Category Archives: Special Features

FACING YOUR FEARS

Encouraging Adults to Learn to Swim

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Adult learn to swim students

In March, I faced one of my greatest fears head on. I embarked on a challenge to learn to swim. I’ve spoken about it previously on my blog but what I haven’t done is share the reasons why I never learned to swim as a child and why now, at 40, I have tackled it, along the way inspiring other adults to step out of their comfort zone and overcome their fear of swimming pools.

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Absolute Swimming Academy UAE with young men who can’t swim

I grew up with my very conservative Muslim father, so when he told me as a child that I would no longer be allowed to wear a swimsuit, I found ways to avoid school swimming lessons. I was eight and embarrassed at having to jump in the water with my classmates in shorts and a T-shirt; during the 80s we didn’t have the luxury of rash tops or knee-length swimsuits like the one I wear today.

The decision I made to sit out swimming lessons led to an incident that caused me to fear swimming pools for most of my life. I recall being at a school swim gala when the teachers gathered the non-swimmers together for water games. After jumping in the water and watching my friends swim comfortably across the pool, I found myself sinking and gasping for air. I was extremely fortunate that a man saw me and dived in to save me. Until recently, whenever I couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool, my heart would race and I found myself scrambling back to the shallow end.

For 25 years, I have made excuses to avoid getting in the water and learning to swim. As the mother of four girls, I made sure that my eldest three learned to swim from a young age and that they have confidence in the pool and ocean. Empowering them with these skills has made me feel confident about them being around swimming pools; I didn’t want to pass my fears on to them. My youngest is 18 months and she is now getting in the pool and learning to swim.

As part of my 40 before 40 challenge, where I set out to do 40 things before I turned 40, I had swimming at the top of my list. After five lessons, I began swimming 25 metres without fearing the deep end. I had learned the necessary skills to keep myself afloat while breathing and kicking. It was one of the most liberating feelings.

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Speaking to the Gulf News in Dubai  about my learn to swim journey

After sharing my story on Instagram (@arabianmum), I was inundated with messages from adults who had not learned to swim. They had been embarrassed for so long, but after following my journey they were encouraged to face their fears. A popular radio show in Dubai, Virgin Radio’s the Kris Fade Show, aired my story, sparking a flood of calls and messages to the programme.

Myself and the presenters of the Kris Fade Show teamed up with Absolute Swimming UAE, where I have been learning to swim, to offer a group of adult non-swimmers an opportunity to learn to swim. The impact was immediate. Local UAE media supported the campaign as did UAE-based Serbian Olympian and two-time European swimming champion Velimir Stjepanovic.

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Velimir Stjepanovic joins the campaign

Swimming is a necessity. So often we assume and take for granted that everyone around us knows how to swim. Learning to swim, whether you’re an adult or a child, can save lives.

If you’re afraid of the water and have put off learning to swim for a while, make today the day you start. Parents, please invest in swimming lessons for your children. It may be the difference between life and death.

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Kris Fade and Priti Malik from Virgin  Radio supporting learn to swim  listeners

You can continue to follow my swimming story on Instagram (@arabianmum).

Thank you to the team at Absolute Swimming UAE, Kris Fade and the team at the Kris Fade Show for getting behind this important campaign to learn to swim.

Expat Exodus

Saying Goodbye to Friends

Living as an expat anywhere in the world means being away from your loved ones. Wherever we end up, our friends become the closest thing to family.

It’s inevitable, particularly living in the Arab world where we will never be the citizens of the country, for the expat journey to end.

The past year has been particularly difficult as one by one I’ve watched good friends make the hard decision to return to their native countries. The impact of falling oil prices has had a crippling effect on jobs across all industries.

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Geraldine and her family left Dubai in December 2015

Last Summer residents first began to witness the large exodus of expats across the region, mostly families, where one spouse had lost his or her job. Summer or Christmas are usually the most common times for families to pack up and leave, as it ensures their child’s education is not disrupted.

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I caught up with Lisa for the first time in Sydney earlier this year after she left Abu Dhabi in 2009

The high cost of living has also played a critical role in expats leaving the GCC. Some families have even opted to separate, with dad staying on and working in the region while mum and the children return home. The main trigger is the cost of education. Here in the UAE private school fees continue to rise, with some schools often charging more than USD 10,000 for kindy.

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When you’re an expat your friends are your extended family

The expat exodus has become the most talked about issue at mummy group gatherings – many said their good byes this past week as schools wrapped up for the winter break. My eldest daughter, Janah, a Year 7 student, said three children in her class would not return in the new school year.

