Fathima Nilufah Malik has an extraordinary family of over 70 children. All except the three who are her own biological offspring and their spouses have special needs. They come from different homes, different communities in places near and far to Wellampitiya, where Ash-Shifaa, her school and home for orphans and the intellectually and physically disabled [...]


A Mother in need

Nilufah Malik has opened her heart to dozens of the city’s most vulnerable special needs children, writes Daleena Samara

Nilufer hugging one of her children

Fathima Nilufah Malik has an extraordinary family of over 70 children. All except the three who are her own biological offspring and their spouses have special needs. They come from different homes, different communities in places near and far to Wellampitiya, where Ash-Shifaa, her school and home for orphans and the intellectually and physically disabled is located. Ash-Shifaa, which also doubles as her own family home, is always bursting at the seams with life. And love.

To Nilufah, her wards are as precious as her own children. She is their godmother in every sense of the word, living up to the name “amma” that many of the children call her. A pre-school teacher by profession, she says: “Where there is life, there is hope. With love and attention, these special needs children can become near normal and learn to look after themselves without being a burden to others or society.”

Two showcases of trophies greet visitors who walk in. Ash-Shifaa often excels in public competitions. A proud feather in their cap is their performance at the all-island cricket tournament organised by the Ceylon Association for the Mentally Retarded (CAMR) in Mount Lavinia. Ash-Shifaa has won the top award for four consecutive years, starting 2016.

The children also participate in various arts and cultural events, from dance to drama and music performances, often carrying away prizes. These are proud achievements for a school that jokingly calls itself a “gypsy” because it is often forced to move from one rented residence to another in Colombo. In the past 13 years, Ash-Shifaa has had to move house five times. They have been at their current address, a three-storey building, for three years.

The three floors are a tight fit for the 68 children. A total of 25 staff including eight specialist teachers provide for their needs, supplemented by foreign volunteer teachers on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Nilufah’s own three children and their spouses offer strong support. A family of doctors and an ayurvedic physiotherapist volunteer their services to Ash-Shifaa.

Not an easy job

Teaching special needs children is a challenge. She says: “You need to have a lot of patience and understanding. We strictly follow the CAMR guidelines while focusing on talent development. They learn language skills and counting and identify and develop their areas of interest. Above all, we teach them how to fit into society through self-discipline and good behaviour. Politeness and manners are crucial. They learn to sit properly, talk politely and conduct themselves well.”

Twenty-three children live at Ash-Shifaa from Monday to Friday and return home weekends. The rest are day students. Most are from underprivileged homes lacking knowledge and resources to guide them to self-sufficiency. Some are partially blind or hearing impaired, others cannot walk. Some are autistic and others have Down Syndrome.

Born on a whim

Ash-Shifaa has its roots in Galgamuwa, Anuradhapura, where Nilufah was principal of a Railways Department preschool and daycare centre. When her mentally-challenged brother-in-law hanged himself, her mother-in-law was distraught. Her grief motivated Nilufah to declare she would open a school for the disabled. Her Montessori qualification included education for differently-abled children and she would put it to use. “My brother-in-law died because there was no one to help him. I have a passion for teaching, and I also know how to love children. Disabled children need love and attention more than anything else,” she said.

Though born on a whim, Nilufah’s wish sprang to life when her mother-in-law gave her 92 perches of land for the school, and the family raised funds for a building. Inspired by the idea, others assisted, and partial funding was obtained from the German Embassy and Seylan Bank. A Kuwaiti company sponsored a well. A building took shape, and furniture was purchased. The District Secretariat seconded five disabled children to join the school. In September 2003, the Home for Orphans and the Physically Handicapped opened. Even on that first day, help arrived unexpectedly when a Dutch national cycling past her school stopped to chat and donated a computer and printer a week later.

Even today, she is constantly on the lookout for funding and teaching materials. “Whenever I see something useful for the school, I note it down, get the address, and write to them repeatedly until they respond. If I think I can get something, I persist. I don’t make a nuisance of myself but keep on trying.”

In the early days, she knocked on the doors of Zam Gems in Kollupitiya for assistance in vocational training. Zam donated jewellery-making equipment while a jewellery store in Anuradhapura helped train six students to make copper jewellery.

She once spotted the name Nienhuis Montessori, a factory manufacturing Montessori teaching apparatus, on an envelope and learned they had a factory in Kiriberiya, Panadura. It took a few months to set up a meeting, but a welcome donation of Montessori apparatus for special needs children followed. Since the factory has since left Sri Lanka, Nilufah is thankful that she secured the materials.

She approached sportswear garments manufacturer Stafford Garments. Stafford now donates Ash-Shifaa’s school uniforms and sports uniforms each year.

“I beg from the rich, to give to these children,” she says. Nevertheless, there have been times when she sold her jewellery to fund her school.

Home and heart

The Malik family sleep on the second floor of the building, and most of the children on the first floor with care givers. Although the school has beds, they remain unassembled.  Everyone sleeps on the mattresses stacked into a pile during the day and rolled out at night. “We have the beds but not the space to place them,” Nilufah says.

Despite the tight fit, an orderliness is evident in the systematic manner in which the school functions and its neat and tidy appearance. The building is old, clean and pleasant.

Although handling dozens of special needs children in the restricted space of their present premises is a big ask, Nilufar holds on to her dreams. A building of their own that orphans and other special needs children can truly call home, a vehicle of their own, more teachers, greater community support, and more educational resources, are some urgent items on her wish-list.

If Nilufah has her way, Ash-Shifaa would be serving not just 68 but many more special needs students. There’s a waiting list of seven hundred plus that she would also like to take under her wing. So, in the last three months, she sent out 57 letters requesting help to make these dreams come true. There has been one promising response, and she is keeping her fingers crossed.

“Try and try and you will hit success, is what I believe. I never give up,” she says.

Crucial to her success is the support she has received from her family. My husband was my first assistant, Nilufah says. He is a very good man. He gave me the opportunity to work independently and to be independent, she says.

In 2016, Nilufah had a brush with womb cancer, now in remission. When we met her, she looked tired but radiant. If there ever was a kind face, this was it. “I have a strong heart,” she says. It is definitely a big heart.

Contacts: https://ashshifaa.lk/



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