Wemmy de Maaker: On art, determination, and servin...

Wemmy de Maaker: On art, determination, and serving the best coffee in town

In our noisy and tumultuous world, it can often be difficult to find a safe place that makes us feel accepted and heard. But soon, in early 2022, a new spot in the Al Quoz neighborhood of Dubai will see a beloved community studio reopen – this time with more space and stories to offer its visitors.

Founded in 2010, Mawaheb is a community cafe and studio for adults with special needs, now known as ‘the determined ones’ following a directive by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Mawaheb is Arabic for ‘talent’ and is the first of its kind to open in the Middle East. The studio is a haven for people 18 and above who want to reach their highest potential through art and support in the development of necessary life skills, regardless of their ability. Beyond art, Mawaheb also helps students navigate social environments and equip them with daily life necessities such as learning how to use the metro, make friends and maintain these important relationships. The original storefront operated for 10 years in the historic Al Fahidi neighborhood before shutting down in 2020 due to the pandemic, and the team continued to host live online sessions to engage with visitors during the shutdown.

Wemmy de Maaker, Founder & Director of Mawaheb, is from the Netherlands. In 2002, with 2 children aged 5 and 6 at the time, she and her husband moved to Dubai due to job relocations. Wemmy has spent her entire professional career working with people of determination. She first noticed when she arrived in Dubai that there weren’t people of determination in malls or on the streets, so she became a volunteer at one of the schools for children of determination. There, she learned there weren’t any adequate facilities for young adults of determination and many places had a cutoff age of 18, leaving parents often wondering where they could bring their children after school. Wemmy decided to set up a studio in 2008 to help people of determination find purpose and self-expression through art and community.

Through Mawaheb, Wemmy wanted to bring awareness about people of determination. The more we get in touch with these beautiful people, she says, the more we can learn to accept and celebrate the diversity of humanity. Mawaheb was the first cafe in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to employ people of determination, and she was inspired to open her own after visiting a couple of similar places back in the Netherlands. She fondly recalls Het Volkshuis, a cafe in Zutphen, which was founded in 1898 to combat alcohol abuse and still stands today as a place where visitors can be served by people of determination. Wherever she goes in the world, she finds a place that employs these individuals. “It always brings a smile to my face”, she notes, “especially as the world shifts to become a more accommodating place for all people with all capabilities.” However, inclusivity is not only about hiring people of determination and including them in mainstream schools. Some of these individuals might prefer to work in a more sheltered workplace and be around their peers instead of interacting with the external world. Thus, social and community inclusion is integral as well. This is a big part of the work needed to continue driving awareness and education about people of determination for the upcoming generation. While Wemmy notices that there have been more initiatives for people of determination in the UAE, she understands that it’s only the beginning: “The term ‘people of determination’ is more powerful and positive, but we are only using this term in the UAE. We still have to use ‘people with a disability’ or ‘people with special needs’ for others.”

Over the years, the studio has made a name for itself as an essential part of Dubai’s art scene. People of determination are often very creatively talented but lack a safe and nurturing environment for artistic expression. At Mawaheb, all artwork is created by students who choose to express them- “My strongly held belief is that everyone, regardless of race, gender, nationality, and ability has the absolute right to be treated with dignity and respect.” 32 C Faran greets visitors with a smile and selves in their own unique way and every piece represents a feeling or cherished memory that helps them connect with the world around them. Wemmy believes that art is a common language for people, just like music and theatre. While some of us may communicate by speaking and writing, others navigate life through art. It’s also a vehicle that helps people process emotions. Often times in the determined community, it’s the peripheral people or caregivers who tell individuals what they should say or do – or in some cases, what they shouldn’t say or shouldn’t do. But with the right encouragement and support, these individuals have a chance to showcase their gift to the external world through artistic expression and be recognized for their creativity and imagination, not their differences.