This past week I learned that another friend left Dubai.  It’s the fifth family that has returned to their country over the last year.

As I look back on my 8.5 years in the UAE, I’m reminded of the mass exodus, post the global financial crisis. I had only been here for six months when it hit our shores. The impact was felt across all industries. We were among the few families who survived it and we watched as Dubai and neighbouring cities rebuilt.

When old friends leave, it opens the door to new friendships. I’m looking forward to welcoming newcomers to the city. To my old friends, we will always have DUBAI.

In Brief: 7DAYS to shut down   

On December 22, 2016, Dubai’s most loved newspaper, 7Days, will print its final newspaper.

The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged,” explains 7Days CEO Mark Rix. “Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business.

“It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

The closure leaves about 50 people, some friends, without jobs.

 

 

Syrian refugees face a new kind of hell

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

“Words simply cannot describe the sorrow and despair facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon today,” stated Lynn Tabbara, a co-founder of Intaliqi, a Lebanese-based NGO set up in 2013 to empower socially disadvantaged women in refugee camps across the country.

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, there are over 3 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Levant, making it the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

Lebanon is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, with over 1.3 million living in makeshift tents in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley. Many, according to Ms Tabbara, are not registered, making it difficult for them to access aid. And being registered, she said, “Unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee them access to aid, given the scarcity of resources”.

“The situation is also deteriorating quite quickly,” she added. “We visited some of these camps around two years ago and conditions today are significantly worse. Refugees in the camps live in extreme poverty and every day struggle through life. Their displacement has stripped them of their humanity; children have lost their childhoods while adults seem to have given up on life. Their basic needs of shelter, belonging and protection are rarely met. Access to education and healthcare are luxuries few can afford.”

The winter months cause these refugees the most distress. Earlier this month, Lebanon and parts of the Levant experienced one of the worst snowstorms in history. According to Lebanon’s state-run news agency, in North Lebanon’s Akkar region “snow fell at just 200 metres above sea level, completely cutting off villages and towns above 1,000 metres. Certain villages were buried under more than 150 centimetres of snow.”

But despite snowstorm Zina tapering, there appears to be no end in sight for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The destruction left behind has been catastrophic, making life unbearable for those families living in makeshift tents.

“We have tragically witnessed babies and elderly frozen to death,” said Ms Tabbara. “Refugees have to face the snow with practically no shoes on and very few layers. Their frail bodies are often unable to protect them from the freezing cold and sub-zero temperatures. Blankets are often used to protect the tents from water leakage, instead of providing warmth to their bodies. They have practically no heating and unreliable electricity.”

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Since its establishment, Intaliqi has set up programmes to assist Syrian refugee women, among other programmes aimed at vulnerable and displaced women. However, the harsh winter conditions Lebanon has witnessed this month required Intaliqi’s prompt intervention on a much wider scale.

“We felt compelled to act decisively and lend our support to as many affected by this crisis as possible. Our hearts ached for every man, woman and child who was literally freezing to death,” she added.

“In partnership with other NGOs, private donors and businesses, and with the strong support of the local and international communities, we are trying to reduce the impact of the crisis by assisting some of the refugees and providing them with basic survival needs.”

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Ms Tabbara started a personal social media initiative to raise donations from close family and friends; what she didn’t expect was the rapid international response to the initiative.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response so far! We have now set up collection points in Lebanon, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK. People from all over the world are sending us donations to help those in need. We are forever grateful to the priceless support we have had from businesses and individuals who truly believed in us and made this initiative a success,” she said.

Among the supporters of the campaign is Lebanese-Australian beauty Jessica Kahawaty. With over 160,000 followers, the former Miss World Australia urged her followers on Instagram and Facebook to get behind the campaign. “These are LIVE images of four Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon that I’m personally helping,” the Yahoo Maktoob presenter posted on her social media pages. “If you aren’t aware already, many children are dying from starvation.”

Speaking from her home in Sydney, where she’s currently completing a law degree, Ms Kahawaty told me that her message was that we should live in harmony with one another and provide an education to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Jessica Kahawaty

Jessica Kahawaty

“The most important thing right now is providing basic life necessities such as food, water, warm shelter and medication to the displaced minors and their families,” she said. “The issue is obviously a very complex one that will take many years to resolve and the scars are engraved so deep they will show for generations to come, but eventually, it would be imperative to place these children in schools and make sure they receive at least universal primary education in order for them to have some opportunity in life.”

