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She raised a son with autism. Now they provide meals to lower-income families with special needs kids


SINGAPORE: Madam Faraliza Zainal and her toddler son were bawling their eyes out.

They had just gone to a nearby park to play when it began to pour. With their plans ruined, she tried to bundle him back into their vehicle – but he refused to get in.

It took her a long time to persuade him. On the drive home, she found herself in tears and at her wit’s end.

“What do you want?” she repeatedly screamed at the boy. He continued crying for the next two hours and did not respond.

In fact, he could not respond.

Mdm Faraliza had been in denial about his autism spectrum disorder, which typically presents as a speech delay or lack of communication in early childhood.

Autism is usually reliably diagnosed when a child is three, with the symptoms often appearing at 18 months.

The park incident finally spurred Mdm Faraliza to start taking courses in how to manage children with special needs, and eventually begin a non-profit organisation – My Inspiring Journey (MIJ) Special Education Hub – to help kids like her son, Mohd Ashraf Mohd Ali.


Madam Faraliza Zainal and her son Ashraf during The Purple Parade, standing by Ashraf's Cafe booth. (Photo: MIJ Hub)

In recent years, Mdm Faraliza's charitable efforts have expanded to providing home-cooked meals to about three dozen lower-income families who also have children with special needs, such as global developmental delay and Down’s syndrome. Many of them are former students.

The Takeout Campaign is now in its fourth year, but a lack of funds last year led Mdm Faraliza and her team to reduce their weekly food deliveries to once a month.

This year, during the month of Ramadan, they have returned to delivering freshly made iftar meals – which are eaten after sunset to break fast – every weekend to families around the island. This adds up to about 170 meals each day for eight days.

CNA followed their preparation and distribution process last Sunday (Mar 26) and spoke to Mdm Faraliza about her family’s journey in raising her son Ashraf, who is now 23.


A beneficiary in Woodlands receiving iftar meals from Ashraf. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)


Mdm Faraliza told CNA that her and her husband’s experience with caring for their son, as well as their financial struggles as parents of a child with special needs, meant that she could relate with many of her current beneficiaries.

“In the initial years when Ashraf was first diagnosed, I would describe it as a rollercoaster,” she said.

“Emotionally, you’re not stable … and those were the days where there wasn’t much awareness about autism. So as a young parent, I was clueless about this.”

Mdm Faraliza frequently argued with her spouse, Mr Mohammad Ali Dawood, who was working full-time in the aviation industry. The couple had already undergone a tough period when he was retrenched a few years earlier during the 1997 financial crisis.


Founders of MIJ Hub, Mr Mohammad Ali Dawood and Madam Faraliza Zainal. (Photo: MIJ Hub)

For the first two years of Ashraf’s life, Mdm Faraliza did not want to accept that he was “special”. His daily meltdowns, including the one at the park, left them frustrated and uncertain about what to do.

"I remember when he had his first meltdown, it was so tough for me because I didn't understand what he wanted,” she recounted.

“I myself can get angry because to me it was like, ‘Why is this child being this way?’ Because he cannot express himself clearly.”

It was only when Mdm Faraliza began taking courses and learning more about autism that she began accepting Ashraf for who he was. They soon welcomed two other children into the family as well.

But the strain on their finances meant that they had to tighten their purse strings.

Apart from autism, which required costly therapy sessions, Ashraf suffered from a rare disease called tuberous sclerosis which led to epileptic fits. This meant frequent – and expensive – trips to the hospital.


When Ashraf began attending religious classes with his younger sister, things took another turn for the worse. His classmates called him names like “gila” (crazy in Malay), once leading the young boy to hide under a table.

Concerned for his mental well-being, Mdm Faraliza withdrew Ashraf from the classes. But the boy saw that his sister was enjoying herself and asked whether he could continue.

That was when Mdm Faraliza quit her job and set up MIJ Hub in 2011, offering Islamic religious classes every weekend for children with special needs. It has since expanded to accept those with special needs aged two to 30 years old from all walks of life.

More than 300 students are currently under the programmes available at its three branches in the Geylang Serai area, Woodlands and Jurong. These programmes include a day activity centre, inclusive student care and a work-readiness adult programme.

Mdm Faraliza said: “We saw MIJ grow as Ashraf grew because when his needs grew, there was a demand for him to be put in a school where he felt safe and comfortable.

“So we opened up daily classes for those who are not academically inclined but more vocational-inclined. From time to time, we have other programmes based on what the demand is from parents out there – parents like me with children with special needs.”

In 2018, MIJ set up the eponymous Ashraf’s Cafe in the same building as MIJ's former premises at 168 Changi Road, selling Western food at affordable prices.


Staff members of Ashraf's Cafe. (Photo: MIJ Hub)

The social enterprise eatery employed and trained those with special needs to be able to cook, serve food and develop social skills in a safe environment. However, it closed its physical premises last year after the COVID-19 pandemic severely impacted its business and the lease expired.

It now only takes online orders, and MIJ has also since set up a stall at the Methodist Girls’ School canteen.

Mdm Faraliza then came up with The Takeout Campaign in October 2020. Her team initially conducted a survey among their lower-income students and discovered that many only had one meal a day.

To her dismay, she also realised that these families treated instant noodles, which were cheap and easy to make, as a staple food.

“That’s how the campaign came about. I have experienced that moment,” she added. “Finances were tight; food was not great. We can’t eat outside, we can’t eat good food."

MIJ then began delivering meals up to three times a week and received good feedback. Mdm Faraliza said that some families kept packets of food to eat at night.

“Some of them even commented that (when they see) our employees with special needs deliver the food to them, they’re inspired that their own child will be able to contribute back to the community,” she added.

Up until the end of last year, MIJ had raised about S$200,000 and delivered more than 22,000 meals. The company then fell short of funds and gradually cut its delivery frequency to once a month.

Earlier this year, it turned to fundraising campaign platform GIVE.asia to fund The Takeout Campaign. It has raised about S$21,000 so far which covers iftar meals for the whole month of Ramadan.

Last weekend saw MIJ employees and volunteers from various organisations, like the Singapore Management University, get together to help prepare the meals.

Mr Hamizul Hakim Muhammad, 27, has been a part of The Takeout Campaign since its launch three years ago. He oversees a group of about 60 youth volunteers from Masjid Al Abdul Razak, a mosque located several minutes from MIJ Hub’s current premises.

“I think it’s a way to contribute to the community and help out during Ramadan,” said Mr Hamizul.


MIJ volunteers at Changi Road cooking curry for iftar meals. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)

MIJ staff and volunteers cooking and preparing food for the iftar meals. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)

MIJ volunteers cooking in the kitchen at Changi Road. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)

Iftar meals prepared and ready for collection. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)

Ashraf helping to prepare the iftar meals for delivery. (Photo: CNA/Raydza Rahman)

Volunteers also planned a special day on Apr 1 where MIJ students put on a performance and break fast with their friends and families.

Moving forward with The Takeout Campaign, Mdm Faraliza said that she hopes to raise more funds and return to providing their beneficiaries with meals on a weekly basis.

While things have gotten better for Mdm Faraliza's family, she said that she has one piece of advice for parents with special needs children: Do not take too long to accept them for who they are.

"I made that mistake for two years ... I realised early intervention is very important," she added.

"A lot of the time, as parents, we want them to meet our expectations but we forget that the child has certain limitations ... For example, if you have a child with autism, why are they flapping their hands? Why are they covering their ears? Why are they always shouting?

"We have to enter their world and understand why they do that. Only when we understand them better, then we can manage them better."


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