I was looking for didn’t exist yet and that there was almost no awareness or proper information in Arabic out there for families like ours. So we decided to move from Palestine to Jordan.

Ogunte: That must have been quite a costly move?

Reem Alfranji: Yes, it was sacrificial and costly in many ways, but one we felt we had no choice but to make. I knew I couldn’t simply wait for the kind of world my sons could live in.

I also knew that education would be key to the cause, and that changing attitudes needed to start with a young audience. But a campaign wouldn’t have been enough.

Ogunte: So you decided to make a TV show?

Reem Alfranji: Yes I worked with a good friend and very talented producer, Khalid Abu Sharif, to co-produce a cartoon show that presents children with disabilities in a positive way. Season 1 from Team Hero Cartoon is now on a regional Arabic children’s channel, MBC3, and a copy in English is also available. One of the main characters is similar to my sons’ case, so it makes me incredibly proud to watch.

Reem Alfranji - Habaybna - Jordan

Ogunte: How did you move from a cartoon show to

Reem Alfranji: A few years into its success, I came to a new conclusion that awareness amongst young people isn’t sufficient by itself. As parents of children with intellectual disabilities, we also need guidance throughout our journeys, and we should have access to it at any time we need it.

So I teamed up with my husband in 2017 and established, an online platform that empowers, educates and supports parents of children with intellectual disabilities. We have a video library featuring 700+ videos from parents and specialists, a directory of service providers, and a tele-coaching service where we connect parents 1:1 with specialists.

Ogunte: You’re really addressing a need with Habaybna, but how do you measure your impact?

Reem Alfranji: Many ways! Quantitatively, it’s viewership on videos, number of calls between parents and service providers, visits to our website. But on a qualitative level, the many messages we receive through our inbox from families telling us how our website has taught them something and has positively changed their families’ lives.

Ogunte: So you came from Gaza, became a mother of children with disabilities, you moved countries and only a few years later became a TV producer and social entrepreneur. What elements of your life story contributed to the woman and the social entrepreneur you are today?

Reem Alfranji: In 2017, I joined the Business and Professional Women Association (BPWA Amman Chapter)which has around 200 members supporting each other and continuously seeking ways to make a difference. That has been a source of real encouragement for me. Another major element was in 2017 when I got a scholarship from the Swedish Institute for the She Entrepreneurs program in Stockholm, alongside 26 other amazing female entrepreneurs from the MENA region. It was a 6 months training program which aimed to empower women in terms of sustaining and scaling our work and our impact. Most of the trainers and coaches were women with well established and successful businesses, mostly social in nature. I left trained, inspired and more ready than ever to do the work. This led me to meet Asa, an amazing Swedish woman living in Amman who started volunteering with Habaybna as a communication advisor for more than 1 year. She believes in the power of women supporting women, and she is taking this belief into action by the support she is giving to me.

I feel lucky to have been surrounded by entrepreneurial women who make sure they contribute to their community in different ways. From all these role models, I was fortunate enough to learn directly from them, or I learned simply by watching how they did things, and it showed me that what I wanted to was possible.

Ogunte: Support networks are key, aren’t there? Can you share a pivotal moment in your life as a woman and as a social entrepreneur?

Reem Alfranji: Leaving Gaza, with no plans and only one purpose - a better life for my sons, in terms of proper education and rehabilitation. I landed in Amman carrying so much frustration, but I started to volunteer, then to work, at Sana for special individuals which was founded by parents with similar stories to mine. There, all my frustration turned into hope and all my dreams turned into goals and all the pain turned into determination.

The love and support I got from my friends, “the special mums”, made me always feel that I can take that extra mile because a big family is behind me. Nonetheless, my loving and supportive neighbours, who are also mums like me, believed in me and my sons, always encourage me to do better with my sons and were there whenever we needed, helping me with babysitting so many times.

Ogunte: What is at the heart of your work?

