Humans of New York covers Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi

Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York will be doing a special series on athletes, coaches, families, and volunteers participating at the Games.

At the 2019 World Games in Abu Dhabi, we are excited to share that Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York will be doing a special series on athletes, coaches, families, and volunteers participating at the Games.

What started as a photography project in 2010 with a goal to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers, and create an exhaustive catalogue of the city’s inhabitants, soon turned into a global phenomenon of quotes and short stories that capture the spirit of humanity. Here is the first post:

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“Sometimes my brain processes things difficult. I just need more time. And in school everything needs to be fast. You always have to know what’s going to happen next and it can be hard to make friends. My dad was always my biggest supporter. He’d come into my room at night and we would talk for hours. He’d tell me: ‘Your stories will make you famous one day.’ He’d show my writing to friends and family and I would get compliments. I didn’t know what to do after he died. I stayed in my room for six years. I wrote thirty-one stories. All I did was write. I only came out to eat. I wouldn’t speak to anyone. Last year my sister convinced me to visit an art studio for people with special needs. She asked me every single day, until one day she finally said: ‘I’m going to the studio and you’re coming with me.’ At first I stood in the corner. After so many years of doing nothing, it was hard for me to see people having fun. It was like a burning anger and then it came out in tears. I decided to join the group. The studio slowly opened me up to the world again. I began to make friends. I realized that so many things had happened while I was locked away. And while some things die, other things are being created. I understand now how beautiful that is. And I’ve started talking again. For the longest time my sister would beg me: ‘Please Asma, say something.’ Now she wishes I’d talk less.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“I first met him when he was thirteen years old. He lives in one of the most remote regions of Brunei. You can only get there by river. There’s no running water, no electricity, no utilities. Certainly no special education facilities. He came alone to our city looking for assistance. When I first met him, his trousers were completely torn. He was so small for his age. I’m a special education teacher, so I said to myself: ‘I’m going to help this boy.’ He lived with me for four years. It was the only way he could get training. I coached him on the Special Olympics soccer team. I tried to give him structure. I told him: take a bath every day, go to sleep early, always go to school. The advice had to be continuous because he forgets very easily. But I did everything for him. He became like my son. But he never called me ‘father.’ Always ‘teacher.’ And I never forced him to stay. He’d leave home for a few nights at a time, but he’d always come back. I was really hoping he’d live with me until he got a job. It’s dangerous for him to be on his own because he needs guidance. His family has many bad habits. But last October he turned eighteen, and he chose to go home. He reaches out to me sometimes when his family runs out of food. Or when he needs money. He knows that I can never say ‘no.’ At first it was very difficult. I worried nonstop. I’d always ask his friends: ‘Where is Azril now?’ But I have to accept I’ve done all I can. He has become an adult. When we return from the games, I think it’s time for me to let go.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“I’m here to support my older brother. You’d never know he has special needs by looking at him. But what you can learn in one hour, it might take him three or four years. Even though I’m younger, he’s always looked up to me. He writes on my Facebook wall all the time. He’s so proud of my accomplishments. On this trip he’s been sleeping in the bed next to me, but he still texts me that he loves me so much. My mom says he was so happy when I was born. He saw me as an example. Anything that I did—he wanted to do. He learned to feed himself after seeing me eat. He stopped using diapers once I did. It’s getting harder for him to copy me now that we’re adults, but the desire is still there. He wants to drive like me. He wants a girlfriend like me. He wanted a job at the grocery store so badly that he cried during the interview. He wants a family. And a house. And a car. And I want him to get there too. But I’m not sure he realizes how difficult those things will be. There’s another level he has to get past. Cooking is still difficult. And washing clothes. And counting money. We’re just not there yet. So I have to be ready for him to live with me for the rest of my life. And I have to hope that my future family will be OK with that. My brother wants to be independent so badly. And all of us want him to get there. But if he doesn’t, I’m here.