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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Reckless Parenting in Arabia

Young children are often left alone at home
Young children are often left alone at home


“Parenting classes should be mandatory, whether you are adopting or not, and would include an evaluation of your current physical, mental and financial state as well as how ready you are to take on the rigors of parenthood. Our children are our most precious natural resource, and there is absolutely no other way to parent but to put them first.” – Dale Archer

Parents living in the United Arab Emirates will nod their heads in agreement after reading this piece. Some might be surprised while others simply won’t care. If you’re out of the country or the region you might be shaking your head by the end.

If you think seeing children hanging out of moving vehicles, jumping around in the back seat with no seatbelt on and sitting on the driver’s lap in a fast car is reckless, that’s nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you.

Working in the events industry in the Middle East, I have come across parents from all walks of life. There are those tearing their hair out desperately look for a lost child, and once she’s found, embrace her with love and care. And then there are those who drop off five and six year olds alone at an arena with not a care in the world. Others won’t realize their child is missing until we announce that he has been in our care for 20 minutes and we need his parents to come and claim him.

In one situation, I was confronted with a disturbing parental decision. I had invited my daughter’s eight-year-old school friend and her mother to attend a family event. On this particular day, the arena was filled to capacity, 3500 people. While doing my regular rounds to see whether my guests had any problems, I came across my daughter’s friend.

It's not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision
It’s not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

“Where’s your mum?” I asked. “She’s left,” the quietly spoken girl responded. Beside her was another little girl, her friend. I looked out into the distance and saw her mother and another woman leaving the arena, heading down the stairs and out the door. A million and one thoughts and profanities went through my head. What on earth was she thinking?

I dashed past several people. “Excuse me! Excuse me!’ I said, as I ran towards the woman. Still trying to catch my breath, I put my hand on her shoulder. “Hi, how are you?” I asked casually. “I’m glad you could make it.” She introduced me to her friend, another Lebanese mother.

“Where’s your daughter?” I asked.

“She’s sitting down with her friend,” she responded. And then the tales began.

“Aren’t you staying?” I asked.

“No, we’re going to have a cup of coffee,” she said casually, as though it were normal to leave two eight-year-old girls alone at a large event.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Unfortunately the rules don’t allow you to leave your children unattended at these events.”

“But we do it all the time when we go to the movies,” she continued. “They’re old enough and mature enough to be on their own.” Wow, I thought. Was she serious?

Sadly, many poor parenting decisions end in tragedy. And we’ve seen many here in the UAE and worldwide.

The UAE is still coming to terms with the news of a five-year-old girl who fell to her death from a high-rise building after she was left alone sleeping as her mother partied with her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve lost count of the stories over the years of children falling from windows of apartment buildings after they were left unattended.

Just last week I dashed across a busy carpark and scooped up a two-year-old boy who had wandered out of a nearby park. One car had swerved and missed the child, and it looked like he was on a collision course with another 4WD.

Fortunately the child was wearing an identification bracelet. I called the father, who then contacted his wife inside the park. It took the mother 25 minutes to come to the main gate to collect her son. Not even a hug for the little boy or a thank you!

As parents, we can’t take any risks with our children’s lives. They’re irreplaceable!

Majestic Lebanon

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East
Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

‘Would you like to come with me to Lebanon?’ my father would often ask me when I was a teenager, as he planned his annual trip to his home country.

“No!” I’d reply arrogantly, shutting down any idea of travelling to that place so far away.

I’d heard the stories of girls returning home to be married off to a cousin who was only ever interested in getting an Australian visa – his ticket to freedom. As the years passed, my father stopped asking and I never broached the subject.

Shamefully, my youth was spent distancing myself from my Lebanese heritage. Lebanon was a tiny nation far away from Australia, where I was born and raised. It reminded me of my father’s strict Middle Eastern culture, one which shaped my lonely teenage years ‒ not to mention the poor reputation the Lebanese community had in Australia. Why on earth would I want to be connected to the country?

My father is from a small village in Syr el dannieh, in North Lebanon, 22 km from the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, and several hours from cosmopolitan Beirut. Throughout my childhood I’d heard tales of gun battles and family feuds – my uncle was once shot in the crossfire between two quarrelling neighbours.

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley
With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

The image of Lebanon in my mind was a far cry from the real beauty of this small country, bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south, and situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. Its rich history and cultural and religious diversity is a result of all these influences.

