JEDDAH: Seven years ago Sawsan Abdullah underwent brain surgery which resulted in partial blindness, weakness in the right side of her body and partial memory loss.
“After surgery to remove a cyst, I started a new life with a blank slate,” she said. “I had difficulty speaking and understanding, difficulty in walking and even smiling.”
She was a medical laboratory specialist who had practiced karate.
“I was working in the emergency room. All of a sudden, samples used to slip from my right hand. I couldn’t walk and I went into a coma,” said Abdullah, 33.
Her determination to recover led her to where she is now.
“It was a long journey with physical therapy, and I became a motivator for community sports with the Saudi General Sports Authority (GSA). I walk, and practice Tai chi,” she told Arab News.
“I don’t practice karate anymore. Tai chi is a calm, slow sport that helped me to regain my balance.”
Her project, Walking Friendship, includes walking and running activities for the blind and visually impaired.
“Blind people in our group walk with a sighted volunteer at the right time and place, and they create friendships and exchange experiences. It can be done individually or in a group,” she said.
Abdullah said her project has been warmly welcomed by everyone who has heard about it.
“I hope it reaches all blind and visually impaired people. I have had heartwarming responses from everyone, and most importantly from my blind and visually impaired friends,” she said.
“The project is being put into effect currently in Jeddah as I am based here. It is very important for me to expand my reach to all blind and visually impaired people who want to walk. There are friends outside Jeddah who really liked the idea, so I must start.”
The project began when Abdullah attended a gathering at the Ebsar Foundation, a rehabilitation center for the visually impaired.
“A year ago, I did not know many blind or visually impaired people. At the Ebsar Foundation they were very welcoming, as I was personally approaching the blind and visually impaired in the audience to explain the idea to them and get their contact information,” she said.
The group officially started in January with women, then men joined too. It currently has 80 members.
Abdullah would like to see her project grow and receive support from the GSA.
“We want an official permit to practice walking/running with our blind and visually impaired friends in Jeddah,” she said. “We want support from the GSA so that this team will be under their umbrella; and from this, we will come out with athletes who will represent Saudi Arabia in para-athletics.
“Transportation for my blind and visually impaired friends is personally covered. We would like support in transportation so that this activity continues to grow.”
Volunteers receive full instruction before beginning the walks. “They are given explanatory pictures of walking with the blind and the visually impaired,” said Abdullah. “During the walk, the blind or visually impaired person notes a few things to the volunteer. I take these notes in general, and I send these notes to the volunteers after the walk.”
Abdullah says she wants to see more activities offered for this group in society. “One-on-one sessions facilitate a connection between the blind participant and the coach or club, just like we did in the karate sessions and bicycling. My goal is to have sports clubs accepting the blind and visually impaired,” she added.