The Holy Month is a time of reflection and thanksgiving, but it’s also a time to give back. We meet the inspiring women behind four home-grown initiatives to get behind this Ramadan.
Books Over Bombs
Bianca Hadzic is the founder of Books Over Bombs, which is behind a line of ethical t-shirts helping to fund the education of Syrian children growing up in refugee camps.
“When I see my five-year-old daughter… and how peaceful and happy she is, it breaks my heart to know there are other children in this world who aren’t as lucky,” says Bianca Hadzic.
It was seeing footage of another child last summer that prompted Bianca, 30, to establish Books Over Bombs, which highlights the plight of Syrian refugee children living in settlements in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and produces an ethical clothing line to help fund their education. “In July last year I came across a video of a Syrian boy being taunted by an adult holding a video camera,” she says. “As a mother this broke my heart, I just wanted to scoop him up and hold him. In my despair, it dawned on me that had he been in school this might not have happened, as school is a place of safety. I realised that Syrian refugee children have very little access to education, a basic human right.”
Bianca was haunted by that little boy, but chose not to use the seemingly endless stream of devastating images emerging from Syria to drum up support for her fledgling foundation. “We are constantly being bombarded with sad, guilt-inducing and often graphic images of children suffering,” she says. “Over time, we have become desensitised to the horrors of the world because some of us feel so helpless, we disconnect from it altogether. I wanted to highlight the resilience of Syrian refugee children. I want to show the world how amazing these kids are and share a message of hope.”
Having decided striking an uplifting note would be a more effective way of drawing attention to the initiative, the former marketing manager had another trick up her sleeve to capture people’s imaginations: fashion. Setting out to encourage existing labels to design special ranges that would be sold in aid of the foundation, Bianca eventually cut out the middle man and created a clothing collection that is 100 per cent organic cotton, GMO-free and certified Fair Trade. “I decided to get the ball rolling myself,” she says. “I chose fashion because half of our mission is to raise funds, but the other half is to create awareness, and fashion is an awesome toolfor that. We want to encourage consumers to make responsible choices and pick brands that are trying to make a difference.
“When this journey began, all I had was a good intention, nothing more. I didn’t have experience in charities, fashion, or website or graphic design, and I certainly didn’t have any money of my own. But I’ve learned that you don’t need to have degrees and qualifications to fulfil your dreams. All you need is passion, tenacity and resourcefulness.
“Books Over Bombs has definitely made me a better mother and a better person in general. Starting this journey has taught me that you don’t need to be the same race, religion or nationality in order to help a person. If you peel the layers back, we’re all human beings, and as adults, it’s our duty to make sure that every child in the world is safe.”
The proceeds from BOB’s debut collection are being used to pay for school fees, uniforms, books and stationary for children living in the Bekaa Valley camps, and Bianca hopes to even more to benefit Syrian children robbed of an education by conflict in their country. “I’m hoping the war will end soon and that it will be safe for Syrians to move back into their homelands,” she says. “I want to help rebuild schools and have after-school centres where children will have access to free tutoring, counselling, art, music and dance classes. I would like to provide an artistic outlet for them to express their pain and, essentially, to heal.”
Bianca truly believes in the ability of an individual to be a force for good in the world. “I want to inspire everyday people to help,” she says. “I want to bring back the hope into our hearts that can encourage more humanity. I want to end the cycle of despair and violence. I know this is a huge statement, but a girl should dream big, right?”
Visit Books Over Bombs to make a donation or shop the collection.
Dumyé was born when Sahar Wahbeh sewed a rag doll as a gift for her daughter, Neeva, and spied an opportunity to launch a new enterprise that could be a force for good.
“I want to share with you a story about a boy,” says Sahar Wahbeh, founder of Dumyé, which gifts one of its hand crafted dolls to an orphan in need every time it sells one. “We met this boy at one of our art workshops held in a refugee camp in Lebanon,” says Sahar. “We presented him with a blank doll, like we do all of the kids we work with. But unlike many of the children, who design dolls depicting their ideal self, this little boy began creating a character with eyes wide open, mouth frowning and eyebrows raised,” says Sahar. “He then began to cover his doll in bullet holes, head to toe.”
