Next Step celebrates diversity and empowerment on World Down Syndrome Day

Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications, jm26@aub.edu.lb​


Zeina Salem is a 27-year-old AUB student and part-time employee at the Diet Center who loves playing sports and has an infectiously positive attitude towards life. Zeina also happens to have Down syndrome. But with the help of her family and friends, as well as the Next Step program at AUB, she refuses to let that define her.

On the occasion of World Down Syndrome Day, Zeina and her colleagues from the Next Step program and the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association (LDSA) gathered at West Hall to sell #LotsOfSocks—bright, multi-colored socks meant to proclaim that it’s ok to be different—in order to raise money and awareness about Down syndrome as part of a worldwide campaign. Also on sale were various treats produced at the Diet Center, including Zeina’s “Taste of Luck” cake pops which she has become expert at making while working there.

World Down Syndrome Day is held annually on March 21 (the 21st day of the 3rd month) in recognition of this genetic condition, also known as Trisomy 21, because it is marked by having an extra (third) copy of chromosome 21.

“It’s Just Another Place”

As part of this global event, one of the founders of LDSA, Hana AbuKhadra Salem, spoke about Next Step, which is a three-year program run by the Continuing Education Center (CEC) of AUB’s Regional External Programs. Next Step uses the Life-Centered Education curriculum developed by the Council for Exceptional Children in the US, which aims to give people with intellectual challenges the skills they need to live independent and productive adult lives.

Lamis, another employee at the Diet Center who has Down syndrome, also took to the stage and spoke about the rewarding career she is pursuing, giving heartfelt thanks to the Diet Center staff and its owner, Dr. Sawsan Wazzan.

Following this, there​ was a special screening of the documentary film “It’s Just Another Place” by filmmakers Carole Mansour and Mona Khalidi, who were on hand at the event. The film profiles five individuals who are living with Down syndrome in Lebanon, ranging in age from infants to young adults. Along with their families, they share their stories, their challenges, and their successes.

Zeina and her family were among those profiled in the film, along with Ghassan who is a multi-award-winning athlete in the Special Olympics and who loves to paint and dance. Speaking about her experience producing this film, Mansour said that it fit perfectly with their commitment to making documentaries about important social issues and added that she and Mona really enjoyed getting to know these exceptional people.  

“It was great working with such a subject,” said Mansour. “We got very attached to the kids, they are very emotional and they give you a lot of love. It was a great experience and I learned a lot.”

Life-centered education

The Next Step program at CEC was initiated by the Lebanese Down Syndrome Association in collaboration with the Diet Center, Heritage College in Beirut—which has a supportive special education program—and OpenMinds, a fund established in connection with AUBMC’s Special Kids Clinic to support individuals with special needs.

The first of its kind in the region, Next Step is a transition program for youth and young adults with intellectual challenges, empowering them with the skills they need to prepare for success in a suitable career and develop to their highest potential. After two short trials in 2015 and 2017, the first official class of 11 Next Step students is currently completing the first, foundational year of this three-year program. 

Classes are held three days a week and the students generally eat lunch in the Ada Dodge cafeteria at AUB. Coming back from their lunch one Friday, the group came upon AUB President Fadlo Khuri and immediately surrounded him; introducing themselves, asking him questions, and telling him all about their big event for World Down Syndrome Day.

Telling us about her experience in the Next Step program, Zeina said that she is enjoying her time at AUB and has made many new friends.  As to the future, she says she looks forward to graduating and “doing great.” Indeed, there are many people at AUB and outside who want to help Zeina and her colleagues do exactly that.