It’s just as terrifying in the Za’atari camp – Jordan’s largest refugee camp – where the UNHCR says that dozens of families remained camped in emergency shelters last week after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow.

“This storm has had a big impact on refugees here, and it’s making their daily lives even harder,” said UNHCR’s Nasreddine Touaibia. “Being in a camp is already not a comfortable situation, so if you add to it this extreme weather – strong winds, rain and snow – the situation now is pretty bad.”

In the UAE, more than USD 45 million was raised earlier this month as part of the UAE Compassion Campaign to help the displaced refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and Palestine.

Shoes are delivered for children in refugee camps

Shoes are packed and delivered to children in refugee camps

But more needs to be done says Ms Tabbara. “They still need blankets, boots, jackets, kids’ clothing, gloves, scarves, socks, canned food, bread, fuel coupons and medication to help them get through the coming winter months.”

Do your bit to help the Syrian refugee crisis: contact Intaliqi by email at info@intaliqi.com or by phone +961 70706167.

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Education is a right and not a privilege

Finding the right school is not always easy

Finding the right school is not always easy

Serene crawled into my bed and placed her head on my shoulder. I could feel the dampness on her cheek. She was crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, as she placed her arms tighter around my neck. “I don’t want to go to school,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to do the Arabic exam.” I reached over to get my phone to check the time. It was 6am. My daughter had woken up stressed and anxious.
It had been an extremely stressful week in our house; Serene and Janah, my eldest, had spent most of their afternoon studying intensely for their end-of-term exams.
From the beginning of the 2014–2015 school year, there was a sudden shift in the way they were being taught. Within the first two weeks of returning to school, the students, from K-12 sat standardisation tests for their core subjects. Parents were not notified. Everyday my three girls came home recounting how they’d missed another lesson due to the testing.
Parents were puzzled. What had brought on this sudden change and why weren’t parents informed?
Did it have something to do with the school’s poor ranking from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai’s governing body for private education? The school scored ‘Acceptable’.
But was increasing homework and class quizzes the answer? As a parent I became very concerned. My children were forced to give up afterschool extracurricular activities just to keep up with the demand.
Before you think I’m another whinging mother, I’m not! My daughters are not 16 and 17 years old, studying for their final year of school. They’re 6, 7 and 9 years old.

These are their foundation years, a critical period in which they either begin to love school and learning or hate it.

I am trying desperately to avoid the latter.

Without support teachers can't do their job.

Without support teachers can’t do their job.

When I first moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2008, my husband and I had a goal for our children. We wanted our daughters to learn Arabic and the best way to do it was to send them to a school where they could mix with native Arabic-speaking children. We were living in Arabia and we had a unique opportunity to teach them about Middle Eastern culture and learn the language. While my husband is fluent in Arabic, I speak the language but can’t read and write. We didn’t want a generation in our family growing up not knowing the language of their ancestors. While the girls have progressed with the support of the school and an Arabic tutor, we’re beginning to see that our children are missing out in other parts of their schooling.
Did we make the right decision in enrolling our children in a school where teachers taught the way my mother and father were taught as children in the Middle East? Students are spoon-fed information, expected to memorise it and then examined on the content. They have not been on a school outing in many years. Teachers are overworked and underpaid; class sizes are too large while the classrooms are too small. My daughter’s Year 3 class room is so small that she can barely wheel her school bag out from the back of the room.
I consulted many parents at the school hoping to find some comfort. They too had similar concerns about their child’s education. Many revealed they were home schooling as their child was not receiving the necessary attention in class.
As I child I recall having one teacher and then specialist teachers for music, arts, and sport. I know this is still the case in many international schools throughout the UAE; many even have a teacher’s aide. At the school my daughters attend, they see eight different teachers for 45 minutes per subject. With this in mind I took the next step to speak with the teachers who I felt would be honest about the school’s attitude to education.
The majority of teachers at the school are from Lebanon and Syria with a few Western and European teachers thrown into the mix. They’ve expressed their desire to see the teaching system changed, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears.
A Year 2 maths teacher told me that she would never send her child to a school where there were 30 students in each class. “I teach 150 students a day,” she said. “By the end of the day I am exhausted.”
The Arabic teacher echoed the maths teacher’s concern,

“You can’t blame the teachers when the school doesn’t know what direction it wants to go in,” she said.

Serene’s tears confirmed our decision to move the girls in the new school year. The pressure they were under at such a young age is unfair and unnecessary.

