Far and wide, country to country and across different cultures, one thing that binds people is parenting special needs kids.
This was brought home to me not too long ago through a Zoom chat with an Israeli diplomat, Anat Sultan-Dadon.
Anat professionally is Israel’s Consul General to the Southeast, an important posting. Based in Atlanta, her region covers a broad swath of Southern states, including Alabama, where I live.
She also is the mom of a special needs daughter, and a mutual friend, knowing this, was the one who connected us. I’m glad he did.
Anat, warm and engaging, has had several important diplomatic postings which have taken her family — her husband, two older daughters, her special needs child and herself — to different parts of the world.
A Full Day
As I have come to learn, a diplomat’s life is a busy one, often 24/7, as they and their staff represent their home country in a variety of ways, from managing visas to meeting with high-ranking officials to creating new relationships.
Anat, for example, had recently spent a full day in Montgomery and Selma accompanying the Washington-based Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. on a civil rights tour. Her day also included a meeting with Gov. Kay Ivey and other high ranking officials, and a news conference.
She was back in Alabama a few weeks later to meet with Gov. Ivey and others to mark the signing of a State of Alabama resolution supporting Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas. Through her, I have learned about Alabama’s long-standing support for Israel and the many ties between our state and our Middle East ally.
However, if you had listened to my Zoom chat with her, you never would have known she was the Consul General from Israel. Rather, you would have thought of her as a devoted and loving special needs mom. Which she is.
The Consul General’s youngest daughter, now 10, is profoundly challenged by a rare genetic defect known as Kleefstra Syndrome.
Her daughter’s name is Niv, which means “expression” in Hebrew. She struggles with a condition that has been identified just in the past few years and there are only several hundred known cases in the world.
My son, who we call Trot and who is 25, faces special needs challenges as well. He has a rare genetic defect known as DYRK1A. It also has only been recently identified and the number of known cases also is small.
In my chat with Anat, I felt the same bond that I always feel when I talk to parents of such challenged kids. We soften when we talk about our children.
Who we are and our professional accomplishments in life just fade away, and we listen intently to the other’s story, deeply interested in their child and the challenges their family and child face.
And there always is a look of understanding on our faces, as there clearly was in this Zoom chat.
Special needs moms and dads make time for each other. This was evident in my Zoom with the Consul General. Hours earlier there had been a terrible accident in Israel. Forty-five people died and about 150 more were injured during a religious pilgrimage.
I suggested to Anat that our Zoom be postponed but she insisted we go forward. I could sense our conversation was important to her.
She reflected what I’ve found to be the case with most parents and families with special needs children — a willingness to help others. I was interested in hearing about what Israel is doing to help its special needs citizens become all they can be.
I’d read about how much the Israelis loved, included and took care of their special needs community, treating these citizens as a normal part of society. What the country offers in the way of services, facilities and teaching life skills can serve as an example to the rest of the world.
I felt especially inspired by hearing how the Consul General has been able to manage a demanding career as an international diplomat — while being a mom not only of a special needs daughter but also of two other daughters, and being a wife as well, and having to move every 4 or 5 years.
During her career, Anat has served in Germany, Cameroon, the Netherlands and Australia. In 2016, she was the recipient of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Outstanding Employee of the Year Award.
The foreign service has always been in her blood. Her father served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Turkey and Canada, three important postings, and Anat would like to continue in his footsteps.
Yet being a woman at the upper echelon of the foreign service can be challenging, and additionally, wherever her family goes, she and her husband have to make sure there are support services for their youngest daughter. (She is pleased with Atlanta’s offerings.)
The One Comment
Anat admitted all of this can be challenging. She’s happy to talk to other parents of special needs children to encourage them. However, she is reluctant to portray herself as a role model, noting that she has been blessed with a supportive family and resources — things other such parents may not always have.
The Consul General and I are from different backgrounds — I am a retired Christian businessman who has lived much of my life in Alabama; she is a mid-career Jewish Israeli diplomat who has lived in countries across the globe; we are a generation apart. Yet in our conversation I again heard the one comment that above all else connects special needs parents to each other.
We both remarked that when we share our experiences with well-meaning people outside of the special needs community, they often tell us how lucky our children are to have us as parents.
What Anat says to these people is exactly what I say: “We are the lucky ones to have them. We are so blessed and our lives would be empty without them.”