Sometimes, all it takes is a moment to change things forever. Here, three women share their incredible stories of how one experience changed their life in the most unexpected of ways.
As far a large life changes go, Jane Wynyard’s story is about as unpredictable as they come.
She began her career as a news journalist in New Zealand before moving into fashion magazine PR for a decade – “Working as a fashion magazine PR was fun, glamorous, busy and varied. My team and I managed lots of celebrity events and were at the heart of showbiz press” – ahead of finally landing at Net-a-Porter as the Global Head of PR.
“I loved my career in fashion media but I also knew I had another side; one that craved the outdoors and adventure.”
Jane was first spurred to follow her passion for nature following the death of her stepbrother in 2013.
“Marc died of cancer only eight weeks after diagnosis. I couldn’t believe someone so healthy, fit and full of life could suddenly be gone. For me, it was a tragic and horrible wake-up call and it made me question my own mortality. I began to look at my own life and realised that not only was it potentially incredibly short, but I wasn’t living it to its full potential. I dreamt of adventures in Africa and longed to be more creative.”
Jane describes feeling lost at the time as well as feeling “this incredible urge to do something worthwhile with my life, to walk away from this materialistic world and the concrete confines of London to chase my dreams.”
Her next catalyst came when her cousin Liz was diagnosed with sepsis and “lost both legs below the knees and had 10 major operations in 12 months.”
She explains, “This was another stark reminder that life was too short. Although I loved my job, I was increasingly finding it difficult to relate to the glittering world of fashion and consumerism while my cousin was fighting her life in hospital and losing limbs.” Eight months later, Jane took a leap of faith, encouraged by Liz (who can now drive and walk on prosthetics and is currently teaching at Oxford University), and resigned.
During these ordeals, Jane had turned her hand to photography as a way to deal with her grief, which she pursued full-time upon leaving the world of fashion by moving to Africa to fulfil one of her longest held dreams.
“I’d been visiting Kenya as a tourist for 13 years and when I quit my job, I moved to Africa to gather my thoughts, plan my next steps and immerse myself in nature and wildlife. I ended up working as a volunteer photographer for Save The Elephants (STE) in their research camp in Samburu, Kenya, which then led to a consultancy role as STE’s Head of Communications. Combining my skills in strategic communications, storytelling, photography and digital content, I’m helping STE work towards securing a future for elephants. I know that the work that I am doing is making a difference. Life doesn’t get much better than this.”
In addition to her work in Africa, Jane is now also involved with a variety of charities — each of which means something special to her.
“Most of my charity work evolved after Liz got sick. It started with the UK Sepsis Trust for which Liz and I have worked on photographic exhibitions, fundraisers and stories. I met FilmAid, an international organisation that uses the power of film and media to help empower refugees and works in one of the biggest refugee camps in Kenya called Kukuma, whilst working at Net-a-Porter. I love that they empower refugees with storytelling and media skills which is so important in today’s content-rich world. My volunteer work at Na’an Ku Se in Namibia and Save The Elephants in Kenya completely fed into my passion for wildlife, adventure and Africa.”
Looking back at all of her incredible experiences over the last 12 months, Jane, who confides that her friends call her “Jungle Jane”, says she knows she made the right decision.
“In the past year, I’ve photographed elephants in the Kenyan bush, climbed the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda in search of mountain gorillas, baby-sat orphaned baboons in Namibia and ridden horses across the Namib Desert counting oryx and bat-eared foxes. I’m living the life I always dreamt of, and my soul is free.”
Jumana Al Darwish
“I’d say it was moments rather than a moment,” Jumana Al Darwish explains to Emirates Woman, clearly emphasising the plural. “Ever since I was a child I knew what I wanted to do. My father worked for the UN, so I knew I wanted to work in philanthropy and to create change.”
As such, her college and career choices led her down that path. After studying an undergraduate degree in community and ethics studies and completing a Master’s in evidence-based social intervention at Oxford University, Jumana worked at Queen Rania of Jordan’s office in international affairs before moving to Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organisation founded by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, for six years as the Head of Corporate Planning and Development.
It was while she was at the latter that the moment of realisation hit her, with force.
“When my daughter Ayla was born, I felt like I wasn’t really spending enough quality time with her. I had difficulties having her and when she was born, she was my life. And although I loved what I did [at Dubai Cares] and it was exciting, I felt like I could do a little bit more. I remember it was when we were in the States in January of 2014, I woke up in the middle of the night with this sudden energy that I could move mountains. That was the turning point for me, and I decided then and there, I was going to create my own company.”
