Education City gives Qataris second chance

Doha// Muneera Al Qahtani spent most of high school socializing and enjoying herself. She was a “screw-up,” she says, and her teachers told her she was unlikely to amount to much.

But she summoned the will to graduate, zipped through a preparatory program and now earns top marks in engineering at Texas A&M University-Qatar. When she has time, the 20-year-old visits Doha secondary schools, using her turn-around as inspiration.

“You may not be a great student in high school, but you can change and do well in university if you work for it,” she told the students of Al Bayan Independent School for Girls this week. “Basically if you plant a seed it will grow.”

Nearly a decade old, Education City recruitment efforts are starting to bear fruit – sparking greater local interest, drawing young women into engineering and shaping Qatari success stories.

Over-achievement may be in Ms Al Qahtani's blood. Her father, Saad Saeed Al-Qahtani, grew up in a Bedouin community outside Doha and worked as a shepherd for years. When learning the alphabet, he used charcoal for a pen and stones for paper.

At 25, he started attending night school at the sixth grade-level. He graduated at the top of his class, received a government scholarship and earned his law degree at age 38, in 1993. Today Mr Al Qahtani is chief prosecutor in the government Office of Public Prosecution and the father of 13 children.

One of Ms Al-Qahtani's older brothers is a judge, while two others have law degrees. Two sisters have engineering degrees and work for RasGas.

Yet Muneera appeared to be the black sheep. Throughout primary and secondary school she rarely opened a book. “I saw school as a place where I go and play and see my friends,” she said. “It was like a picnic all day long.”

The shift began toward the end of her junior year, when she chose science as her future major. Her teachers advised her against it because it might too difficult for her. “That is the moment that told me there is no one who can say what I can and cannot do,” she said.

Around that time came another push. “My father told me, 'Either you choose a pencil or a broom,' which is basically you go study or you become a maid,” she recalled. “He said if you want respect you should finish, and I wanted that respect.”

She graduated and went into Qatar Foundation's Academic Bridge Program, which prepares students to attend Education City universities. She asked questions in class, visited her professors during office hours and dedicated herself to learning English.

“I started rebuilding myself, letting go of my childish ways,” she said. She scored so well on her English as a Foreign Language exam that Texas A&M invited her to attend a special engineering course for top students.

Last month, she completed the second year of a four-year program in electrical and computer engineering, a major she chose because she likes math and physics and wants to build something that helps people communicate.

She has become so committed to her field of study that she watches Japanese anime to steep herself in the culture of the world leader in electronics.

“She's quite enthusiastic, very interested and everything is done on time,” said Dr Hussein Al Nuwiri. The head of the electrical and computer engineering program, he taught Ms Al-Qahtani's classes in digital system design and computer architecture. “She's like an ideal student.”

She's not alone. In the US, Canada and most western countries, about 18 percent of undergraduate engineering students are female. At Texas A&M-Qatar it's more than twice that, at 40 percent.

The result is an empowering environment for young women. Though she wears the niqab, Ms Al-Qahtani has the confidence to speak up for herself and lead group discussions. When she heard last November that an Education City outreach program planned to visit her old school, she asked to come along.

She spoke about her father, her struggles as a student and her future career. “I want them to know they can do whatever they want,” she said of the high school students. “And I added a little flavour about the money you make as an engineer – most people like to hear that stuff.”

At least one observer came away impressed. “When we're speaking they hear us, but not completely,” said Maha Al Thani, recruitment and outreach coordinator at Education City. “When Muneera is speaking everybody is quiet and listening and giving their full attention.”

Ms Al-Qahtani has since come along on several other school visits, including the one to Al Bayan on Thursday.

“I thought her presentation was really good,” said Loolwa, a Qatari and Al Bayan 11th grader. “I'm definitely interested in Education City, I think I'll go to Carnegie Mellon and study business.”

Mariam, an 11th grader from Egypt, earns top marks at Al Bayan and wants to study medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “I would love to go there,” she said. “But I'm worried I won't get in because of the competition.”

Other girls asked about the co-educational system at Education City. They had never taken classes with boys and their parents were unsure it was a good idea. “Don't worry, the boys are not always flirting and throwing their numbers,” Ms Al-Qahtani said. “They are here to study, just like you.”

She plans to earn a master's degree in engineering, then return to work for Qatar Foundation, which is sponsoring her education. For Ms Al Qahtani, it's an organisation that understands that dress is not destiny and that everyone deserves a chance.

