Baraka Blog

Growing thoughts

Category Archives: Arab Youth

NYUAD Hackathon pics!

The NYUAD Hackathon event last night showed much potential for Arab youth, the winning team being Jordanian, competing with computer science students from across the world programming for social good.

nyuad hackathon

Rama Chakaki, CEO of Baraka Ventures, at the NYUAD Hackathon

To learn more about the event and our role, please view the former blog post.

More pictures are on their way!

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setbacks are there to make you stronger

A brilliant young lady with immense talent sent me a heartfelt email today. She had been active in social work and dropped off the scene after receiving harsh criticism.  The critic, someone in the humanitarian field also turned competitive and broke the young lady’s spirit.  She left behind a promising beginning and settled for work without passion.

Too many entrepreneurs are easily put off by setbacks.. not realizing these setbacks are nothing but fitness training.. with each setback, you acquire a new skill to deal with challenges.. and the more setbacks you have the higher your purpose and calling is in life.. acknowledging setbacks and cheerfully moving past them paves the next step for progress.  Getting stuck on a setback kills your dreams.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” – Michelangelo

career advice..

I received an email this week from a young Arab professional titled “Career Advice”.  It was a very honest account of his struggles to feel fulfilled, realize his potential.. make sense of his career path.. he has a job he dislikes, he’s always told he’s not realizing his full potential.. he cannot even recall what he’s passionate about.

My response is what follows; if you have an opinion, please share…

  1. as humans, we are not made to work desk jobs for most our waking hours
  2. today’s jobs are too monotonous especially for people with active minds
  3. you cannot survive without hobbies that take you in directions radically different from your routine.
  4. change is good
  5. articulating your passions is essential.. even if just on paper.. write them out.. say them, speak about them to anyone willing to listen.. some will stay with you, other passions will fizzle away.. at least you’d get them out of your system.
  6. don’t plan for a life time.. plan in 3 year increments…
  7. count your blessings every morning.. celebrate the small successes.
  8. be a child in your curiosity and excitement.  be happy when things go right… get excited for adventure and new experiences.. even if they feel uncomfortable.. a child is happy running around for hours in a garden, even if they feel exhausted afterwards..
  9. think now.. don’t think future all the time.. you have to be reaching your potential.. today.. wake up feeling great.. maintain the greatness all day.. despite what you hear in your head..
  10. let your inner compass guide you..don’t listen to others.. good, bad, or ugly .. other people’s opinions don’t matter.. they either make us think we have things they see or want to see, or they put us down for not realizing the potential they see in us… you have to be guided from within.

Resituating Sustainability

I was invited recently to present at a workshop convened by NYU, Abu-Dhabi Institute under the title of “Situating Sustainability: Urban Ecology and the Problem of Context”. The workshop brought together urban ecologists, architects, urban planners, anthropologists and authors who have studied, written about and had hands-on experience in shaping the urban-ecological landscape of many cities in the UAE, India, USA, Bahrain, Kuwait and China.

I was asked to give a presentation on our work in the context of the subject of the workshop. While our work encompasses many areas, I found it difficult at first to situate our work within the context of the workshop. So I took the alternative approach of re-situating the subject of the workshop within the context of our work. Here is the transcript of the presentation that resulted from this process (big thanks to Rama & Mohamad for their input):

“Much of the talk in this workshop has been focusing on situating sustainability in the physical sense within the cities and urban landscapes of the region. I will talk about situating sustainability in a different context – the context of where, along the spectrum of practice, sustainability is situated in the region from a social, cultural and educational perspective.

We, at Baraka, work closely with social entrepreneurs who are addressing social and environmental issues and in doing so have experienced, first hand, some of the challenges facing those who are working on building an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable region.

Dubai in the 1970's

As we have heard, Abu-Dhabi, Dubai and other cities on the Western coast of the Gulf are often characterized as being desert cities. This is in line with the fact that much of sustainability, particularly in the urban-ecological context, over-privileges the land.

Yet the majority of the cities in the region are coastal cities with close economic and cultural ties to the water. It made sense to us, when we started looking at environmental sustainability in the region, that we needed to focus on the ocean.

I’d like to make the point here that we’ve been handling the terrestrial environment for more than ten thousand years. We have been gardening for ten thousand years. We can take a body of land and change it from its current state to something we prefer to live in and we can then landscape it, set it up as a functioning biological system that is pleasant to be around whether it’s gardens or agricultural fields.

We know how to do that. We have been doing it for years and years and years.

