Rafik on the road

Omneya Yousry, Tuesday 7 May 2024

An Egyptian initiative goes out to other Arab nations to support the blind and visually impaired in novel and creative ways.

Rafik s family, volunteers and beneficiaries
Rafik s family, volunteers and beneficiaries


With a heart full of compassion and a steadfast commitment to making a difference, here’s the inspiring story of Rafik Kafif, a remarkable initiative that is transforming the lives of blind and visually impaired individuals across the Arab world. Rafik Kafif, or blind friend, was founded with a simple yet powerful mission: to provide comprehensive support and resources to those living with visual impairments, empowering them to overcome the challenges they face and achieve their full potential.

Through a multifaceted approach, Rafik Kafif offers a lifeline of assistance. “Rafik is a digital free youth volunteer initiative that serves more than 2,000 blind people from various parts of the Arab world, accompanied by 8,000 volunteers from the ocean to the Gulf,” Marwa Abu Salem, founder and manager of Rafik. “It is distinguished by providing service around the clock and by diversifying its services, including audio recording for textbooks and scientific research, file conversion for ease of use, and providing companions, in addition to free online courses and explanations.

“In the free Rafik volunteer initiative, we ask individuals to participate in reading books and lectures via audio. By so doing, volunteers play an essential role in making educational content accessible to those who have hearing disabilities or prefer auditory learning. By addressing the diverse needs of the visually impaired community, this initiative is making a profound impact, one life at a time.”

What sets Rafik Kafif apart is its deep understanding of the unique struggles faced by those with visual impairments in the Arab region. The team works tirelessly to bridge the gap, ensuring that no one is left behind. Whether it’s guiding individuals through the complexities of daily tasks, advocating for inclusive policies, or fostering a sense of community and belonging, Rafik Kafif is a beacon of hope and empowerment. Rafik provides complete blind services, including offering a road companion service, whereby a blind person in need of a travel companion can get in touch with the administration which will confirm his identity for security and comfort, and an assigned companion volunteer will be sent to the destination.

Along with writing for the person, it also offers a companion service for academic tests. After making sure the student satisfies the university requirements, the companion will accompany the student during the exam. Free training courses are also available in a variety of fields, subjects, and languages. For those who chant prayers and read aloud from the Holy Quran, we provide training courses in melodies and vocal inflection. Every week, we have novel listening sessions where authors and poets are invited to share their books and creative endeavors and hone their specialised talents,” Abu Salem said.

Rafik was founded on 4 January 2023 on World Braille Day, with the goal of being the first non-profit youth project that specialises in providing moral assistance to the visually impaired remotely in reading books and academic research. “At Rafik, we think that there is a win-win scenario for both the visually impaired person and the volunteer. Not just those who are blind benefit from it. The advantages and moral advancement in rearing children and youth serve the entire society. A society and an entire generation can be transformed by the volunteer’s sense of the joy of giving and his comprehension of the concepts of solidarity and inclusion,” Abu Salem added. 

To celebrate its first year of creation, the Rafik Initiative for the Blind arranged a free cultural and archaeological tour. In the presence of former minister, late Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour, Ambassador Mohamed Nasreddin, and Khaled Hanafi, spokesperson for the National Council for Disability, at the African Society’s headquarters in Zamalek, Cairo.

The first stop on the tour was the Book of Qaitbay in the Citadel and the Library of Islamic Civilisation housed inside the Sabil. Material and in-kind rewards for the Ramadan cultural competition it had organised were awarded to 10 of its members. Ayman Mansour, an expert at the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, researcher Khaled Mustafa, and professor Ibrahim Awad, a professor of Arabic literature at the Faculty of Arts at Ain Shams University, were among the cultural figures who presented the honours.

The tour continued by learning about the historical and archaeological features of the mosques belonging to Sultan Hassan, Al-Rifai, and Ahmed Ibn Tulun, along with the required archaeological justification provided by experts. The visit concluded with an archaeological tour of the Gayer Anderson Museum, followed by an explanation of the subject matter from the facility’s managers.

Abu Salem said, “Rafik’s goal is to provide dignified care for blind and visually impaired people so that we do not have to wait for someone to request that the administration host a certain training session or register a particular book. Still, we ought to always behave proactively. There will be a comprehensive library of both academic and non-study materials, and all textbooks for every educational level across all educational systems in Egypt and the Arab world will be accessible. One of our current accomplishments is that everyone may access Rafik’s archive, which has over 150,000 volumes on a variety of sciences and arts.” Rafik’s main dedicated team of volunteers are 25 people who work 24/7 to provide support on various platforms and WhatsApp groups for audio recording and translation. 

Through the generosity and the unwavering dedication of its volunteers, Rafik Kafif has expanded its reach, touching the lives of thousands of individuals across the Arab world. Their success stories are a testament to the transformative power of compassion and the belief that every person, regardless of their abilities, deserves the opportunity to thrive.

Mohamed Al-Sayed Mohamed, 29, a master’s researcher at the Faculty of Arts in the Department of History at Ain Shams University, and a Rafik beneficiary said there were “not enough words to express how much help the initiative provides us. The idea that someone spends his time reading aloud to me online, looking for books with me, or recording a book or article for someone he does not know for free is very powerful.

“I find the accompaniment service to be really helpful, and also the cultural gatherings are what sets the initiative apart. I find that both the weekly book readings and the field trips to ancient sites are beneficial for our education. In my opinion, the entire initiative is a single family that helps one another.” 

Another beneficiary of Rafik, Ghada Khalil from Palestine, told us about her experience. “I left Gaza last September to attend a regional conference in Tunis. I was prevented from entering the Gaza Strip on my return in October because of the events there. When I first arrived in Egypt, I had a hard time adjusting and started asking for assistance from friends and organisations. As I became familiar with the Rafik Initiative, Marwa started to recognise my requirements and has continued to provide me with a variety of forms of support.

“Several volunteers who would accompany me on my travels were introduced to me by her. Throughout the Arab world, the initiative is regarded as qualitative and has made a significant number of disabled people accessible, offering them a wide range of services and social integration opportunities. Through the efforts of the volunteers who participate in the Rafik Initiative, I hope that its work will continue. I am really grateful to them and wish them all the best of luck as each one of them makes a distinct impact.”

Manager Abu Salem described the challenges. “To begin with, the volunteers’ dialects present a barrier to the initiative. It is exceptionally challenging to read and comprehend if the book is written in the Moroccan dialect for an Iraqi beneficiary. “Consequently, it is challenging to find a volunteer in a short period of time who can record in classical Arabic, making it understandable to people of all Arab ethnicities. Distributing books among multiple volunteers to ensure timely completion is another challenge.

“I am grateful to all the Rafik volunteers; they are the real advocates for the project and for me personally. Whenever a volunteer comes to me with a fresh idea or expresses gratitude for being able to easily conduct humanitarian work from their homes while also reaching another country, it’s one of the finest things I receive.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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