In July 2007, an unusual event took place in Yemen through the life of my son, Luke. Luke has Down Syndrome and although I had been on many trips to Yemen, I had never taken Luke. For me, Luke is a gift from God and I am not ashamed to take him anywhere. However, I was concerned about taking Luke to Yemen because he has some health issues and I was also concerned about how Yemenis might receive Luke. In all of my trips to Yemen, I had not seen Yemenis out in public with their special needs children. I learned that there is often a sense of shame associated with a family who has a child with disabilities. Luke was at the age where he was able to tell when someone was making fun or insulting him—he had even cried over incidences like this. So, I struggled with putting Luke in a vulnerable place in Yemen.
On that July trip, Luke was ten years old. After we arrived, we went with two of our dear Yemeni friends—Aisha Jumaan and Jamila Jumaan—to visit Bab Al-Yemen, the market in the old city of Sana’a. This was a hard choice because the market is very crowded and Luke would be susceptible. At one point, Luke was tired of walking and wanted me to carry him. After carrying him for a while, I became tired of holding Luke’s 90lb. body and I needed to put him down.
I looked for a solitary place to rest Luke hoping that no one would notice him when I put him down. So, I found place which seemed quiet and inconspicuous, and sat Luke down on some stone steps in front of a small shop. Immediately after putting Luke down, a Yemeni man came very close to Luke, getting right up in his face, staring at him and touching him. I was upset by this, and started to approach him to ask him to back away. Then this man looked for another man. Now, these two men came very close to Luke, and again, they were staring at him and touching him. They stepped back continuing to stare. I was getting more upset because I was not sure what was going on and wondered if they were making fun of Luke. Then, the two Yemeni men shouted in Arabic to the people nearby and within a few seconds a whole crowd of twenty to thirty men had gathered around Luke. They were all reaching, trying to touch Luke and get near him. The men were straining to get as close as they could to Luke.
My friend, Aisha Jumaan, asked the men why they were doing this. Aisha listened to their story and then explained the story to me in English. I was amazed at what she told me. I learned that all these Yemeni men were from the same extended family. They were cousins, brothers, uncles, etc. and in this family was a boy with Down Syndrome, named Arafat. Sadly, Arafat had recently died. This Yemeni family deeply loved and cherished Arafat as a gift of God to their family. He was the most important member of their family and they were grieving over his death.
Aisha then told me…. “This step where Luke is sitting is the exact same step that Arafat would sit every day of his life!” These Yemeni men were reacting the way that they were because they were stunned when they saw Luke, a boy with Down Syndrome, sitting in the exact spot where Arafat would sit. They wanted to touch Luke because they thought God had sent an angel to comfort their family. The men were in tears. They believed that God arranged for Luke to sit in that same spot in order to bring healing and comfort to the grieving family. Tears filled my eyes as I saw the tears in the eyes of the Yemeni men—and we were all amazed and astonished at God’s blessing.
The scene ended with all the Yemeni men lifting Luke up in the air and cheering for him and chanting “Arafat, Arafat!” As I watched my son Luke grinning above the crowd and raising his little arms in celebration, I knew it was a sign for me to do something to help families like Arafat’s family. In that moment, something was birthed in my heart and I knew I was supposed to help the Yemeni families that have special needs children.
Here is a photo that was taken just after the Yemeni men held Luke up in the air cheering "Arafat, Arafat!"
Mike Griffin is Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies and he is Chair of the Intercultural Studies Department at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, FL. Mike has over 25 years of intercultural experience comprising over 50 trips to the beautiful country of Yemen. Mike enjoys teaching and mentoring students to embrace a love for people of all cultures, but especially for the people of Yemen. Mike’s current research interest is in the field of anthropology. His research paper for Harvard University focuses on persons with disabilities in Yemen.
Copyright © 2023 Michael D. Griffin, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.