It was 2002, and Asmabi Kareem had just gone into labour. She and her husband, Abdul Kareem, a businessman in Kerala’s Kunnamangalam town , were ecstatic about the arrival of the newborn who would soon join their family of three.
This Diwali, gift some joy to the little folks at Snehalaya, an NGO that fosters children of sex workers, minors rescued from the sex trade and children orphaned by and/or living with HIV.
But when the doctor left the labour room, he had a troubled expression on his face. “Congratulations! You’ve been blessed with a girl. But, she is missing forearms and a foot.”
While it was a painful reality to process, Abdul and Asmabi only counted their blessings. They named the baby Noor, after the Arabic word for light, and promised to do whatever it took to ensure that she grew up to be a happy and healthy child.
Today, at 17, Noor Jaleela is a budding artist who not only paints but also sings, plays the violin, and has shared the stage with stalwarts such as KS Chithra and Stephen Devassy.
In December 2017, ‘Dream of Us,’ an NGO working with children with disabilities, featured two of her paintings at their exhibition ‘Swapnachithra,’ at Kozhikode Lalitha Kala Akademi Art Gallery.
The Better India (TBI) got in touch with her to document her journey.
Growing up Different
Noor grew up in a very sheltered environment. When she would get upset after seeing her able-bodied classmates in school, her sister, Aysha, would calm her by saying that her arms and feet would grow soon. “It was a white lie. But it made me happy,” says Noor.
Her father, on the other hand, maintained a scrapbook which had newspaper cuttings and pictures of people who suffered disabilities that were more severe when compared to Noor.
“When I saw the stories of some of these personalities, including Nick Vujicic and Marc Elliot, I was motivated. They overcame their disabilities to carve a niche for themselves. I wanted to do exactly that.”
While her family never treated her differently, the world could be a cruel place at times. “Strangers would stare at my underdeveloped arms, or pass comments on the way I walked. Many schools rejected me due to my disability. Some even went to the extent of saying that studying with me would affect the progress and development of other kids,” she remembers.
Hope entered her life when she got accepted into the Navajyothi School in Kunnamangalam. The conducive and supportive atmosphere at the school helped her family discover her many talents.
“Once, when Aysha left her record book home, I mistook it for a colouring book and got to work. Though the record book was damaged, my parents realised that I could paint really well!” mentions Noor.
In Class 7, when her school dedicated two slots of the day for extra-curricular activities, Noor’s best friend Shreya opted for the violin class, and she followed suit. While Abdul and Asmabi wondered how their daughter would pull it off without forearms, they bought her a small violin.
But Noor had it figured out. “I’d seen videos of people playing the cello, and asked myself, why don’t I try playing the violin just like the cello?”
She soon tied a hairband to her arm and fixed the bow of the violin on it and started playing the instrument in the reverse direction, It took some time to master, but she managed it successfully.
Accepting, Going Beyond Disability
Today, Noor is a student of St Joseph’s College, Devagiri, and wants to attempt the coveted civil service exams and become an IAS officer. She was fitted with artificial limbs at Medical College Hospital, Kozhikode, and can walk without much difficulty.
“Acceptance was the first step for me. I knew nothing could alter my condition, but that did not stop me from finding newer ways to make the best of my life, to explore my potential, undertake new skills and motivate others around me.”
She adds how her family and Dr Anwar Husain, the Director of the Institute of Palliative Medicine in Calicut are her role models.
Noor and her mother joined Dr Husain’s NGO as volunteers and have been impacting several lives over the last eight months.
“With my mother, I tend to patients at the institute who are bedridden and have lost all hope. We provide them with maximum care and support during their numbered days. I try to keep them smiling by spending time with them, speaking, reading, painting and singing for them.”
Dr Husain and Noor have clearly formed a mutual admiration society. “Even though she says I am her role model, it is Noor that inspired me. She is such a strong young woman, and her optimism is infectious. She is an exceptional motivational speaker too. We are very proud of her,” he quips.
Noor ends the conversation, with an important message for our readers.
“People with disabilities don’t need your sympathy. Instead, give them your care, support and motivation. Help them become independent. The first step towards doing that is inclusivity in all spheres of life—education, job opportunities, accessible public space, transport facilities or rights. You can help create a barrier-free society to help them move ahead in life.”
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)