Jumana submitted her resignation in March of that same year and had left by June. Right after, she began The Happy Box. “It was on my dining room table to begin with! I sold my first boxes to my friends,” she explains, adding with a laugh that, although her parents are now an incredible support, initially her mother thought she had lost it. “When I told my mum she asked if I was having a crisis! Government is in our family so when I explored entrepreneurship, they were like, what is this?!”
For Jumana, taking the leap of faith was about trusting in her gut instinct and not fearing failure. “I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I start something on my own? It doesn’t work? Fine, I’ll go back to what I was doing. I believe in constantly reinventing yourself in life so you don’t become stagnant.”
Fast forward three years from her (quite literal) awakening, and The Happy Box – which is entirely self-funded – has gone from strength to strength. Having outgrown her dining room table, and then her garage, Jumana and her team are settling into their huge new 130-square metre home in Alserkal Avenue, which officially opened to the public on November 4. The space will act asa production base, arts and crafts centre, installation space and as its name suggests, a Happy Studio where happiness is the number one focus.
The company is now also franchised across the GCC (with interest also coming in from Europe, the States and Australia) and going international was another huge moment of change. “Franchising was the scariest thing ever because I had to let go and give over control. When you build something [like The Happy Box], it’s like your baby and when you give it off to someone, you’re entrusting them with that.”
The company works closely with refugee camps in Jordan through its own gifting program which is one of the elements of the business that Jumana loves most, and she is rightly proud of the impact The Happy Box has had on the local and wider communities since she made the leap.
“We’ve impacted the lives of people around us both here in the UAE and internationally. I’ve seen first-hand through the gifting we’ve done through the company how it impacts children globally and how we’ve been able to instil these moments of happiness at times that aren’t exactly the best of times.”
Jumana says she has big ideas for change in the future, but that she’s incredibly content with what she’s been able to achieve so far and the position in which she currently finds herself. At the end of the day, for Jumana it really is all about creating harmony and happiness in the community.
“For now, this is what I can do and that’s great. You can’t impose happiness on anyone but it’s a feeling you get, that tingling feeling that life is OK, that we can survive this and get through anything together.”
Nadia Metwaly’s life first changed in 2002, following the diagnosis of her husband with breast cancer – which is extremely rare in men.
“He felt like he had a lump for a while and every time he sought an opinion, he was told it was probably nothing. When he eventually did receive a proper diagnosis, it was too late as the cancer cells were all around his body,” she tells Emirates Woman.
Her husband ultimately succumbed to the disease, and Nadia vowed to help raise awareness for the issue. “This experience showed me that awareness was needed. We need to tell people that yes, breast cancer can affect men as well as women.”
However, there was yet another challenge coming Nadia’s way – her own breast cancer diagnosis in 2011. “After losing my husband I felt like I needed to do regular check-ups and it was while I was doing my first self-examination that I felt a lump in my left breast. I knew I needed to get it checked and, luckily, at that time the Pink Caravan was around – it was the first year it had been sent out. It was confirmed that I had stage two breast cancer and needed to begin treatment right away.”
Nadia credits her religious beliefs as her stronghold throughout the ordeal, as well as viewing it as an opportunity to grow. “I took it as a journey to being a better me,” she explains. “It was a way for me to re-think some life decisions and to be a better version of myself.”
As a result, Nadia now works closely with Friends of Cancer Patients (FoCP), a Sharjah-based non-profit organisation founded in 1999 by Her Highness Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, that helped her through her own experience with cancer and subsequent recovery.
“I started out by going to the support groups to lend support to those who are on this journey now to give them assistance in whatever way I could. Additionally, I really enjoy taking part in FoCP’s external activations.”
One such event is Relay for Life (coming to the region for the first time this month) which Nadia will participate in this year for the first time and is encouraging all of her friends to sign up for, too. “It’s one of the events that I am most looking forward to as it gives us a chance to honour other patients and caregivers in addition to supporting them by fundraising.”
After her own experience with Pink Caravan, Nadia now also acts as a speaker at their corporate wellness days, telling others about her story to instil hope within them.
Despite her heartbreaking journey and hardships, Nadia tells us she now lives life in a completely different way to before.
“I’ve learnt to let go and live life to the fullest. I try to live every day as if it were my last. I also try my best to raise awareness in the UAE about breast cancer and to reach out to people in a good and positive way. This entire experience has made me take extra care when it comes to self-examination and getting regular check-ups, and I am always encouraging other women to go and get checked as well.”
Words: Maddison Glendinning