To amplify the work of its students, Mawaheb has hosted several exhibits throughout the city and has partnered with local companies to bring collections to a variety of commercial spaces like the Dubai Airport (DXB), Mall of the Emirates, and the Dutch airline company KLM’s regional office, to name a few. The studio is also proud to have nurtured young artists, some of whom have held independent shows and earned their own workspace in galleries around town. Wemmy is overjoyed to have seen change in all the students as many people go on to achieve great success beyond Mawaheb: “Two of our students are solo artists and earn their money through art. Four students are working in a hotel and 2 of them even lived in the hotel apartment pre-COVID. This is inclusion at its best!” Then there are students who, after experimenting with yoga at Mawaheb, now leverage yoga to deal with pain or stress. Others have taken their learnings to world stages, such as becoming motivational speakers at global events like the 2020 Expo in Dubai. For the reopening of Mawaheb in early 2022, Wemmy has her sights set on a larger space in a brand-new facility of the Al Quoz neighborhood called GC Avenue. Since the announcement in 2019 of Dubai’s new vision for culture approved by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, there’s been various redevelopment works in progress to establish a new creative zone in Al Quoz. The zone aims to attract both regional and international audiences to the area and encourage artists to live, work and exhibit there as part of efforts to further engage the community. Mawaheb’s new location will be in the center of this cultural and innovation hub, thus making Al Quoz the perfect place to align with local society and inspire everyone to seek equality, acceptance, and inclusion. Plus, the neighborhood is more central and comes with a bonus: it has better access to convenient parking.

At Mawaheb, everyone and anyone is welcome. The team greets all visitors with open arms, a smile, and a hug – pre- COVID of course. It’s been eye-opening for many people who stumble into the space, Wemmy says, as they are touched by not only the positivity and warmth of the waiters, but also the beautiful artwork and inviting atmosphere. So, there was no doubt that the revival of Mawaheb deserved an even bigger space to embrace even more artwork and talent. It will also consist of a 3,000-sqft community cafe, twice the size of its predecessor, where the community can participate in workshops, learn from each other, and meet up for leisure or work to enjoy 34 C delicious cake and coffee (supplied by Orbis Coffee, one of the first boutique roasters in the Middle East!). It’s also a great setting for the Mawaheb students to practice their social and communication skills by working and exercising the basics of hospitality. At the warehouse area next door, the Mawaheb students will work under the supervision of professional teachers and through the medium of art, yoga and dance on their life skills, communication and social skills. Wemmy says the team’s got plenty of activities planned for the new year including soap making and basket weaving courses. They’re also inviting experts to give talks on important subjects, for example, workshops related to people of determination, health, nutrition and more. There will be afterschool sessions, and all content will be available for the determined community as well as to the public. Some of Wemmy’s favorite moments at Mawaheb are interactions with the students. “I love the morning sessions with the yoga or dance classes. The energy and happiness you feel in the early morning is something you won’t find at other places,” she reflects. There isn’t a regular day-today for Wemmy at the studio, but she does meet each student to see how they are doing every morning. With the leadership team, it’s important for all instructors to get together daily to discuss the program and important issues related to the students. As the Mawaheb brand grows, there’s been a lot of interest from people looking for volunteer positions these days, but Wemmy makes sure to always check in with her existing partners while meeting with new ones to build even greater ideas for the future. What has all of this taught her? “People love to be around people of determination,” she says, “but we still have to bring a lot of awareness about them worldwide. It would be a dream to replicate Mawaheb. Abu Dhabi would be a good start, and then maybe India.”

When asked about all that’s to come, Wemmy says she and Mawaheb have more to do. She wants to connect with schools and institutions that are working with and for people of determination to learn and discuss best practices: “We’re all working on an island, and I would like the Mawaheb community cafe to be a place where we can share our knowledge and inspire each other.” Shifting her gaze to the world, Wemmy says she hopes to inspire people at an international level to get in touch with their local communities and identify their own ways to engage with people of determination. “Try to find a cafe in your neighborhood where you will be served by people of determination,” she recommends, “your coffee will taste much better!”

To get in touch, follow Wemmy and the Mawaheb Dubai team at @mawahebdubai on Instagram and MawahebDubai on Facebook. New official website to come shortly.