Egyptian origamist Kirollos Sami is a 21-year-old special-needs artist on a mission. His exhibition at the Music Library of the Cairo Opera House probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for the awe-inspiring support system led by his mother Germine Magdi.
Kirollos has a hearing impairment that affected his language development as he grew up. His mother Magdi speaks on his behalf, telling Al-Ahram Weekly that together with his father their intensive attempts to communicate with their son have led him to be able to make some conversation. The family has also trained him to deal with society and everyday life.
His family opted not to enrol him in a school for special-needs students specialising in hearing and speech. “We took the difficult decision not to enrol him in a school where he could learn sign language and earn a certificate for a chance of eventually seeing him learning to speak and having a limited education. Learning sign language would have terminated all hopes for him to speak,” Magdi said.
He was home-schooled and enrolled in an elementary school where he coped and interacted with his peers, she said. “Our goal was for Kirollos to learn to lead a life in society, regardless of the academic education. He did learn the basics of the Arabic and English languages as well as mathematics,” she added.
By grade nine, the education authorities decided his hearing impairment had surpassed the level according to which he could stay at a regular school, and he was transferred to a vocational school to attend preparatory and secondary classes. A few years later, his family decided it was time to cease his formal education altogether, Magdi recounted.
“Twenty years ago, there were far fewer speech centres than there are now. We resorted to those in hospitals, churches and mosques for week-round intensive speech sessions until he improved,” she said.
As much as Magdi, Kirollos’s father provided the necessary financial and moral support his son needed, she said. “His father and I started to learn how he talked and interpreted things to be able to communicate with him,” she added, saying that within the family circle they got rid of the names for words such as “father, grandfather, uncle and cousin, so that he could more easily correlate the names with the figures and improve his ability to speak.
“At that time, we had not learned there was such a thing as the Montessori method of education, but it was how we unknowingly helped Kirollos develop. We integrated numbers and colours into everything in life, and then we found he was passionate about puzzles and electronics. We fed his passion, but we had to stop the electronics after he connected a wire to an electric source and received a jolt,” she said.
“When Kirollos was in school, we obliged him to do his homework even if he didn’t fully understand it. By copying the words on paper, he learned how to draw. He filled a sketchbook with drawings of birds and animals, which developed his imagination incredibly. Until one day he stopped drawing.
“This was when he went out with his friends on a visit to the Al-Sawy Culture Wheel in Zamalek, which was hosting a workshop on origami. He was the only one among his peers to make an origami of a pigeon in motion. That’s when he fell in love with origami. At the end of the workshop the teachers gave him a pile of origami papers and a magazine containing origami models.”
He returned home and made several models of origami pigeons, and his school asked him to decorate its library with origami. “Then the school honoured him with a certificate, which boosted his morale and made him feel like an important person. The move positively affected him,” she said.
Kirollos logged on to the Internet to learn more about origami. He trained himself to fold paper into different shapes. He made 50 copies of each model, and he distributed them among his family and friends. “His hard work and refined skill have now paid off,” his mother commented.
FIRST EXHIBITION: Kirollos’s exhibition at the Music Library of the Cairo Opera House is his first official exhibition as an artist.
“At the Opera grounds, artist Magdi Saber saw Kirollos’ work and told him ‘you have an incredible talent. I will support you.’ And he did, offering Kirollos an exhibition space at the Music Library,” Magdi said.
He went on to train in origami for eight years, six of which at home. “Then he held three exhibitions at the US Embassy in Cairo, another at a charity organisation, and several others at different churches. He has won several awards,” his mother said.
He has also held many origami workshops for children and adults. “Unfortunately, he can no longer hold workshops in state cultural centres. They refuse because of his condition, wondering how he can manage to explain to the participants,” she said.
“But at private and international schools they love him. Kirollos is currently presenting an origami workshop at an American school, and throughout the past school year he has held several workshops at many schools after which he received a certificate of recognition in appreciation of his art that he dedicates to society.
“Kirollos adopts a practical method. He communicates with children in simple words that may be vague, but he always reaches out to them with his art. He can easily recognise at which step a child’s origami figure went wrong, and he teaches the child how to do it right. At the classes an assistant is always present.
“The children treat Kirollos a bit like a foreigner whose language they don’t understand. But with his skill and friendliness, he can break the language barrier within a few minutes and communicate with the children through his origami,” she continued.
“When I found out about Kirollos’ special needs, I completely gave up my time and effort to him. His father, an engineer, didn’t only take care of him financially. He also sacrificed a lot of things for Kirollos’ sake, including lucrative job opportunities abroad. His father decided to dedicate his all to us. The thing about our family is that it’s tightly knit. Our aim, as parents, was and remains to provide our full support to Kirollos and buy him everything he needs. It was his father, our backbone, who made him the tools he needed for his origami when they were not available in the country,” Magdi said.
Kirollos has two younger sisters who “cope with him in a magnificent manner.” When he went to school, his mother wanted him to depend on himself.
“In the beginning, he took the school bus, and then I started taking him myself to help him memorise the way. Every once in while I’d wait for him after school at a farther point until he started taking the metro on his own, eventually making the trip back home all by himself. I was worried sick about him, especially since his hearing impairment could impede his ability to deal with vehicles on the street. I gave him several instructions to follow, though, which developed his visual attention skills. Now he goes about life by memorising and visual learning,” she added.
After he left school, “a miracle occurred. He was offered a job in a small firm. The job required hearing and speech abilities to buy items and pay attention to the orders of the firm’s employees and others. This opportunity provided him with additional speech skills and was a practical application of coping with society,” she said.
“Kirollos became an employee with a steady income. He toiled to achieve self-worth, even if only through a simple job. After a record time of 15 days, he had memorised the names and looks of all the employees, and he started to tell us about them every day after he came back from work. This helped his memory to become sharper and gave him a confidence boost. Like any normal person, Kirollos wanted to learn and advance in life,” his mother said.
He will now be leaving his current job as soon as he starts his new job as an origami teacher. Having a smart phone has also helped him make new strides. He loves watching foreign films, and he memorises them by heart, whether comedy, sci-fi, horror, action or any other genre. He also loves watching National Geographic. “This channel has helped him to develop his imagination,” Magdi noted.
Kirollos now hopes to exhibit his origami works abroad and compete in international competitions. After all, according to the testimonies of his origami teachers, he is a professional origamist.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly