ABU DHABI // "It all started with helping an Abu Dhabian be a student in America and we're still doing that same thing now," says Mary Corrado of the journey that led her to the UAE. It was 1970 when Mrs Corrado had her first encounter with Abu Dhabi. While in New York with her husband, Martin, they met some Abu Dhabians who were among the first to study in the US.
They became firm friends and by 1977 the Corrados were travelling to the emirate to visit them. It was not her first time in the Arab world, having spent a year studying international relations in Cairo in 1965 and, before that, travelling in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan with her family. But Abu Dhabi was different. "Abu Dhabi was simple," she says. "The desert life was much more apparent. People had their falcons and their camels. We were very welcomed by everyone and we stayed with the family of the friends we'd made in New York."
Soon her husband, whom she married in 1969, had been offered a job in Abu Dhabi as a financial adviser and, with a three-year-old daughter, they decided to move from their Minnesota home. Shortly after, they had a second child and Mrs Corrado divided her time between family life and horse riding. She had been a keen rider in the US but found a whole new experience in Abu Dhabi. It was a romantic setting, riding across the desert on horseback.
"It was my chance to get to know and ride the Arabian horses," she says. "They seemed so much more intelligent and loyal. One became like a pet and would follow me around." Her horse was how she travelled to her friends' homes to pay visits. "It was a relaxed time, a time to really get to know the Emirati families," she says. Mrs Corrado still remembers Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Abu Dhabi in 1979, when she was taking her own photographs of the British queen with the President and founder of the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed. "In those days," she recalls, "everyone knew everyone and it wasn't hard to get close. It was very exciting and the kind of opportunity you'd never get back in the US."
The Corrados stayed in Abu Dhabi for seven years before moving away for the next nine, travelling to London, the US and Malta, and visiting Abu Dhabi in between. With three children aged eight, 11 and 14, the family returned to Abu Dhabi in 1993. Looking to do more than just ride, she trained as an English teacher at the British Council, a decision that would change the course of her life. Just three years later, she was asked by the US ambassador at the time, William Rugh, to help to set up a UAE office of AMideast, a non-profit organisation that helps students around the world to travel to the US for study.
It is part funded by the US State Department as well as international companies including HSBC and Boeing. With just a desk and a chair, she set up the office on the grounds of the Abu Dhabi Men's College, with the support of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Tayeb Kamali, the vice chancellor of the Higher Colleges of Technology. In their first year, they sent a handful of students to the US, and now they have offices in Dubai and Sharjah and facilitate hundreds of students travelling to schools across America, explaining the visa process, advising on the best schools and practical advice such as daily life in the US.
She has come full circle from her first encounter with Emiratis in New York. Mrs Corrado is also active on the boards of the Al Shohub private school for girls and the Abu Dhabi Arts and Music Foundation, working to improve arts and music education in the emirate. Mona Quraishi has known Mrs Corrado since the 1970s. She is one of a number of Emirati friends to whom Mrs Corrado has become close since her arrival in the country. The two families have shared holidays including a safari in Africa.
Mrs Quraishi has seen her friend in roles from full-time mother to educational pioneer and says Mrs Corrado's easygoing nature has made her transition into the local society seamless. "She always wants to help," Mrs Quraishi said. "Everybody likes her and she really has the respect of the local community. It's been a very natural transition for her. She doesn't impose herself, she isn't the kind of person to always show her knowledge."
Even after decades, Mrs Corrado says some things have not changed so much, particularly the emphasis on family life. "It's so rewarding to see these young Emiratis as young adults now, all helping to make their country grow," she says. "It's especially rewarding to see so many young women doing so well in education." email@example.com