America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Dast-e Mohammad, Dost-e Mohammad

Mohammed’s Hand, Mohammed’s Friend

By Robert Handerhan

I leave my apartment early on Tuesday mornings to travel to IRODA, one of the leading centers for children with autism in Central Asia today. My morning commute brings me outside of Dushanbe’s center, and I enjoy watching people rush to work along the city’s bustling highways. After weaving through Dushanbe’s infamous traffic patterns, I arrive at Public School No. 72 to see children playing on the blacktop despite the morning heat.This summer marks IRODA’s first year in their new space at this elementary school; although their previous location was homey and accommodating, IRODA’s new location within the school is another major step towards achieving their goal of inclusion and mainstreaming within the public school system.

555Founded by a group of parents in 2008, IRODA has grown substantially over the past eight years and continues to provide invaluable resources and support to children with autism and their families. Their training sessions have changed the ways in which parents, doctors, educators, and other professionals interact with children with ASD, and their services have provided life-changing alternatives to the once-common practice of placing children with autism in government asylums. The organization also engages in advocacy initiatives, seeking official recognition for autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder rather than as a disease that can be cured with heavy medication and social isolation. IRODA remains a community of loving, committed parents at its core.

A large portion of my time at IRODA is spent behind my computer as I work on updating the organization’s website with additional photos and articles that provide illustrative examples of their incredible work. Last summer, two AUA interns created this site, and it has been an essential vehicle for increasing IRODA’s visibility and outreach on a global scale. Although the organization did not previously have an English-language website, IRODA’s site now receives multiple hits from the around the world each day.

On my first day at IRODA, the staff members greeted me warmly and offered me coffee, tea, and sweets, in waves, throughout the day. Lola Nasriddinova, IRODA’s loving matriarch, gave me hundreds of photos from the past eight years. Looking through these photos brought me to tears – they are a testament to the strength of this organization and to the commitment and compassion of the families it serves. I saw pictures of children playing in the park and laughing on a swing set, as well as images of families marching the streets of Dushanbe to advocate for equal rights for their children.

That Tuesday afternoon, the photographs come to life for me.

I entered IRODA’s adaptive classroom and was immediately approached by a bright-eyed boy named Mohammad. Smiling, Mohammad took my hand and led me to a table in the corner of the room; he motioned toward a stack of puzzles, and I pulled the top one toward us. The object of the game was to match a set of wooden vehicles with their respective places on the board. Mohammad shook the puzzle so that all of the pieces clattered to the table and thus the game began.

He pointed toward certain pieces and, thinking that I was following his lead, I handed them to him. I whispered things like “een — eenja,” trying to use my Persian to say simple phrases like “this piece – here.” But he didn’t seem pleased. Grabbing my hand once more, I realized that he wanted us to complete the puzzle together in the most literal way possible; Mohammad guided my hand across the board as we tried fitting each piece into each possible hole. When we found the space that fit the piece, I chanted, “Afareen, Mohammad, afareen!”to congratulate him. With my hand firmly in his, Mohammad completed the puzzle and we moved onto the next one; seven puzzles later, we had completed the entire pile.

Keeping hold of my hand, he led me across the classroom and pointed at a stack of notebooks. We sat down with a small book intended to teach children how to write the Cyrillic alphabet in cursive script. Mohammad continued to guide my hand across the pages as we traced the letters and phrases. I continued cooing, “Afareen! Mohammad pesar-e khubast,” telling him “Mohammad is a good boy” with the completion of every few words. And by working with Mohammad, I began to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as well. Mohammad and I were learning the letters together as we traced their shapes along the lines.

Mohammad’s focus was incredible, and as we worked our way through the book page by page, he motioned for me to take his hand in mine. After guiding my hands across countless puzzles and pages, Mohammed wanted me to lead his hand over the words, tracing the curves and loops of each letter.

We practiced writing for over two hours, but soon it was time for me to leave for my Persian lesson. Mohammad began pulling at my arm for me to stay, but he quickly shifted his attention back to the book in front of him. I left the school that day knowing that I had made an incredible connection with someone very special, and I am already looking forward to my return next Tuesday.

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