Reem Alfranji: Love in action - spreading the message that parents like us are not alone, fighting the stigma around having a child with different abilities, and helping the ecosystem bring out the best in our children.
The name Habaybna came from a question we asked ourselves about what children with different abilities share in common, and it is that they are all loved.

Our tagline is that children with all abilities will stay our loved ones.

Part of love in action looks like advocating better access to education for people with disabilities, so they can go on to live a meaningful life.Reem Alfranji -Habaybna - Jordan - Ogunte Interview

Ogunte: How do you close the gender gap in your day to day activities?

Reem Alfranji: As a social enterprise, it is crucial to us that our internal working environment matches our values. The team are all parents of children with disabilities - we’re all led by passion and personal experience, so we already feel there is a good understanding between us about our situations.

Our board of advisors is made up of five women from Jordan with a minimum of 18 years of experience in the fields of special education and rehabilitation. We’ve only just started to discuss the idea of bringing a male specialist onto the board...

What’s interesting is that we have a lot of mothers who are actively involved in the network, but we actually want more fathers to participate in sharing their stories, in seeking support and in gathering together as men, husbands and fathers.

Reem Alfranji in action with team - Jordan - Ogunte Interview

Ogunte: I can imagine that there’s a lot of misunderstanding and stigma around disabilities that make outreach and participation hard.

Reem Alfranji: Definitely. We are working against some tough conditions. There are misunderstandings about children with learning disabilities - many think it is something that will be “cured”, or it just needs time or a certain medication. They don’t reach out to us because they don’t know or can’t accept what they are facing.

And yes, disability still carries a stigma amongst many families, which makes it challenging for parents to even reach out to us in the first place. Some people follow us and see what we do, we can see that they are regular watchers, but we’ve heard many people tell us later on that they were ashamed to like the page or send a message. Sometimes their extended families don’t know that the child has a disability, so anyone speaking out is really brave.

Ogunte: Can you tell us a story about a family or individual who showed such bravery?

Reem Alfranji: One parent has a son with cerebral palsy, who was really struggling with his life. We were producing a smaller show called Chat with Habaybna, which puts the talents, interests and ambitions of children with disabilities at the heart of the story, rather than their disabilities. After it was published on social media, he started to get positive recognition in his community; he grew so much in confidence after that and started going out in public places more.

Ogunte: Despite your success, are there areas of your business you still struggle to be confident in?

Reem Alfranji: Social entrepreneurship is very new to the region - people questioned us as if we were making money from your own story. But being confident with what we’re doing, knowing our personal experience drives our story, helps us to ignore unhelpful comments and focus on simply improving our core business and value proposition.

Doubts about our expertise and credibility, being parents and not educated specialists has also shown us the ways we need to position ourselves and what talent we need to bring on.

Ogunte: What are some of your business challenges?

Reem Alfranji: Providing our service with affordable and convenient fees, especially for parents who already face a lot of costs to give their children the care they deserve. So sustaining ourselves financially, knowing where to monetise and at what price, that’s been an ongoing question.

Ogunte: Have you tried raising funds? How has your experience been?

Reem Alfranji: I won a prize of 2000 JODs in November 2017 in an event organised for the Women Entrepreneurs Day in Jordan, which we invested in bringing the platform to life. Then in April 2018 we launched a crowdfunding campaign to develop our platform, but it didn’t go as well as expected. So now we are trying to prove the effectiveness and the need for our solutions through numbers and evidence.

This work started out as a non-profit, but it took a lot of time to apply for funding through grants. I wish that I knew about social entrepreneurship long ago, learning more about it at school or university. It took a while before I was introduced to the concept of social enterprise, which taught me how we can really solve problems in a sustainable, time efficient and practical way.

Ogunte What else do you know now that you wished you had known from the beginning?

Reem Alfranji: We don’t have a system for referrals in Jordan like you do in the UK - so the support system just didn’t exist. On a personal level, my children kept being rejected from mainstream schools, but it took years before I realised something had to change, once my family and I got over our denial and confusion. I wish I had met more senior mums who were raising children with disabilities as soon as I knew about my son's challenge. Having these role models would have saved me a lot of struggle particularly for the first three years.