Dubai's new coastline

We don’t know how to do that in the ocean. When you start extensively changing coastlines and building new coastlines that extend kilometers out into the ocean in places where that land did not exist before, you are embarking on a process of changing the ocean environment and we don’t really know how to do that or truly understand the consequences of doing that.

It was in this context that we started working on creating a video documentary about the impact of the artificial islands that have been built along the coastline of Dubai. One of  the problems that the researchers we were working with faced as they started the project was a general lack of information.

This is a part of the world in which marine science has not been a dominant activity. It is a part of the world in which  the marine science that has been done has usually been done by people from overseas who’ve taken a lot of the information back home with them. Basically, the researchers had to recognize that in many ways they were starting with almost zero baseline data.

Pearl divers

So, they tried to look to non-academic sources of information. They were happy to use anecdotal evidence gathered from the local communities to use as a baseline for their research into the history of the local marine ecology, with regard to fish populations, algal blooms and other data. This avenue did not give them much data to work with either. While there was an older tradition of pearl culture and fishing, that has largely vanished, and with it much of the culture related to these traditions. There have been efforts to preserve these in books and on film, but they have been largely reduced to the status of historical artifact rather than living culture.

This is where I raise the question of where is sustainability situated in the context of the culture of Gulf cities? The dhows that are being built today are used for recreation rather than plying the trade of their owners. Yet, the culture of the dhow crews and the pearl divers is still being presented as the primary cultural connection of these cities to the ocean even though the dhows have mostly been replaced by yachts, speedboats and jet-skis.

Modern Dubai

The influx of people into the region brought with it not just a need to change the urban landscape of the region’s cities to allow for this influx and expansion, but also a cultural change brought on by the fact that these new residents had no connection with the local ecology. This has reflected back on society in many ways. When it comes to nature, very few residents, or even the nationals, know much about the local sea-dwelling species beyond the few that end up on their dinner plates and they have become totally disconnected from most of the local land-based species. There’s more to sustainability than just preserving species, we need to also preserve our relationships with them.

This is where I pose the question of where is sustainability situated in the social context of the region? When it comes to society, many people in Gulf cities feel disengaged from many of the day-to-day issues that matter to most urbanites in other parts of the world – from the use of public space, zoning, waste collection and transportation. This is caused by the rapid urban changes, the transient nature of many of the residents’ connection with place and many other factors.

Most of the people who are resident here know next to nothing about what happens below the water. In fact a lot of the marketing of the coastal development projects suggest that it is the opportunity to look out over the surface of the water which is the attractive thing that they are providing by these developments.It’s time to break through the surface, both literally and figuratively and make people more aware of the fascinating things happening under the water, in an effort to encourage them to reconnect their coastal-urban living with the relevant urban ecological consequence of their lifestyles.

As a scuba diver and underwater filmmaker, I can tell you that there is a lot of life that goes on below the surface of the sea just off our coastlines. While on land, if you live in an urban environment such as that in Dubai or Abu-Dhabi, you need to drive some distance outside the city’s boundaries to come across any wildlife apart from birds, rodents and feral cats. Yet diving just a few minutes out from the beaches of these cities will reveal some of the richness of what is there in terms of the wildlife.

On a typical beach dive in Dubai we can see sting rays, groupers, butterfly fish and tens of other fish species; invertebrates such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers. We see more wildlife, in its natural habitat, per square meter than anywhere else this close to the city.

This work also tied in with another project that we had been working on, a project called Tawasul which is Arabic for “reach out”. Tawasul was founded by Ernst Vanderpoll, a PADI Course Director who had been diving and instructing in Dubai since the late nineties. Tawasul aims to engage young people and students in grass roots conservation and restoration ecology. It does this through a place-based education program that looks to address what Richard Louv termed a “nature deficit disorder” in his book “Last Child in the Woods”.

Tawasul students diving off the coast of the UAE

It makes more sense when in an urban landscapes such as those on the coast of the Gulf to think “Blue” rather than “Green” when thinking of nature so I guess the local version of Louv’s book should be titled “The Last Child in the Corals”. We educate students about the degradation that is being caused at their doorstep in the marine environment by overconsumption, bad waste management, coastal construction and pollution. We teach them to dive so that they can see these problems first hand, which creates a much deeper recognition of these issues and a stronger desire to address them than any amount of lecturing would ever achieve.

We also teach them how to monitor the marine environment by doing fish and reef surveys thereby taking them from awareness to taking practical steps towards sustainable action. They learn that plankton has been responsible for producing most of the oxygen on our planet and that practices such as shark-finning contribute to global climate change by killing off the ocean’s apex predator that, for millennia, have kept the population of plankton-eating species in check.

