From refugee to benefactor, a mother in Abu Dhabi brings much-sought education to Syrian children

Driven by her passion to bring education to refugees and disadvantaged children, Rudayna Abdo founded Thaki – a non-governmental organisation that collects used but working laptops from donors. Josh Wood reports from Beirut.

Rudayna Abdo, founder of NGO Thaki, posing with a Syrian child at a Social Support Society school in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. Thaki seeks to provide laptops from donors to centres educating refugee and disadvantaged children in Lebanon and Jordan. Courtesy Rudayna Abdo
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BEIRUT // Rudayna Abdo knows the importance of continuing an education despite war and exile: the Abu Dhabi resident was once a refugee herself.

Back in 1976, she was a young girl living in a town in the hills above Beirut when Lebanon’s descent into civil war arrived at her family’s home. To escape shelling, her family hid in the basement and her father stacked sandbags against the windows to protect his family. During moments of calm, she would emerge from the basement and gather shrapnel for her collection.

In December that year, they fled – first by boat to Cyprus and then to Greece. Unsure of how long the war would last and not wanting their children to miss a beat, her parents enrolled her in school.

“The mantra I grew up with was that education is the only thing you can take with you. So education is critical,” she said.

Her family eventually moved to Canada, and she went to the United States to study architecture at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology before getting a master’s in urban planning at Montreal’s McGill University. For the last eight and a half years, she has lived in Abu Dhabi with her husband and two sons.



Three years ago, she saw the deepening refugee crisis in the Middle East due to the civil war in Syria – and the struggles that Syrian children face in accessing an education – and felt compelled to do something.

Last year, she founded Thaki (which means "smart" in Arabic), a non-governmental organisation that collects used, unwanted but still working laptops from donors. Along with a group of volunteers beyond the borders of the UAE, and with skill sets ranging from IT and marketing to education and research, she loads the computers with educational software and ships them to schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

By the end of this year, Ms Abdo hopes Thaki can distribute 2,000 computers that will serve 12,000 children in those countries. By the end of 2017, she hopes to have another 6,000 computers to educate refugee and disadvantaged children.

With roughly half of school-aged Syrian children in Lebanon out of school – and those in school often sorely lacking resources – refugee aid is in dire straits in the country. For Syrian children in Lebanon, even those in school, the odds are against them and there is little optimism about their futures. But individuals like Ms Abdo hope to change that, even if they are working on a relatively small scale.

“They’re just children. They shouldn’t be going through this,” she said. “They are entitled to a childhood, and that’s what I see.”