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“We’re from the small island country of Vanuatu. I don’t know anything about sports, but nobody else wanted to coach the team. So I volunteered. Special Olympics gave me a list of sports and I chose the long jump. But two of my athletes couldn’t jump. So we moved to the javelin throw. But that was too hard to throw, so now we’re competing in the shot put competition. When I first met Monick, she’d never really left her house before. She couldn’t look me in the eye. And she was afraid of the shot put. She’d drop it on the ground every time I handed it to her. She’d hide her hands behind her back. But I invited her whole family out to train with us. Everyone participated. And that gave her confidence. On days we weren’t training, her mother gave her coconuts and rocks to throw. When it was time to compete, nobody knew if she’d be able to get on the plane. She was so scared. She was crying and clinging to me the entire flight. Once we arrived, we had to drive straight to the stadium for qualifications. Everything was so new for her. She’d never left her island before. The stadium was so big and she had to go out on the field all by herself. On her first throw she forgot everything she learned. She dropped the shot put immediately and the referee raised a red flag for disqualification. But then she looked back at us. She calmed down. She remembered being back on the island with all her family. And she threw it so far on the second throw. When the white flag was raised, we all went crazy. And she won the silver medal.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(3/4) “My maternity leave was spent bouncing between hospitals, therapists, and the insurance company. I still talk to a doctor every single day of every single week. My daughter has had five surgeries already—two on her heart. I have to fight so much. It took a month of phone calls with the insurance company just to get her a single shot that she needs to stay alive. I hear other parents say it’s going too quickly. But it’s not for me. We live in a different world. My kid doesn’t babble. Doesn’t eat food. Doesn’t crawl. My husband is lucky because he has no idea what the milestones are supposed to be. But I do. I know what a fifteen-month-old should be able to do. Every month I have a mom’s lunch with coworkers. They’re the most fantastic people in the world. But it’s so hard to hear them complain that their kids follow them around and eat everything. My daughter has a feeding tube and doesn’t move. Both my husband and I work full time. We’re so tired. It’s like a bucket that’s being drained from so many holes. But you know what? It’s better than the unknown. It’s better than I imagined it was going to be. Because I’m a parent now. And when you’re imagining all these things, it’s so hard to picture the love. She’s such a happy baby. She gets so proud of herself when she accomplishes something. She never wakes up crying. The one thing that comes easy to her in life is love and happiness.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(4/4) “Even within the Down Syndrome community, it can be hard to not compare. You’ve found a group of people going through the same thing as you. And suddenly there are gradations. I follow all these people on Instagram that are my age and have Down Syndrome babies. And it’s easy to feel jealous. There are so many differing abilities. Some kids are already walking by now. Then there are the people with Down Syndrome who are revered. Some have testified before Congress. Some are models, and gymnasts, and mothers. And that represents hope for a lot of people. But that’s also not the reality for a lot of people. And that hope can be devastating. What if your kid can’t do those things? What if your kid can’t do Special Olympics? But I’m optimistic by nature. And the only thing I truly need is that she’ll have people who love her. And I mean people who aren’t blood. I want her to be included and have friends and have a community. I want people to say ‘hi,’ and sit with her, and include her. If no boy asks her to prom, I’m going to be devastated. Because I imagine my own life without friends or social connections and it’s so sad. I can’t watch her go through that. And the hardest thing is that these are things I can’t control. All of these experiences are so dependent on other people. I’ll never be able to control how other people see her.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“I tried to make friends as a child but it never worked out. Every day I’d get bullied. My teachers were nice, but the only kids who would spend time with me were my cousins-- and they were in a higher class. People would call me ‘idiot’ and ‘stupid.’ They’d push me over. I tried to just stare at the floor and not look at people. I felt like jumping out the window. I didn’t want to eat. I became so weak that my mom would feed me with her own hands. I’d talk to the walls of my bedroom. I’d talk to my paintings. I had an imaginary friend named Amanda. She was a fairy. After school I’d close the curtains and sit on the floor and hug my bear and wait for Amanda to come. She was very pretty. She had a beautiful crown. She’d make me laugh, and encourage me, and tell me not to be sad. She’d say ‘good things will happen to you.’ Then one day when I was fourteen, I went to a swim meet with my mother. I was scared of the pool so I just stood along the edge. A woman walked up to me and asked if I was special. Her name was Ronak. She had a beautiful smile. She gave me a hug. I never thought anyone would ever hug me like she did. It felt really good. She looked at me in the eyes, grabbed my hands, and said: ‘Please, please, please join Special Olympics. It will change your life.’ She gave me her phone number. After that day, Amanda never came back.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“It was a problem with my memory. I couldn’t remember things. Everyone else my age was moving forward, and I kept staying behind. My heart was very sore. I loved school. I wanted to be a doctor and a lawyer just like everyone else. I kept asking God: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I tried my best. I even went to night school. But eventually my teachers said they didn’t want to waste my time. They sent me to a school to learn handwork. That’s where I learned about Special Olympics. I was an angry young man back then. I could not accept my situation. But one day I met Arnold Schwarzenegger when he came to South Africa for an event. I told him my entire story, and he said: ‘Look here, I am the Terminator, but today I am your friend. Listen to me. You are not strong in academics, but that is just one thing. It’s nothing to worry about. You are a very strong man. You can’t hate yourself for the rest of your life. It is time for you to move on.’ From that moment I began to accept myself. I now have everything in life except for academics. I work hard. I have a house. I have a family. I have a career as a soccer coach. My son attends the same school where I work—and he’s very smart. I make sure he does all his assignments. When he struggles, I bring him to his teachers so they can lift him up. I tell him: ‘Tumi, I never finished school. But God is amazing. He has made you strong where I am weak.’” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(2/2) “Her history came out slowly once she learned to talk. She’d been abused in every possible way. She’d never had a Christmas. She’d never been to school. She’d never even slept in a dry bed. All she’d ever known was deprivation. But once we got her, we left that all in the past. We said: ‘This is what we have now. Let’s start here.’ Her life has been so full since we got her. It hasn’t been easy. She was diagnosed with Autism. She needs lots of attention. Puberty was tough. My husband passed away so I had to do it alone. School was a herculean effort. Colors, numbers, and shapes were nearly impossible. And we still can’t tell time or do math. But she is a master of everything physical. And we did it all. She took ten years of dancing lessons. She played on a travel soccer team. She’s an amazing artist. We’re here this week to compete in powerlifting. Now the one last thing I want for her is to get a job. To earn a living. To come home tired from a good day’s work and say: ‘Mom, I can take you for dinner tonight.’ It’s not going to be easy, but that’s how I’d love the story to end. If I had known twenty years ago how difficult it was going to be-- would I have made the decision? There’s no way of knowing. And there’s no way of summing up the experience. Because it’s not an experience. It’s my child.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“My parents were shot when I was ten years old. My mother was a lawyer and my dad was an engineer. They’d been working in South Africa, and they resisted a robbery attempt. At least that’s what my grandfather told me. I thought everyone was fooling me until their bodies came home to Zimbabwe. Thankfully my aunt and uncle raised me and I kept going. But I was never able to graduate from school. I have dyslexia. I’m not good at reading or writing. The teachers couldn’t understand my problem, and I was expected to keep up with the rest of the class. Other students would laugh at me. And I just couldn’t do it. Now I feel lost. I keep to myself. I have nothing to do and I’m just sitting on my talent. I have a mechanical mind. I can understand any machine. But no engineering program will consider you unless you’re good with books. And there are no facilities for dyslexia in our country. I see dyslexic people from other countries who have achieved their dreams. And it’s painful to see. Because there is no path for me. I’m thankful for Special Olympics. They keep me from being idle, but I can’t spend all day on a golf course. I need a job. A few years ago I discovered my father’s diary. There was a section where he wrote a page about each of his children. He wrote that I was the smart one. I was the one who could fix anything. I was the future engineer.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“There was a small river near our village, and my father taught me to swim while we bathed. Before long I was sneaking to the river after school. I’d swim for hours every day. My father would physically pull me out of the water at dinnertime. But my village was very traditional and conservative. Adult women weren’t allowed to swim. So I had to quit when I turned fifteen. I didn’t begin again until my twenties. By that time I’d moved to the city, and there was no female instructor at our public pool. So I volunteered. During my lessons, I kept noticing an autistic boy who would stand along the edge and watch. Nobody wanted to teach him. The male coaches were afraid of being bitten and scratched. But I could tell that he was so curious, so I began to play with him. I splashed him. Slowly I touched him. I’d hold his leg and pull him through the water, teaching him how to breathe in and breathe out. He’d climb on my back and hold my neck while I did the strokes. He did bite me. And hit me. And sometimes he’d squeeze my neck too hard. But it was never malicious. In his mind he thought he was doing the right thing. It took a long time—but slowly he learned how to swim. Now he comes running to me whenever he sees me. That experience gave me a weakness for kids with disabilities. I’ve taught over two hundred so far. There is no government support. Nobody comes to see these children. So I go to the villages and seek them out. I teach them to swim in ponds and rivers. When they feel happy, I feel happy. Recently I’ve started my own academy—just for them.