They learn that killing sharks is not just an issue of biological conservation of a species of fish, but a matter effecting the ecological balance of the planet’s climate.

A Whale Shark that was spotted during one of Tawasul's local learning journies

This is a picture of a whale shark that we saw just after coming out of the second dive of the day during one of the field trips to the east coast. The kids had just removed their diving gear, so they jumped straight back into the water to swim with the whale shark (that’s one of the Tawasul students in the top-left corner of the picture).

There is no amount of classroom tuition that can create the kind of attachment to nature and to conservation and restoration issues that an encounter with a magnificent creature such as this can. The experience transcended being educational, it was a spiritual experience for most of them. One of the children exclaimed that the spots on the whale shark’s skin looked like the fingerprints of God. Many of the children on that particular trip ended up blogging about that experience and led some of them to become some of the most ardent advocates of conservation and sustainability in their schools and neighborhoods.

A blog by a Tawasul student (click to read)

They also became advocates in their virtual communities. As part of the implementation of the program, we had set up an online social network to allow students to connect online in-between learning sessions and field trips. It is a platform for them to share their experiences and best practice. This led on to Tawasul starting a young environmental journalist program where the environmental correspondents of the local newspapers such as The National teach and mentor these budding journalists.

So, where is sustainability situated in the educational context of the region? There are some efforts – private sector ones such as Tawasul as well as public sector ones led by education authorities and ministries. But there is still much to be done.

We can’t teach the next generation the solutions for creating the sustainable urban ecologies of the future. We don’t have the answers because we haven’t experienced the future that they will inhabit. The children at school today are likely to see the world’s population exceed 9 billion in their lifetime. History has little to teach them about how to live in a world with so many people in it. They will face many challenges in creating urban living spaces for such massive populations with sustainable economies, food and water supplies, waste management, energy production, education and social services. My hope is that we are providing them with the ability to see the connectedness of everything and instill in them the hope, inquisitiveness, knowledge, passion and sensibility to create the right solutions.”

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Inspirational Stories of Palestine

There is no shortage of inspiration in Palestine. There is a shortage of platforms and media venues featuring inspiring people in and outside Palestine on a local, regional and global scale. When you mention Palestine and Media, visions of a people torn apart by conflict comes to mind. Refugees, school children standing across from tanks and demolished homes. Google the words Palestine and Media, 5 million photos depicting conflict come up. TEDxRamallah is the beginning of a movement to change that.

In recent years, the non-profit, TED.com devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading has featured riveting talks by remarkable people from around the globe. The power of the talks, coupled with the viral nature of the Web, and the open licensing of the Creative Commons, spread to influence millions of people around the world in a positive manner.

So powerful were the talks, the TED conference organizers spun off TEDx, independently organized TED events that gather the world’s leading thinkers and doers, to build connections, share insights and foster inspiration.

When we met the TEDxRamallah licensee, we had just taken part of TEDxDubai as attendees, sponsors and organizers of the event. Fueled by the excitement of attending TED India, and the recent success of TEDxDubai, he approached us to help bring the platform to Palestine. And so the journey began, in spring of 2010.

Over the past few months, a group of young, old, Palestinian and global citizens, have come together from across the world, online, and in the real world to plan the event; everyone has a Palestinian inspirational story to share; everyone knows candidates to nominate to speak at the event, and many are simply there to support by all means.

The event will take place April 16th 2011. The aim is showcase inspiring stories of Palestine. TEDxRamallah aims to educate and inspire by providing a space for people to share their ideas in any field, whether science, education, literature, technology, design, etc. to contribute to the positive perception of Palestine. The tagline is READY.AIM.INSPIRE!

Throughout my life, I have known Palestinians from all walks of life. Their lives and stories are colorful, exciting, humbling and inspiring. They exist in every industry, country, and segment of society, from a female Palestinian refugee taxi driver in Lebanon to the scientist at MIT; a founder of a medical charity to support injured children who desperately need medical care, and a founder of a Palestinian Art Festival. The list is endless, and so is in the inspiration to be felt and shared. And hence, my involvement with organizing the event is to share these inspirations.

To date, we have over 20 sponsors lending their name, support and services to see TEDxRamallah happen. We have over 200 supporters on http://www.tedxramallah.com, and over 1000 supporters on Facebook. Volunteers are working in four cities around the Middle East to setup satellite events, spread the word about the event, and encourage community members to get involved.