Like the millions of Lebanese expats scattered around the world, my father and mother left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Before that, my mother says, Lebanon was compared with Switzerland, and Beirut was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. They, like many other Lebanese, had planned to return, but 40 years on they are still in Sydney, Australia. Fifteen years of civil war created great divisions among religious and political groups that still stand today, making life difficult and even dangerous.

As I grew older and became more fascinated with Middle East politics, the need to travel to my parents’ birthplace grew stronger. My first visit in 2011 with my husband and three daughters was brief – four days to be precise ‒ hardly any time in which to explore this majestic country. Two days were spent dashing through a rainstorm; a quick photo on the Corniche (Raouche’) was the only proof that I had visited Beirut that year. Finally, I had made it to Syr, where I met my aunt and cousins for the first time. Their faces and voices were familiar; the years we’d spent talking on the phone made the introduction easier. I’m not sure I would have made the journey so far north had my father not been staying in his hometown that year. The pride on his face made the visit worth it; he was clearly happy to see me explore his part of the world.
Although it was difficult to do or see anything with my three small children, we still managed one important trip to my father’s property in the mountains. As snow fell, dad and my cousin Fadi guided us further north, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountainous terrain, and for my daughters to stretch their legs and play in the snow. But as the sun set over the snow-covered mountains, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to explore Lebanon fully.

Pigeon's Rock from the Beirut Corniche
Pigeon’s Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Living in Dubai made it easier to travel to Lebanon. From Sydney, Australia, it takes up to 19 hours, which is an effective discouragement. Several months after my first visit, the Syrian uprising began, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into the country had a profound impact on Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that today there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. My mother’s extended family, including my aunty and her family, escaped Homs in Syria and now live in Tripoli.

Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian war, creating further problems for the country. In August 2013, a car bomb ripped through a busy shopping street in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. It was the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. December 27, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

With so much unrest in Lebanon, I had put off my return until now. If the Lebanese people could bravely live through this tumultuous unrest, there was no reason why I shouldn’t return and explore Lebanon.

Exploring Lebanon
Giving in to fear would mean giving in to the militants and political factions happily spreading hate and tearing a nation apart for personal gain.

A family wedding in Beirut was the perfect excuse for us to visit Lebanon in December 2014. We put our fate in God’s hands and booked five return tickets. We were tourists, desperate to explore every corner of this splendid country.

As we arrived in the capital, I was taken aback by the strong presence of Lebanese soldiers posted on almost every street corner. Amid the Christmas decorations, colourful lights and Coco-Cola-influenced Christmas tree, it wasn’t uncommon to see tanks and armed soldiers posted in densely populated areas such as Beirut Souks, a major commercial district in the Beirut Central District, with over 200 shops and department stores. Visiting the Beirut Souks is a must if you travel to Lebanon. It is home to the finest designer labels, from Hermes to Carolina Herrera and high-street labels such as Zara. If you’re looking for a place to dine, the Met (Metropolitan Café) is perfect for a light meal or traditional Lebanese coffee.

The civil war left visible scars on the tattered, bullet-pocked apartment blocks. Narrow streets make it difficult for cars to pass, so locals usually get around on scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see three people on one at any time. Bed sheets replace windows in poorer areas where Palestinian and Syrian refugees are housed. Beggars line the streets. Hussein, our tour guide, says Palestinians and Syrians are too proud to beg and the women carrying babies as a way of seeking sympathy are Gypsies who make a living scamming tourists. Anyone who has ever been stuck on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States will understand how it feels to have small children and women approach the car, bang against the window and demand money. I was confronted with this again when a mother with a small child pleaded for money as we drove through the popular streets of Hamra in West Beirut.

Where else in the world you see a mosque and church side by side?  Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut
Where else in the world would you see a mosque and church side by side?
Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Once we’d left the heart of Beirut, our first trip was north to The Cedars (Arz Libnan). Our private tour of Lebanon took us on a scenic drive through Becharre – the poet Khalil Gibran’s birthplace – to the Qadisha Valley. Despite the cool temperatures, we insisted on stopping to admire this deep gorge carved by the Qadisha River. Located at the foot of Mount al-Makmal in northern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements were situated here. I couldn’t believe this hidden treasure was in Lebanon and that I had shunned such beauty throughout my youth.
With a few more stops along the way, we managed to climb the windy, slippery road leading to The Cedars. During the heavy snowfall period, The Cedars, perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is populated with locals and tourists who enjoy skiing. At the entrance to The Grove stands a cedar tree believed to be hundreds of years old.

