Monday, April 17, 2017

Amid Violence, Choose Peace. Amid Fear, Choose Hope

Melissa Diamond
A Global Voice for Autism is an initiative founded and run by Melissa Diamond. With a beautiful tagline of "Amid Violence, Choose Peace. Amid Fear, Choose Hope," Melissa has been diligently catering to the needs of children with autism. A Global Voice for Autism was founded on the principle that ALL families should have access to education and autism support, no matter where they live. Sharda Vishwanathan caught up with Melissa for an interview. 

Could you start by talking about yourself, your educational and professional background?
I am a current Rotary Peace Fellow at the University of Bradford pursuing a degree in Conflict, Security and Development. I previously completed a self-designed Bachelor's degree at the University of Richmond in Peace and Conflict with a concentration in disability in conflict regions.

What inspired A Global Voice for Autism? What was the organisation's founding story?
I established A Global Voice for Autism after meeting a mother and her daughter with autism in Jerusalem in 2012. They had traveled to Jerusalem to learn about the daughter's autism diagnosis and the mother told me that, after their trip, she planned to lock her daughter with autism in her home due to the stigma and lack of resources available in her community. I have a close friend with autism who grew up going to school and engaging in many community activities and it struck me that if my friend had simply been born somewhere else, she might have been denied these basic rights to education and community.

We are currently undergoing some rebranding after finding a clear need for trauma-informed education in the communities we serve. In addition to serving children with autism and their families and teachers, our new programs also use evidence-based practices to equip teachers and families with the skills to support children with trauma-related behavioral challenges in school and in the community.

Our mission is to equip teachers and families in conflict-affected communities with the skills to support and include children with autism and trauma-related behavioral challenges in their classrooms, homes and communities. Our vision is to create a world where children with diverse learning needs are included in their classrooms and to ensure that these children are not only physically present but that they are also learning alongside their peers.

What are some of the current campaigns and activities at A Global Voice for Autism? What are their goals / aims?
We currently have WTO projects on the table. Our first is a program site in Gaziantep, Turkey that will train Turkish and Syrian teachers and parents to support the children with autism and trauma-affected children they serve. Right now, Turkey is integrating Turkish schools and Syrian refugee schools and both school systems are seeking support for including children with unique learning needs in their classrooms. The second project is a weeklong inclusive and innovative education training camp in Algeria that aims to equip Algerian primary school teachers with the tools to meet the needs of diverse learners in their classrooms. This project is still in the early stages but we are working with some great Algerian partners to bring it to life.

In the work that you do, what are some of the challenges you encounter? How do you overcome them?
One of the biggest challenges we face as an organization is addressing the plethora of needs that individuals have in conflict-affected communities. From severe poverty to domestic violence to mental health issues, the challenges that our families and teachers face daily extend far beyond teaching children with learning differences. As an organization, we aim to create supportive networks for our families and teachers through our support and self-development groups as well as to establish a web of resources in the communities we serve so that we can refer our program participants to other organizations for support.

Would you like to share any positive anecdotes through your work?
I think that our families and teachers say it best. Here are some of their reflections about our programs:

“Honestly, this is the first time since I arrived here that I feel like I am being treated like a human rather than a refugee. Before I came here I was feeling so hopeless. We are in a very difficult situation and I felt stressed and ashamed of Reema’s behavior. You gave me hope. You made me feel like I could do something about Reema’s situation. You made me feel like my story matters. Now, I feel that I can do anything. Being an autism parent is a superpower. Now for the first time, I understand my power.”
-Lama, Mother of Reema, age 9, Mersin

“I find these skills to be so helpful, not just in supporting the children with autism, but also in supporting children who have experienced trauma. I have kids in my classroom who never used to talk who are now participating and kids who always used to disrupt who are now listening quietly. I never imagined I would see these changes. It’s not one big thing that I did to make it happen either. It’s many little changes that I learned here, and together, they make a big difference.”
 -Soumia, 2nd Grade Teacher, Mersin

“I used to get really angry at my sister. Whenever I would fold clothes, she would unfold them. Whenever I drew a picture, she would tear it up. I learned that sometimes she just doesn’t understand what she’s supposed to do. If I yell at her, she will just get angry too. But now, I can show her what she should be doing instead. That makes a difference.”