Creativity for a cause: UAE women out to make a difference

The Philadelphia Creativity for a Cause promotion challenges women to set up a social project that betters a community. The nine finalists selected are competing for a Dh100,000 prize and the chance to turn their idea into reality, Mitya Underwood writes

Finalists for the Philadelphia Creativity for a Cause Campaign met their mentors at The Archive in Safa Park in Dubai last month. Mentor Saher Shaikh, right, guides Denisa Fainis. Charles Crowell / The National
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Humaira Mansour

Humaira Mansour’s idea is not about reinventing the wheel. Instead, the full-time mum, originally from Karachi, Pakistan, plans to create a mobile community library to travel to parts of the city that do not have easy access to books.

“In Dubai there is the British Council library and the Dubai Public Library, but I want to have one that travels to places like Deira and Bur Dubai. It’s accessible for everyone, especially the children,” she says. “There isn’t a library near me; there must be other mums in the same situation.”

Mobile libraries, also known as bookmobiles, are usually considered to be more cost-efficient than static libraries and able to reach wider areas of a population.

There are programmes running in most European countries, as well as Kenya, Zimbabwe and Thailand, where elephants are used to take books to remote areas.

In the UAE, Mrs Mansour says such access to books should be easier.

“It’s not just about books, it’s about people interacting with different cultures and their own neighbours.

“I would like a space which is full of books, but where there is also somewhere for people to sit and chat, or sit and read, adults and children,” she says.

“If you tell a child now to go pick up a book they will switch on the iPad. It shouldn’t be like this. I think a mobile library would be the solution to getting more children interested in reading.”

Denisa Fainis

IT security specialist Denisa Fainis did her homework before submitting her idea to start distributing leftover hotel food to labourers.

“The first thing is to create a database of hotels and general managers,” she says. “I wouldn’t target individual hotels, but [hotel] groups. I want to speak to the head of the waste treatment, I need to take care of transport and logistics. There are health-and-safety rules about unused food, we can work around these.”

The Romanian also spoke to the founder of the American Food Recovery Network, a system that works with colleges and universities to collect their surplus perishable food and donate it to those in need. She wants to introduce a similar network here focusing on hotels rather than colleges.

“He [the founder] gave me some great advice about the laws and regulations in the US, and the standards on how to pack the food and recover it in time.”

It was during her time working in Afghanistan with a contract for the US military that Ms Fainis first decided to try to limit food waste when there were so many people going hungry. “I saw the amount of food that was wasted and I was doing convoys outside the base and saw all the hungry children and locals.”

She sees no reason why the UAE couldn’t introduce a similar system given that other countries manage to do so with no risk to public health.

Jovette Carbonell

Fly Dubai cabin crew Jovette Carbonell wants to fix a rubbish problem. Her idea, which she hopes will garner enough votes to be considered for the grand prize, is simple: it involves putting more recycling bins in high-density areas of Dubai.

“I know they are there in Jumeirah and JBR, but what about the areas that are more [remote such as] Al Qusais or Deira or Satwa.”

Ms Carbonell, 31, who lives in Al Nahda near Dubai International Airport Terminal 2, formulated her idea after the rubbish chute in her building had repeated blockages, stinking out the first floor where she lived.

“The garbage would all get stuck, and I was on the first floor of a 12-storey building. Can you imagine? Actually, don’t imagine!”

The solution, she figured, was simple in reducing the amount of rubbish thrown away and in providing an alternative.

“If you can separate waste and make it easy for people to recycle, they will. If the recycling bins are on the way to someone’s car and outside the front of the building, it is easy.

“In my country, the Philippines, we don’t do it at all and we have landfills full of garbage everywhere. It is not a good thing.”

If successful, Ms Carbonell, who has lived in the UAE for a decade, says she will use the money to jump-start a public-private initiative to install bins around the emirate. She hopes to encourage the municipality to collect from them on their regular rounds.

Maha Al Suroor

Emirati Maha Al Suroor works as an education coordination assistant at the Sharjah Art Foundation, organising art courses and workshops for children.

If schools do not have the means or necessary skills to incorporate art, Mrs Al Suroor is there to help.

Her idea for the creativity competition combines this with her experience in art rehabilitation.

“At work we get calls from Khor Fakkan, or orphanages, asking us to help them teach art. This gave me the idea to create an ‘arts on wheels’ project.”

Her idea is similar to existing schemes in places such as the UK that are often funded by the national government.

“There would be a travelling bus, specially equipped with art supplies. I want to take it to special-needs children and senior people. When I was younger I used art as a sort of rehabilitation. And when I was in the [United] States I started hearing about all the initiatives of bringing art to people, and I thought ‘we don’t have that in my country, but we should’.”

Married with a three-year-old daughter, Mrs Al Suroor returned to the UAE last year after a five-year study break in Japan where she completed her Masters in barrier-free design, the design of accessible buildings for people who are not able-bodied.

“I don’t think this idea is unique, but I want to push the envelope with it. The things we had 10 years ago it’s not the same now. We have Photoshop now, so why not have computers on the bus and teach adults Photoshop?”

Daila Eltaleni

Egyptian Daila Eltaleni wants the prize money to help her set up a toy library where families can rent toys, games and puzzles for a nominal price. Popular in Australia, Europe and the United States, the libraries provide parents a much cheaper and efficient alternative to spending hundreds of dirhams on toys their child may only play with for a couple of months.

“I want the toys in good condition, or excellent, to be donated,” she say. “Children can take them and enjoy them for two weeks for a nominal fee, then return them. It’s about sharing, which is a great thing for kids to learn.”

The toys would range from small rattles to larger play mats and bikes and be split into different age ranges. Everything would be disinfected and sterilised after their return. If any item is returned late or damaged, there would be a penalty fee.

“I have seen these in Europe, and coming from Egypt I have seen a lot of poor children. It’s our duty to give all children the chance to experience playing and having fun.”

The first European toy library was reported to be set up in Sweden by a mother of two children with physical disabilities who wanted other similar children to have better access to appropriate toys. In Canada, there are more than 200 toy libraries nationwide.

Mrs Eltaleni, a mother of two, says the prize money would help set up either a permanent space for the library in a mall or provide funds to make it mobile, and also to advertise the service. The toys, she hopes, would be donated by Dubai residents.

“The amount of toy waste is unbelievable. This would help reduce that. It would save parents money, and it teaches children good lessons.”

Muna Zayed

Muna Zayed is one of two shortlisted entrants from outside the UAE. The science teacher, originally from Jordan and living in Oman, wants to improve student nutrition in schools.

“Our kids eat junk food,” she says. “It is not good for them. I want to find a way of encouraging them to eat healthier in schools. If we take the money they spend on lunch and buy healthy foods ... we can make funny faces on healthy pizzas and make shapes with fruit salads. We need to get them engaged.”

If successful, the mother of four young children wants to use the winning prize to set up an in-house health club to try and draw children away from unhealthy canteen options, such as manakish and fatayer. Although her plan is in its infancy, she has the drive to make it work.

“You see many people at our age, 30s, 40s and 50s, and they are dying early because of diabetes, obesity, heart attacks and strokes. But we can reduce it. As a teacher and a mother I care about our kids, and I want to give them a good future.”

Josephine Salcedo

Nurse Josephine Salcedo, 28, spends at least 90 minutes on a bus each day travelling from her Abu Dhabi home to a health centre in Mussaffah.

On top of that, the Filipino sometimes spends another two or three hours waiting at her bus stop.

It is not a surprise then that her idea is to create a book-borrowing system at city bus stops and bus stations.

“The bus home for me comes once an hour, so if I miss it I have to wait another hour. For me, I read. I always have a book. But I see other people don’t.”

With help from the competition’s mentors, Ms Salcedo wants to find a way of providing books and magazines for temporary use for people waiting at bus stops.

“So many people get the bus. With this, those people can read and learn while they wait. Maybe they could be tied to string so people put them back. I don’t think anyone would say no to reading something if they are waiting an hour for a bus.”

Kim Paul

Australian Kim Paul is bringing a taste of home to the Philadelphia Creativity for a Cause competition.

The organic-food lover wants to introduce some of the principles from the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation into the Victoria International School Sharjah, where two of her three boys study.

The prize money, she says, would enable her to establish a fully-fledged pilot programme that could be used as a demonstration for other schools. For the government, it would show that such a scheme would not only be possible here, but also very beneficial.

The foundation, based in Mrs Paul’s home state of Victoria, is non-profit that introduces food education into school curricula. Pupils learn how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh and healthy produce that is grown in a school garden.

It is something the insurance consultant thinks could be emulated in the UAE, despite the high temperatures.

“There’s a big movement towards growing food here rather than importing everything,” Mrs Paul says. “Why does an avocado have to come from Australia?

“To do the pilot programme we need a garden specialist to tell us how to do it, and there’s a lot of farms around here, it’s all there for the taking.”

The money, if she wins, would be spent on hiring a garden specialist, preparing a plot of land, buying the necessary education tools for the children, and maintaining the garden throughout the year.

“If we research everything for the next six months, we will be ready to start in the winter.”

Raghad Jamalallail

Raghad Jamalallail wants to join the growing number of philanthropists in Saudi Arabia who are trying to change her country for the better.

The electrical and computer engineering student entered the competition with an idea to create a sort of soup kitchen with a twist. Her Heaven’s Gift project, named by her family, involves making up to three meals a day and delivering them to people in need nearby.

“In Saudi, we have had a flood a couple of times in past years and every time there is a flood people make care packages and send them out. I thought why care packages? The people who lose their homes don’t have ovens to cook their food, so why give them a bag of rice? They don’t have anything to cook it in.”

The 18-year-old Jeddah native plans to enlist her fellow Effat University students to cook food in the school kitchen and then drive it out to families who need it.

If she doesn’t win she still hopes someone will still step forward to help fund the project.

“There are a lot of people that would fund the project. Nowadays there’s a lot of philanthropy. There’s a lot of volunteering teams, they go and clean the beach or paint the walls.”