You can get involved. It’s simple. Join our online community site at http://www.tedxramallah. Share stories of the inspiring Palestinians and stories of Palestine that you know. Blog about them, photograph them, create videos, animations, sketches.. tweet about them, share their stories with your friends on Facebook. Give them a platform on TV, the radio, magazines and newspapers. Share the event with your school, your workplace or to organize a TEDxRamallah satellite event in your hometown and feature inspiring Palestinians in your community on stage. READY.AIM.INSPIRE.

This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com on behalf of TEDxRamallah under the CC Attribution Licensing.

How can I compare?

I have only been interning at PCRF for one day, on that day I met Khalil and was asked to compare and contrast my life to his.

How can I compare my life to Khalil’s!? The only thing Khalil and I have in common are our ages. He is a rising senior and I am going to be in ninth grade this fall. I have lived in New York City for all my life, the biggest problems I face when I wake up include  finding a taxi to take me to school or realizing I haven’t studied enough for the history test I have third period. Sometimes I have the major issue of not having enough money on me to buy that super cute jacket at Bloomingdales.

Khalil’s life is completely different than mine. He has actually faced major problems and tragedies. Although Khalil and I speak different languages, we were able to communicate with gestures and basic English and Arabic words. Using his hands and limited English Khalil explained to me that Gaza, his home, wasn’t safe anymore, that his brother was killed, that his other brother had lost an eye and he lost both of his legs.

When he told me this I immediately felt guilty for ever crying over something silly, or complaining about something that I shouldn’t have been complaining about. Then I thought to myself, if I had gone through half of the things Khalil has gone through, I would not be able to wake up in the morning, I would never smile, never laugh, and would probably be horrible company. Khalil is the complete opposite. When I had lunch with him, he smiled, laughed and was amazing company.  How could I even try to compare my life to Khalil’s?

Khalil’s Story – 4th Update

Khalil spent the past few days completing the written exams, and receiving internet and email training.

He is also signed up to the PCRF Online Social Community,  to begin interacting with volunteers digitally.  The objective is to enable Khalil to communicate with volunteers and community members he met during his visit after he returns to Gaza. Please join the community, connect with Khalil and send him words of encouragement.

Khalil watched videos of an MIT double amputee scientist, Dr. Hugh Herr who is working to develop smart prosthetic limbs, and a video on two college students who are developing diving limbs for amputee divers.

Iman, Patients Affairs Coordinator with the PCRF discussed with Khalil his future plans, and desires.  He answers speaking of great far reaching goals and aspirations, but quickly recalls the reality of life in Gaza and wonders if anything is possible.  He makes one statement “I dream to be in the Olympics”, and follows it with “But how can that ever happen? Do you realize our schools aren’t like Dubai, our classrooms have 50 students and we don’t have any physical education at school!”

Tomorrow Khalil completes the Confined Water Dive Sessions. Please stay tuned for his progress.

Khalil’s Story – 3rd Update

8:30am, Khalil and I head to the dive center. On the way, I asked Khalil what he imagined he would grow up to do… “Nurse, I always wanted to help others, after my accident, I enrolled in a first aid and CPR course”.

There we were met by Ernst and Ali Bin Thaleth who generously offered to photograph Khalil’s dive. We got into our wetsuits, assembled our gear and headed to the pool.

Before his briefing, Khalil shared details of his accident with the group. He said, “That day, I decided to bathe. Because of the air-strikes, I had gone for nearly a month without bathing. I prayed at the mosque, and headed home, where my brothers and I sat in our living room.  Within minutes, we heard noises, an explosion on our street, people screaming. We ran to our grandmothers’ home. There, we were joined by a neighbor and her children. ”

“Thirteen of us huddled in a room; when the shell hit, my youngest brother was thrown out of his chair, and laid motionless in my mothers’ arms.  My other brother was running around the room, face covered with blood, screaming; the neighbor’s chair was struck from beneath, and folded onto her and minutes later, I felt nothing. I could hear them calling my name, I thought I was answering, but my breath withheld the sound.”

“I could hear them call my name.. but I was covered with rubble; the side wall had collapsed and landed on my legs. I vaguely remember being transported to the hospital in a car. I became conscious at dawn the next morning, looking across I saw the doctor praying. I asked about my brothers, the doctor told me to pray.”

Transitioning back to where we were physically after Khalil’s emotional account was more difficult for us than it was for him. He was ready to dive.

Khalil was in the pool until 12:30, completed Confined Dive 2 & 3.  He practiced swimming with the webbed gloves Mahmoud bought for him to support his movement in water.

To my surprise, Khalil performed the CESA (Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascend) with relative ease, an exercise many dive students had to repeat several times before perfecting it.

Thanks Lisa Katayama, Joichi Ito for documenting Khalil’s lesson. (All photos taken by Joi are licensed under the Creative Commons)

Thank you Rabea Ataya and Ruba Tabari for stopping by to check on Khalil’s progress and cheer him on.

