Zaahira Essay – Optometrist and Children’s Ocular-Care Advocate

Each morning, we open two gifts that we rarely think of as being exceptional. Our eyes are not only an optical guide that assists us to navigate our daily lives, they are a precious blessing that allows us to perceive 80% of all impressions, coordinate how we use the rest of our bodies and keep us out of harm’s way. Optometrist Zaahira Essay believes that everyone, regardless of socio-economic background, should be granted the opportunity to see the world through unclouded vision, and she does her best to provide them with that possibility.

Ms Essay calls Lenasia home. It’s a close-knit community in the south of Johannesburg, where she grew up after a move from Durban at the age of three. After matriculating from Lenasia Muslim School, she pursued a degree in Optometry at the University of Johannesburg.

Zaahira’s fascination with the faculty of sight developed from a young age; she admired her aunt’s beautiful green eyes and wondered why everyone else had brown eyes, but hers were so different. Over the years, her curiosity was never fully sated, so Zaahira decided to become an optometrist.

A year before graduating, Zaahira impressively managed the Paediatric Clinic at her university (UJ). After qualifying, she spent two years working for the West Rand Health Department in Krugersdorp, where eye health services were offered at the various clinics in Mogale, and during the same period, she also founded The Ruya Project. Currently, she spends her workdays at Torga Optical in Fourways Mall.

Growing up, Zaahira’s parents always encouraged her to get involved in community work and regularly took her younger sister and herself to an old age home to visit the elderly. In her teenage years, her father would take her to different organisations that required volunteers for charity work. Zaahira was also the secretary for the Lenasia Muslim Youth League, while at school. The group arranged and attended youth charity projects under the guardianship of Lenasia Muslim Women’s League. These experiences instilled the need in her to help others, and inspired her to establish a charitable non-profit initiative called The Ruya Project.

The Ruya Project aims to provide free eye-care services for kids from underprivileged backgrounds and communities. Zaahira goes out to the various children’s homes and does eye testing on their different premises. Glasses are also provided to the kids at no charge. Zaahira arranges her Ruya Project screenings on weekends when she isn’t working at her retail optometry job.

Zaahira also attends health days held by different organisations, such as the Radio Islam edition, where she assists with eye screenings. Previously, she also assisted at the Tiba Services for the Blind health day screenings in Lenasia.

Islam plays an influential part in her life, as “It teaches us to give charity in such a way that if you give with the right hand, your left hand should not know. As much as I want to create awareness regarding The Ruya Project, I still want to maintain that principle,” she adds humbly. “Any decisions I have made, every action that I’ve done, I always look to Islam for guidance. It is not only the beliefs we have, but it governs all that we do.”

Zaahira mentions an important saying by Prophet Muhammed (SAW): “The one who cares for an orphan and myself will be together in paradise like this,” and he held his two fingers together to illustrate. This Hadith was the inspiration as to why The Ruya Project was initially mainly focused on orphanages.

The newly-wed optometrist enjoys working with children and during her final year of studying, she boarded the Transnet Phelophepa train – a healthcare locomotive that travels out to assist rural communities. That was when Zaahira noticed the need for eye care in underprivileged communities, and that it’s something we take for granted. As a child, Zaahira’s mother suffered from a visual impairment at school and the teacher would punish her, thinking she was misbehaving. It was only later that they realised she couldn’t see properly and was not actually being naughty. This story is also one of the reasons why Zaahira decided to dedicate a project solely to aid children.

Zaahira recalls the very first screening she did at a kids’ home named Al-Hudaar. She helped provide three children with spectacles. When they were handed their prescription glasses, their reaction stirred her emotions. “They were so excited and had huge smiles on their faces. Their expressions are something I’ll always treasure,” she notes.

She’s most proud of getting the backing and involvement of different organisations like Brien Holden Vision Institute, Islamic Medical Association and Muslim Aid Australia. It gave her confidence in the project and the hope that the initiative could be taken even further to help more needy children.

One of her more personal life-changing moments was marrying Abdur-Rahmaan Jogee, who she praises as being the most wonderful man. “He has been so supportive of all my ventures, and has been instrumental in taking my dream of expanding this project further,” she blissfully mentions.

She finds the Proudly Muslims of SA initiative a valuable way to create awareness with regards to the various humanitarian plights that affect us, to celebrate those who help better the communities we live in, and to encourage others to get involved as well.

Her life motto: “To have a thing done, is to have it done well.”

She regards her parents as her greatest role models.

Her favourite Quraanic verse: Surah Ar-Rahmaan. Particularly, the line: “Which of the favours of your Lord would you deny?” as it lists all the favours that we as humans should be thankful to Allah (SWT) for.

Zaahira defines success as attaining Jannah (paradise). “Working hard in this world for the best in the hereafter.”

Looking to the future, Ms Essay would like to see how The Ruya Project grows and becomes bigger, and she hopes to reach out to more kids.

She advises fellow philanthropists to always believe in what you stand for, do whatever you can to help others, and persevere in your venture. “Even if you’re faced with criticism, continue with the good work that you do because every act counts and no deed is too small.”

Zaahira is most grateful for her family and their continued love and support.

Her biggest life lesson: “Life is too short to be anything other than happy.”

If today were her last day on earth, her parting advice would be to remember that everything you do in your life will come back to you, either in this world or in the hereafter; so always do good for others.

Zaahira would like to be remembered as someone who tried her best to do what she could with what she had, for those who have not.

Zaahira Essay is someone who finds true success in helping others. Her time spent relieving destitute children of their visual impediments leaves a legacy that they will never forget. These young, exuberant kids can now envision a better future for themselves, thanks to Zaahira’s selflessness and compassion. We wish her the best of luck with the commendable Ruya Project, and hope that she’s able to help even more children for years to come.