In the UAE, it is mandatory for any couple that want to get married to do genetic counselling first. Part of Habaybna will be early detection, to help parents to take preventative measures. This is a long process and costly, but it gives us an idea about what interventions are necessary and possible

Ogunte: Where do you draw your energy from these days?

Reem Alfranji:

  • My sons - they have a beautiful sense of humour which helps us relieve the stress of being entrepreneurs. They are exploring new skills that can help them to be employed or self-employed in the future. My sons’ intellectual disabilities weren’t developing according to natural milestones - but their determination is inspiring. They are learning how to speak, to walk, to write, to use technology for practical, everyday tasks (like ordering food, using google maps, working in word and excel).
  • Another support for me has been my neighbour who is like my family - it’s almost like they incubated us since we arrived in Amman from Gaza. I talk to her in my moments of insecurity and doubt. She gave me perspective - some things happen to us for a reason, some things we think are unique struggles are actually very common.
  • Also my husband. We both decided that we needed to change, and to change we needed to understand the situation, to accept the situation, and to come together to find a solution that worked for us. We always find a way to sort out the challenges and stresses; having our sons with disabilities made us closer (for a while it was about to separate us). It gave us hope to meet other parents who were able to stay as a happy couple, despite their lives being less conventional. We balance the work and responsibilities between us - when I have meetings, he will look after the children. We have a deep understanding of each other. It’s good to feel appreciated by someone who knows you the most.

Ogunte: What advice would you give others in your situation, either on the personal or professional level?

Reem Alfranji: We want to inspire other parents to know that if there are no opportunities, you should create them. There is always a solution - if you don’t find it, create it. If there is no job for your son or daughter, make it.
The key is to find mentors who can speak to different facets of your life - as a mum, as an entrepreneur, as a wife. Parents of children with disabilities have a huge cost hit, and my neighbour was a mentor for me not just in personal matters but also in things like financial planning.

Ogunte: What does your world look like in ten years time?

Reem Alfranji: I really wish that through, parents could be one click away from a resource that will support them from the very first moment of finding out about the challenges of their children. We are basically building the ecosystem for people with learning disabilities and for their parents. So we want to bringing global services in the disabilities field to Jordan and the region, but I also want to see parents themselves starting more initiatives and being more active in their communities.

I wish to see my sons and children like them live without being discriminated against or labelled with disabilities, and more children with disabilities gaining access to education.

I wish that we could normalise the conversation around disabilities - that no one has to bear the load alone, that we find support from the government and from civil society. It’s not just about a support system but about a new frame of mind.

Ogunte: Who are women in social enterprises that inspire you.

Reem Alfranji: The list is really long, but two who relate to my work and who touched me on a personal and professional level are:

  • Samar Dudin - Founder and CEO of Ruwwad. The thing that really inspires me about her is that although she works in a tough environment, she still finds ways to empower women and individuals in vulnerable areas.
  • Adalla Abusitta - Founder/president of Right to Live organisation in the Gaza Strip, the biggest and one of the earliest centres for people with down syndrome in Gaza strip, founded more than 25 years ago. Her perseverance and determination to continue her work despite all the challenges that Gazans have to face, has meant she has sustained her impact and empowered generations of people with down syndromes in Gaza. One of her former students became a teacher at the centre only recently!

  • My other role model is Dr Hiba Shatta - she is a mum from Dubai and she has a daughter with autism. When we were locked in Gaza, and we heard the news about our sons, we were told that the treatment and rehabilitation had to be outside of Gaza. I found a video and interview of Dr. Hiba Shatta on YouTube, and I reached out to her for resources and guidance, which she offered! We started to correspond and now she is heading three centres in Dubai around early prevention and detection, inclusion in schools, and vocational training and university education for adults with intellectual disabilities. Her bottom line is, if you can’t touch anyone’s lives, you haven’t lived.


Interview produced by Josiane Smith for Ogunte. 
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