The Cedars of Lebanon
The Cedars of Lebanon

Baalbek, a town in the Beqqa Valley, contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. Despite my pleas, we were strongly advised by our family in Beirut and in Sydney not to visit another UNESCO Heritage Site. According to our relatives, I was at great risk. Militants have been known to target westerners travelling through the Beqqa Valley. ‘Your wife looks American,’ one relative told my husband. ‘She’s an easy target for kidnappers,’ another added. When you travel to a country where there are strong political and religious divisions, your best source of guidance is the locals and tour guides.
The next part of our journey took us to the city of Tripoli, where my mother grew up and where my aunts and uncle live. We stopped briefly at one of the most famous restaurants, Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, for lunch. For years, I’d heard about their knefa and baklava, and had to try some of these traditional Lebanese desserts.

At nightfall the call to prayer echoed out from Al-Salam Mosque, where just 18 months previously a car laden with 100 kg of explosives had ripped through the mosque, leaving a huge crater and the floors covered with blood. It was the second bomb to explode that afternoon; minutes earlier, the Taqwa mosque had been targeted. Dozens were killed in the blast and hundreds more injured. Now, however, the mosque was packed with worshippers who had arrived for prayers.

Soldiers guard Lebanese Streets
Soldiers guard Lebanese streets

Today, no one takes any chances. Armed Lebanese soldiers and tanks heavily guard Tripoli’s streets. Cars left unattended with the engines still running are always a great concern. Unlike Beirut, which has been partially rebuilt since the war to attract tourists, Tripoli is rundown and dirty. Old buildings destroyed during the civil war remain standing, a stark reminder of the city’s harsh history.
Knowing I was just metres away from where one of the deadliest car bombings had taken place since the war, it was hard not to feel anxious. Even in Beirut’s city streets, you need to be alert. The country is still stricken with problems, and car bombs can go off unexpectedly at any time.

We’d situated ourselves in a suburb east of Beirut, Sin el-Fil, literally translated as the ‘tooth of an elephant’, staying at the Hilton Grand Habtoor. After living in a Muslim country for seven years and listening to the call to prayer five times a day, it was odd waking up to church bells ringing on Sunday. There are 18 recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and Christians and Muslims form the majority. The most recent study conducted by Statistics Lebanon found that approximately 54 per cent of the population is Muslim, divided equally between Sunni and Shiite. Christians make up 34 per cent of the population, which explains why many parts of Lebanon are richly decorated with Christmas trimmings.

Jeita Grotto cave
Jeita Grotto cave

Between family gatherings, we managed to sneak in another impressive tour. On this day our journey began in the valley, Nahr El-Kalb, 18 km north of Beirut, and continued to Jeita Grotto, followed by Harissa, a small mountain village 650 metres above sea level, and ancient Byblos.

On the way to the grotto, we took a small diversion to a war memorial commemorating the Australian diggers who fought in World War Ⅱ. I knew little of the involvement of Australians in Lebanon during the war. Australian troops, part of the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. According to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society, the first Australian casualty was Nicolas Koorey, a 26-year-old Australian of Lebanese descent. Four hundred and sixteen Australian troops were killed in the battle and over a thousand were wounded. It’s certainly a history lesson which needs to be more widely taught back home in Australia. It would help to heal the widening gap between white Anglo-Saxon Australians and Australian-born Lebanese youths.

Australian Memorial in Lebanon
Australian Memorial in Lebanon

As we left the memorial, I felt moved and excited at the same time. Our next stop: Jeita Grotto.

Breathtaking. Captivating. Mesmerising.

There are not enough adjectives to describe this natural wonder located in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb. Millions of years are frozen in drops of water. A very frequent drop-by-drop water flow forms stalactites on the ceilings and stalagmites on the floor of the galleries and halls.
Recipient of the 2013 World Tourism Organisation’s award for best tourist site in the Arab world, the Jieta Grotto houses one of the world’s longest stalactites. It measures 8.2 metres and is located in the upper grotto. This is a must if you’re travelling with children! My daughters, aged nine, eight and six, would not stop talking about their ‘cave’ experience, where they took turns to steer a small vessel in the lower grotto. The girls have travelled to many parts of the globe, including France and Italy, but nothing captured their imagination the same way their trip to Lebanon did.