“Whatever you wear, it does not say who you are,” she said. “If you don't go after your future, you won't get any respect.”

an edited version appeared in the 11 June 2010 National, www.thenational.ae


One organisation's efforts to bring orphans into the family

DOHA // Western-style adoption is prohibited within Islam, which allows only a guardianship that confers neither family name nor the legal status of a natural-born child. But Khaled Kamal wanted the orphans in his care to have the same rights and privileges that other children enjoy.

He made inquiries. He travelled the region. At a conference last month in Beirut, he secured a verbal fatwa from a leading Sunni scholar, Salman al Auda.

“He said it is no problem to give the child the family name, in Sharia it’s OK,” Mr Kamal, the general manager of the Qatar Orphan Foundation, said during an interview this week in his office. “You can’t imagine how important it is to be named according to the family.”

Since its creation three years ago by the Qatari First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, the Qatar Orphan Foundation, known as Dhreima after a violet flower that grows in harsh conditions, has steadily gathered steam.

Today its waiting list is growing, its average orphan stay is shrinking and its officials are working to broaden the concept of family and expand the fostering experience, traditionally seen as an important charitable act in the Muslim world.

“Yateem is a big thing in Islam,” said Mr Kamal, the Dhreima general manager, using the Arabic word for guardianship. “It helps you get to paradise.” The Prophet Mohammed said those who took care of orphaned children would be close to him in heaven, according to a well-known hadith.

But Sharia generally recognises only inheritance claims based on blood or marriage and does not allow full adoptions because they are considered relics of the pre-Islamic era of jiyaliyyah, or ignorance.

Thus Mr Kamal’s efforts to expand the concept of family. He said that the widely respected Doha-based scholar Youssef al Qaradawi had voiced a view similar to Sheikh al Auda’s. Dhreima is drafting documents for these scholars to sign into fatwa and hopes to institute the new policy by the end of the year.

If confirmed, this new stance would mark an uprecedented shift. “I do not see how such an opinion would be judged valid according to Islamic legal methodology as it would contradict the clear verses in the Qur’an concerning this very issue,” said Sheikh Musa Furber, a mufti who studied Islam for more than a dozen years in Damascus and Cairo and is now a researcher at the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi. “Without seeing the actual text of these fatwa I cannot comment on their contents or evidence.”

Mr Kamal also hopes to help foster the passing down of family wealth via wasiya, or bequests, rather than meerat, or inheritance. But these proposals are in their early stages and still have to work their way through Islamic jurisprudence and various bureaucracies.

Meanwhile, Dhreima continues to assist Qatar’s most needy, focusing on four kinds of at-risk children: those with a mother but no father; those who have lost their father or both parents; the socially orphaned, which refers to financially incapable or broken homes; and finally babies whose parents are not known.

The first three, which represent the majority of children Dhreima works with, are supported with money, health care, rides to school and more. Only the last category can be fostered.

Dhreima’s facilities include three orphanages – one for newborns to seven years old, another for 7-18 year-old boys and a third for 7-18 year-old girls – and two guesthouses for those older than 18.

A key goal is integration. Dhreima’s in-house children attend normal government schools and regularly play with non-orphan children. If a local public school asks to bring their students for a visit, Mr Kamal refuses. “This is not a zoo where anybody can come to see them,” he said.

According to a Qatari law issued in 2007, police and other authorities are legally required to contact Dhreima whenever a newborn of unknown parentage is found or brought to them.

Origin is not an issue. “We don’t deal in colours, we don’t deal with income, language or religion,” said Mr Kamal. “We see orphans as human beings, and anyone within the borders of Qatar is accepted.”

Dhreima soon begins the search for a new home – such as that of Muna al Mutawa, who married in 1997 and learned over the ensuing years that she and her husband were unable to have children.

They heard about Dhreima in early 2008 and decided to apply to foster a child. Within a month they received a call that the orphanage had received a baby girl born two days prior – the same day Ms al Mutawa’s mother died.

She was one of five applicants for the newborn, but the others fell away in the rigorous screening process. The foster family must be Qatari nationals and include a mother and spouse (except in rare cases) between 25 and 45 years old. Dhreima visits the applicants’ homes and reviews family income and finances. Potential foster families also meet with a psychologist several times.

During Dhreima’s first year of operations, children stayed an average of four or five months before being placed, but now the average stay is a month or less. The last arrival was placed within 10 days. Now nearly a dozen families wait for the next orphan to arrive.