After some time, Sahar says, a Dumyé volunteer gently persuaded the boy to dress his doll. “Together they sat, stitch by stich, side by side, sewing together a shirt and some trousers for this wounded doll. Later in the day I stumbled across this brave boy and two friends laughing and playing together with their dolls. There was so much joy between them,” she says. “What these children have seen and experienced is unknown, but through their dolls they begin sharing a piece of their story. For a couple of hours they have permission to say what their words can’t articulate and what society doesn’t want to hear.”
Sahar has turned her frustration at being unable to find a suitably special doll to gift to her own daughter into an enterprise that, in addition to creating unique and meaningful products, is having a real impact on the lives of disadvantaged women and children. “The blank Fair Trade cotton dolls used in the workshops are made by an NGO providing economic opportunity to impoverished women. They in turn use their proceeds to educate the next generation of under-served girls,” says Sahar, who spoke to Emirates Woman from India, where she was visiting one of Dumyé’s partner NGO’s. “We commission these rural artisans to create the blank dolls we use in our workshops and some of the packaging for our dolls,” says Sahar. “For every 1,000 we sell, we not only gift 1,000 dolls to orphans in need, it also creates 214 days of full-time work for these under-served women, and sponsors 95 school days for the girls in their community. Seeing the positive effect this has had on their lives, with my very own eyes, is mind blowing.
“For the orphans we work with, we want to give them an opportunity to experience joy and relief while restoring a piece of their childhood. For the women we economically empower and the girls we help educate, all research shows that when women succeed communities and economies flourish. We want to feed that fire.”
The success of Dumyé’s business model has seen it selected as a finalist in The Venture, an international search for the most promising social enterprises around the world. Dumyé, which is officially representing the Gulf, is the only brand from the Middle East in the running for a share of US$1million (Dhs36.5million) in funding. “This next few months are pivotal to Dumyé,” says Sahar. “A lot of our energy is going into maximising this opportunity.” In addition, Sahar is focusing on expanding the Dumyé team and launching new product lines, as well as exploring further investment and expanding its NGO network.
“Dumyé began as a very personal journey,” Sahar says. “When I became a mother, I looked into my daughter’s big brown eyes and thought, how on earth will I teach her all the intangible lessons of life? The answer always brought me back to the same place. If I wanted her to have courage to live her best life, I had to do the same.”
Entrepreneurial sisters Rania and Zaina Kanaan are using their Charicycles business to give Palestinian children back the “sense of freedom” that comes with owning a bicycle.
“We believe that if we want to see positive change in the world, we are responsible for starting it,” says Zaina, who up-cycles and sells vintage bicycles together with her sister, Rania. “The social conscience aspect is embedded in our business model,” Rania says. “A percentage of revenue from everything we sell goes towards funding a bicycle for children in refugee camps. It helps them remain connected to their childhood, and gives them back that little bit of freedom that every child deserves.”
Owning a Charicycle is “good for you, good for your environment, and good for others”, says Zaina. “Our bicycles are vintage and are all saved from scrapping – protecting the environment from more waste. Our dynamo lights are powered by motion energy, and our baskets are made from corn husks. Cycling keeps you fit while allowing you to enjoy your city, and finally, by getting behind Charicycles you’re helping to give a child less fortunate a bicycle.”
Rania actually admits to being something of a cynic when it comes to charity. “I am a bigger fan of teaching people how to fish, rather than giving them a fish,” she says. “We deal with organisations like the PCRF (Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund) to select the students that put in the most effort and work hard at school. We don’t randomly give away bicycles, and we hope that, with a reward system in place, more students in refugee camps will try harder and excel in their studies.” The first batch of Charicycle-funded bicycles has already been delivered to their young owners in the West Bank. Seeing their pictures “makes your heart grow”, Rania says.
Zaina, who spent last summer volunteering in camps, says it is the smiles of youngsters who have benefited from the initiative that inspire the sisters to keep pouring their hearts and souls into their business. “Most kids in refugee camps are restricted in their movements and don’t have basic rights,” says Zaina. “A bicycle gives them a sense of ownership, a sense of freedom, a right to enjoy a journey that is vastly different to their daily struggles and free of all responsibility. For the duration of their ride, they get to have a normal childhood.”
The sisters are hoping their “enlightened” approach to business will become more common in the future. “We’d like to think we’re shedding light on how start-ups should start to think worldwide, so we can have more love, peace and equal distribution in this world, while protecting our environment.
“If you love something you can turn it into a business, and if you think about helping other people in the process, your passion turns into a vocation, and your commitment to doing good becomes addictive,” says Zaina, who believes Charicycles is helping to create a “ripple effect of happiness”, from the customer who has treated themselves to an eco-friendly (and stylish) new way to get around the city, to the child being gifted a new bike as a direct result. “We have volunteers on the ground who distributed our first batch of bicycles not long ago,” says Zaina. “We were with them digitally the entire way, and it was really touching. The mums were thanking our volunteers but the kids couldn’t wait to get on their bikes and start cycling. The excitement, appreciation and love was incredibly motivating.”
Visit Charicycles to shop the collection, or contribute towards paying for a bike for a child refugee.
The ZB Foundation
Dani Wilson is turning personal tragedy into a more hopeful future for Pakistan’s newborns through The ZB Foundation, which is working to introduce a system of potentially life-saving heel prick testing in the country.
In February 2012 Dani Wilson and her husband lost their baby girl, Zahra Beau, to an undiagnosed metabolic disorder. A disorder that could have been picked up by a simple heel prick test that is mandatory in the west, but not in underdeveloped countries like Pakistan, where their much longed for adopted daughter was born. A test that, had it detected Zahra’s disease, could have saved her life.
“Her disorder may have been diagnosed at birth and she may still be alive today if we had carried out a simple test,” says Dani. “Through this painful experience we realised that in a country like Pakistan, with a poor healthcare system, many babies are dying because they have no access to heel prick tests. We realised that to keep ZB’s spirit alive, we had to start a foundation that pioneered heel prick testing and newborn screening to the Pakistani population.”
Around 4.5million babies are born in Pakistan every year, a figure equivalent to the total population of New Zealand, Dani points out. “The majority of these babies won’t have access to newborn screening, meaning a very large number will be born with diseases that go undetected and will come back to harm them… with no explanation as to how and why it has happened.” While she could never have predicted her journey with the ZB Foundation, the mission has become a “deeply personal” calling for Dani and her husband. “We have a goal, a mission to accomplish, and in many ways we accept this responsibility with humility and honour. But also with courage, as we know it will not be easy.” Dani says. “The ZB Foundation is a symbol of our daughter and everything that we achieve will be because of her spirit.”
The Wilsons have already managed to overcome some of the considerable hurdles involved in establishing a charity in a third world country to set up the ZB Foundation’s first pilot newborn screening (NBS) project in partnership with a military hospital in Islamabad. “We are setting up a comprehensive screening, diagnostic and treatment process that doctors can use on a consistent basis, meaning all the babies born at the hospital will automatically be entitled to a heel prick test,” says Dani. The goal is to expand the pilot project and launch similar schemes in other major cities. “We aim for every baby in Pakistan to receive a newborn screening test at birth, be it in a hospital or clinic, or babies that are abandoned and given to orphanages,” Dani says. “This test should be a child’s birth right, like it is in the west.”
Less than four years have passed since Dani became a mother to Zahra Beau, but her life has changed beyond recognition. “Since losing Zahra, everything that happens in my life and my family’s life is because of her. She is our driving force,” Dani says. “My husband and I have to make sense of our loss, and the only way we feel at peace is knowing that she picked us as parents to spend three months of her life with, to be loved unconditionally and smothered with affection 24/7. She must have known that we wouldn’t just let her death go in vain, and that we would be the ones to help millions of other babies survive.”
The Wilsons now have three more children, Amara, three, and two-year-old twins Rio and Sienna. “My four children are my inspiration,” says Dani. “I never take anything for granted. I waited so long to be a mother, and I cherished every moment we had with Zahra. Now I have more children I enjoy them so much and never complain – they grow up so fast. We talk about Zahra every day… we even visit her grave and the children lay flowers. I want them to grow up knowing that through love you can achieve anything in life – even changing the face of Pakistan’s future.”
Visit the ZB Foundation or call (05) 06882308.