I enlisted the help of James Mullan, co-founder of WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, an independent education website ranking schools across the UAE. Since its establishment in 2013, the website has had over two million hits.
His advice is simple, “different parents will have different requirements of the school. Talk to parents to find out what is actually happening. What are the children getting from that education?”
What should I be looking for when researching a new school?
Mullan says parents should follow these simple criteria.
1. Fees: Is it affordable?
2. Reputation: Does it have a good reputation?
3. Academic results: Ask the school to provide you with their academic results. Be demanding.
4. Added value: Some schools will say, for instance, it’s not about academic results but the value they add. Not every child is academic but may show strengths in other areas such as music, sports and the arts.
More importantly, after narrowing down the school list, Mullan adds, “go and visit the school, but not on an Open Day. Visit it on a working day with the child and allow your child to decide. As long as the school has ticked all the boxes, let your child meet the teachers, see the children, sports and wait to see his or her reaction.”

James Mullan

James Mullan

The UAE has evolved rapidly over the last decade with the development of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeriah and gated communities. Mullan says while you can magic infrastructure, you can’t magic education.

“Education needs nurturing, it takes care and time and that’s one of the things that everyone needs to be aware of including the people building schools, investing in schools, teachers, and parents. We are still living in an evolving experiment each day and you’re signing up for that in every sphere of your life.”

What about choosing the right curriculum?
According the Mullan, there are 17 curriculums on offer in the UAE, with the British curriculum favoured by one-third of private school.
“You’ve got to think about where you’ll be with your children in the coming years,” he says. “It’s not so much an issue in the early years in primary schools, but it is when you get to secondary schools. You’ve got to be thinking seriously about what you want to do. It’s a case-by-case situation.”

The cost of education in the UAE is astronomical and remains one of the most talked about issues in the country.

Unlike a decade ago when expats were presented with lavish salaries, which included additional education funding, today it’s part of the overall package. Expats on low incomes have no choice but to send their children to private schools; public schooling in the UAE is only available to UAE nationals.
Tuition for the 2014–2015 school year at Gems World Academy (GWA) for a six-year-old is AED71,092 (USD19,477) and over AED98,000 (USD26,800) for a Year 12 student, says the school’s website.
If a parent were to send their child to GWA, starting from KG2 through to Year 12,

tuition would cost a whopping AED1,060,160 (USD290,454) over the course of their schooling.

Gems World Academy Dubai

Gems World Academy Dubai

According to WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, in 2013–2014 school year, Gems World Academy, established in 2008, attained a ‘Good’ rating from the KHDA, the Dubai Government regulator entrusted with overseeing the growth and development of private education in the emirate.
Compare this to one of the best-known independent schools in New South Wales, Australia. Established in 1831, The King’s School Parramatta, has seen Crown Princes, leaders of political parties, authors, actors, leaders in law, medicine and in a wide range of other professionals educated at the boys’ school.
The tuition cost to educate a six-year-old boy at The Kings School is AED 48,482 (USD13,282). From K-12, it would cost his parents AED 88,624 (USD241,540).
GWA is situated on 42,715 sq. metres of land and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, Planetarium, 400m athletic track, 6-lane 50m pool, tennis courts, gymnasium, fitness centre, climbing wall, 620-seater auditorium, symphony centre, and peace garden.
This brings me to my next question: are parents paying for education or facilities at a UAE school?
“You should be paying for both education and facilities,” says Mullan. “Certain schools have fantastic facilities, but you often wonder how often they’re used.”
He adds: “One of the challenges that the UAE is going to face is that there is going to be a massive crunch on teaching talent over the next ten years. There is a huge development in the number of international schools around the world, so what that means is that top teachers will be able to choose where they want to go. In other words, schools here have to make it attractive for them to come here in terms of salary, conditions, but also in terms of Continued Professional Development (CPD), which is an area, when you speak to teachers here, that is missing. What you tend to get in schools here is what we call the backpacker teachers, young teachers who are out of college, stay for two years and then move on. Then you get mums who have been teachers, on their husband’s visa, who are then employed on a local contract. They receive a chunk of money and no additional benefits, and that saves the school a considerable amount of money, but going forward, is that going to be good enough?”
What about waiting lists?
Before we wrap up, Mullan has some promising news for parents. More than 20,000 places became available in September this year, as new schools opened across Dubai. Believe it or not, we could even see a drop in school fees.
So where does this leave me and my children?
I’ve taken James Mullan’s advice and spoken to parents from many different schools. I’ve lodged some applications and now it’s time to sit and wait. I’m just hoping we make the right decision.

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Do you have a similar experience? Leave your comments below.