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(3/3) “I wanted to quit Special Olympics after the very first day. It took me two hours to get there. It was raining the whole time. But my mom forced me to keep going, and I learned to enjoy it. We’d go run in the park once a week. I was around people who didn’t tease me. Nobody called me names. I wasn’t made to feel stupid. After a few months our coach convinced my mom to let me go to an overnight event. It was at Westchester State University Teachers College. I did three events: the long jump, the softball throw, and the 50-yard dash. I won all three. And I’ve been competing ever since. It’s changed my life so much I can’t explain. I’m more confident. I speak at schools and colleges. I own a house. I pay property taxes. If there’s something not going right in my town, I’ll go down to city council and complain. And I’m still competing. I’m sixty-five and this year I tried out for the tennis team. I picked weeds off a public court and spent hundreds of hours hitting the ball against a wall. But I didn’t make the team. And I’ll tell you what-- I went back to my dorm and cried. And it takes a lot to make me cry. But I wanted compete so badly, because this is where I feel important. I think the feeling I get when I win a medal is the same feeling a President gets when they’re getting elected. It’s the feeling of achieving something that you dreamed about. And people with intellectual disabilities don’t get to feel that enough.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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“When I was little I’d have like five seizures a day. It was horrible and I was always scared. But one week after my eleventh birthday, my mom and dad decided to get me brain surgery. Now I don’t have to worry about seizures and falling all the time. But I can only use one arm now. And because of the surgery there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know if I can do-- like living on my own and stuff. I met Katie at the Special Olympics office. We’re part of a program where you team up with someone who doesn’t have a disability and become like best buds and stuff. At first I didn’t know what to do because, you know, new people. But then it was like OK-- I’m making a new friend. A real friend. We only see each other every couple weeks, but we’ve watched so much Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And we have so many inside jokes. And we even have our own hashtag. And without Katie, I don’t know man. It would be just like it was before, but I wouldn’t have somebody to do this stuff with. I’m having a really hard time right now. My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and he’s going through so much and it’s so, so hard. And sometimes he calls me names but I know he doesn’t mean it. And it’s just so hard. But whenever I feel down and stuff, I can just go in my room and think about all the fun memories I have with Katie.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(2/3) “My passion is movies and I can talk about those nonstop. Some people with autism have a keen interest in things like birds and how fast they can soar. But for me it’s movies. I’ve memorized Land Before Time. And a lot of Disney movies. And most of Star Wars. Sometimes when I was younger I’d quote entire movies word-for-word because it was my way of calming down. Like rocking in a chair. Or swinging on a swing. But I kept getting in trouble at school. Even though school was hard at least I had stuff to do. Because when I turned nineteen, I just lived at home with my family and I was pretty much left alone. I would just swing on our outside swing and daydream, and while that was great and stuff-- it was pretty much like my life had ended. When I first joined Special Olympics I was nervous because whenever we played tetherball at school, kids would sigh and say: ‘Renee!’ And that never helped. But Special Olympics was different. It showed me—well actually God showed me that there are people just like me. My teammates don’t even mind my movie quotes because almost everyone has something they love. Duncan loves sports and talks like a broadcaster. And Nicole loves to write in her diary. It’s great to be around people like me. I’m not even sure where I’d be without Special Olympics. I’d probably still be on the swing.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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(3/3) “I remember saying these horrible things. Just shut up. Just please stop crying for a second. I even had these thoughts about putting her outside. These aren’t good memories to have. But those first years were so dark. There was no respite. No days with grandma. Nobody to tell me: ‘She has a problem and here’s how you get through it.’ We were all on our own. And I acted pretty ugly. There were times when I hated her. There was a lot of yelling. I’d get mad when we didn’t know math today that we knew yesterday. We’d spend hours on every assignment. And then there was the movie thing. I’m not sure if she told you about the movie thing. But every time she felt overwhelmed she’d recite movies word-for-word. And she’d come home with tears on her glasses because the other kids would make fun of her. And I just wanted her to stop. It’s not difficult. Just stop talking to yourself. Everything was so hard, and I wanted it to hurry up. It was so much work. I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t get out of my own head. I was never able to say: ‘Fuck it. We’re not doing this today. You don’t have to improve today. It’s OK for you to be who you are.’ I never got there. But I know I’m forgiven. The Bible doesn’t say that you have to forgive yourself. I know I’m forgiven. And Renee forgives me of course. I’ve apologized so many times. She doesn’t like to see me cry, so she just pats me on the back and says: ‘I know, Mom. I know.’ I just wish I could have known that we’d get here one day. I never thought she’d find her way out. That she’d find her voice. That one day she’d be able to tell me how lonely she felt. And that I could tell her how sorry I am.” (Special Olympics World Games, Abu Dhabi, UAE)

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