In May 2008, Ms al Mutawa took her baby girl, now named Reem, home for the first time. “Totally, completely, right away she was my baby,” she said, showing a photo of a smiling brown-eyed girl on her phone. “Now she is two years old, very naughty, very funny and very intelligent.”

Dhreima requires each foster couple to sign a contract committing to tell the child of its provenance. In the past, many families waited until high school or later to tell their children their family circumstance. “At that age, when they find out they are shocked and leave home,” said Mr Kamal, who advises foster parents to tell the child as soon as possible.

Ms al Mutawa plans to tell Reem soon. “It will happen in the coming months and years, Insh’allah,” she said. “But not until she gets a little older.”

Ms al Mutawa applauded Dhreima’s efforts to move towards full adoption. Her foster daughter is not a full Qatari citizen, like her and her husband, but rather a naturalised Qatari – a lesser standing that is reflected on passports and other official documents.

She hoped the passing on of the family name, if legally approved, would change that. “This would be great,” said Ms al Mutawa. “It was not possible when we adopted.”


Doha summit aims to adapt tools of global cooperation

DOHA // The World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative could hardly be more ambitious. Its main objective is to adapt the tools of international co-operation – the G20, UN bodies, the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the like – to the complex challenges of the 21st century to ensure the long-term security of humanity.

It also aims to create a more inclusive global system.

“Legitimacy comes from people,” Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and a former Singapore ambassador to the UN, said during the opening session of this week’s Global Redesign Summit in Doha. The report the WEF prepared for the event is titled Everybody’s Business.

“We have to learn to listen to the voices of 6.8 billion people,” he added. “The real purpose of this meeting is: let’s figure out how we can get the whole world involved in this, and not just some parts of it.”

Backed by the governments of Qatar, Tanzania, Singapore and Switzerland, the WEF launched the redesign initiative more than a year ago, in the depths of the financial crisis. A key aim was to move away from the so-called Washington Consensus and Bretton Woods-style institutions, created and led by industrialised countries, in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes.

“The world has gone through a heart attack,” Arif Naqvi, founder of the Dubai-based Abraaj Capital, the region’s largest private equity firm, said during the opening plenary. “We have to work very carefully through this moment to make sure everyone acts in concert to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The GRI tasked more than 1,000 analysts, officials and policymakers to re-envision international institutions to better address global health, security, sustainability, development and the financial system. At a series of meetings over the past year, their ideas matured into proposals, which Doha participants sought to put into action.

“We have lots of ideas that now need spouses,” the WEF vice chairman, Mark Malloch-Brown said, advising government officials to choose a proposal and work to implement it.

Inclusion may be easier said than done. Despite the call for innovation and bold rethinking, many speakers at the event held fast to traditional institutions of co-operation.

Richard Samans, the WEF’s managing director, explained that the redesign initiative did not intend to replace the existing system for international co-operation, but rather augment it.

“We are not here to overthrow the system,” agreed He Yafei, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. “Global redesign of the system is not a revolution; it’s more an evolution.”

Few of the 58 proposals, which are to be finalised at Davos, Switzerland, in January, are revolutionary. They include strengthening the financial safety net, the creation of an international financial risk monitor, expanding the capacity of the International Labor Organisation and improving a UN-supported programme called Education for All.

“A lot of the proposals are what you might call ‘punting’,” passing the problem on, said Parag Khanna, the director of global governance at the New America Foundation, who previously worked for the WEF. He sat in on several meetings over the past year and attended several sessions during the Doha summit. “It’s not quite redesign yet.”

In addition, one sizeable demographic was mostly absent.

“For everything, whether it’s financial or climate change, we should look at the poor as part of the process, rather than beneficiaries,” said Harish Hande, the founder and managing director of Selco, a provider of sustainable energy solutions to rural India.

He was speaking on Davos Debates in Doha, a YouTube channel set up for the event. “Redesign needs to happen where the poor become part of the implementers, designers and thought processes,” Mr Hande said.

In the end, the GRI may be less redesign than makeover. In calling for change, one prominent observer complained of a hidebound system dominated by inertia.

“International deadlock is the norm; cynicism and mistrust are common currency,” said Queen Rania of Jordan, who is on the redesign council for education. “If just enough people are happy, there’s no need to change it.”

Mr Khanna acknowledged that the GRI is in part a branding exercise. But it could still effect change. “I think we might see in a couple years’ time that international organisations move towards sharing resources and collaborating more with NGOs and corporations,” he said. “And it will partially be attributable to WEF.”

originally ran in 1 June 2010 The National, www.thenational.ae