Thank you Ali for taking amazing photos of Khalil, which we will share with the public in the near future.

Thank you Mahmoud for bringing the gloves, and a big thanks to Ernst, your patience and care for Khalil is an example for all of us.

Next step.. Khalil has to complete Chapters 4 & 5, and head to the Open Water… please stay tuned.

Khalil’s Story – 2nd Update

Khalil called last night to report that he had completed 3 out of the 5 chapters and was ready for the written tests. By 9am he was at the dive center, waiting for Jo to complete the tests.  Jo & Abood carried Khalil up to the classroom on the second floor of the Pavilion dive center. There Jo spent four hours showing Khalil PADI videos and translating the content and tests to Arabic. by 2pm, Khalil had completed and passed the tests.

At 4pm, Mahmoud & Jo spent took Khalil into the pool for Confined Water Pool Session #1.  Khalil had some difficulty performing the controlled ascend, which requires a diver to fin upwards to the surface.  With the help of a pair of Webbed gloves, Khalil used one hand to help him ascend.

Saturday, is Khalil’s next pool session. He will complete 2 in the morning, and if weather conditions permit, he would complete  Open Water Session #1.

Thanks to many of you who spread the word, we are receiving an outstanding amount of interest and support from the Media… please continue to share Khalil’s story with others.  His aim is to raise awareness on the growing cases of amputees in Gaza, Iraq and other places in the middle east, rally communities to support them with medical care and physical rehabilitation programs.

Please stay tuned for more..

Khalil’s Story… “Disability is a state of mind”

Khalil is a remarkable young man. The sparkle in eyes attest to that.

January 16th, 2009, the skies rained shells on Gaza.  Khalil, 15 years old, was at his grandmother’s house with his two brothers. He recounts the event to Iman Odeh Yabroudi, the PCRF Patient Affairs coordinator in great detail; describing the brightness of light, thunderous roaring sounds, and ash smells of the time the shell struck.

Khalil says he was the lucky one. His younger brother Muhanad, 8years, lost his life; another brother, Abdulhadi, 14 years old, lost an eye.  Their father, who had been working in Israel, had to leave his job to care for his two surviving boys.  The family survives on the sales of house-hold goods the father makes on a street side in Gaza along with a few kind contributions from family, neighbors and friends.

Khalil came to Dubai through the PCRF. Mohamad Bin Rashid AlMaktoom Foundation is sponsoring his medical treatment (fitting him with prosthetic limbs).  The volunteers of the PCRF in the UAE do their best to ensure a comfortable stay for the PCRF patients.  This includes hosting the children and exposing them to a range of activities aimed at rebuilding their self-confidence.  The children are offered a range of age-appropriate  activities to choose from.  Khalil chose scuba diving.

With the help of Tawasul founder Ernst van Der Poll, and Pavilion Dive Center, Khalil had a Discover Scuba PADI experience arranged.  We met at the dive center earlier this morning. Khalil was anxious. He sat listening intently to instructions.

Khalil, assisted by Jo, donned his dive gear, leaned forward and got into the pool.  Those of you who’ve experienced diving know that the first time you enter the water, it takes you a while to get comfortable with scuba gear. Weights, BCD, Tank, Mask, Regulator.. a lot to keep track of.  For Khalil, it came naturally; within seconds, he we ascended to the bottom, and used his hands to move forward in the pool. Ernst and Jo completed the skill review and in 40 minutes Khalil surfaced.  His smile radiated.

The sea was rough on the main beach-front, so I thought we would call it a day. Seeing Khalil’s eagerness for more, Ernst suggested a sea discover-scuba session into the secondary beach-front, calmer and shallower.  Jo and Ernst carried Khalil to the sea-shore, there he donned his equipment, and the three disappeared into the sea. They surfaced 40 minutes later.

Khalil’s exhilaration left his voice trembling. He kept repeating “Ya Allah”, “Amazing”, “I did it”. He saw a sting ray and fish. Jo and Ernst carried him back to his wheelchair.

A while later, Ernst completed the paper-work for Khalil’s discover scuba certificate, and asked Khalil if he wants to do a full scuba open water certification. Khalil didn’t hesitate for a second.   I gave Ernst a questioning look, he and I knew the commitment it required, and the logistical challenges of getting it done; he gave me a comforting nod and said “we’ll make it happen”.

Iman signed up Khaill, who committed to reading the 5 chapter book and completing the written portion of the course in a week.

Please stay tuned for more developments on Khalil’s progress.