Once we’d completed our 90-minute tour of the grotto – pictures were not allowed inside – we moved on to Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. The village is located 20 km north of Beirut and is accessible from the coastal city of Jounieh by road, or by a nine-minute cable car ride. The best view of this picturesque country is from the cable car to Harissa, from where the city and the Mediterranean Sea look breathtaking. Because of its religious significance, Harissa is often visited by Roman Catholic popes.
On my first trip to Lebanon, I was told that I had to visit Jbeil (Byblos) during the Christmas holiday period. One of the oldest cities in the world to have been inhabited without interruption, Jbeil is situated 40 km north of Beirut. The history lesson continued as our tour guide, Bernadette, recounted the influence of the Phoenicians, Crusaders and Romans on the 8000-year-old city. After their tour of the Byblos Castle, the highlight for my children was putting on a performance in the Roman Amphitheatre. Jbeil is now a tourist hub for its ancient port, fish restaurants and shopping at the traditional Lebanese souk.

Jbeil (Byblos) Port
Jbeil (Byblos) Port

There is no doubt that this was one of the most emotional journeys I’ve taken. I rediscovered myself and reconnected with my Lebanese heritage. When this tiny nation attracts so many negative mentions in the media, few could believe how deeply enriched Lebanon is by history and beauty.

I wish I’d known it earlier.

Head to my instagram account @arabianmum to see all the images from my trip to Lebanon
Twitter: @my_arabia
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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.

Back after a long break

With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.
With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.

It has been many months since my last blog post, but here I am ready to get back to sharing with you my Arabian journey.

As you’re aware life and work can take you in many different directions. My current job involves working as a PR and Marketing Director at an events company, and our most recent project was Disney On Ice. Between travelling and trying to raise three little girls, there has been little time for me to contribute to my blog.

My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation
My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation

Here are some images of what I’ve been up to over the last few months:

Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink
Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink
The official Disney On Ice selfie
The official Disney On Ice selfie

A selfie with Merida from Brave
A selfie with Merida from Brave

Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.
Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.
One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.
One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.

For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.
For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.

I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.
I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.
As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.
As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.

I look forward to sharing with you my Arabian journey. I will pickup where I left off very soon.

Maid in Arabia

 

“I had a dream last night that all your family was dead,” said Cherry. My jaw dropped; I tried not to show too much emotion, but deep inside, I was petrified.

I looked at my three little girls who were ages five, four and two at the time.

How on earth could I leave them in this woman’s care?

I was now living in Dubai and working on the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. I was schedule to travel to Abu Dhabi to prepare for the opening match. I rang my colleague and told him I was ill and could not attend.

I called Tarek, who was in Saudi Arabia, and told him what Cherry had said. “Get her out of the house,” he responded. He was right. We had heard far too many frightening stories over the few years we had lived in the United Arab Emirates, such as children being abused by maids as a form of revenge against their employer. I wasn’t going to risk it.

Cherry lasted a month. After she left, I vowed never to hire another live-in nanny.I had employed Cherry through an agency in Dubai. She seemed lovely during the interview—very energetic and excited about her first job in the UAE. Cherry was from the Philippines, in her early 20s, and had just completed a nursing degree in her home country. It’s what had attracted me to her in the first place. We talked more on the way home about how she was in the country to save enough money to continue her studies. Her dream was to become a midwife.

Throughout the drive, she had appeared to be normal until I needed to reach out to stop her from falling out of the car. I had asked her whether she could shut her window, as I wanted to turn on the air conditioning—she reached for the door handle and opened the door. Whether it was a complete misunderstanding or words lost in translation, I was alarmed. Cherry apologised, and the incident was forgotten.

On the way home, Cherry and I picked up the children from the nursery and school. Moments after we had arrived home, Serene came to me and told me she didn’t like Cherry. Serene was just four, but at such a young age, she had good intuition. For the first week, I sat back and observed Cherry’s behaviour with the children. She was playful and seemed to genuinely enjoy being around the girls. Janah and Alisar appeared to like her, but something continued to bother Serene. She was unsettled, and that bothered me.Cherry’s personality changed after her second week with us. She would start work late, and on many occasions, she was rude and verbally aggressive. Hygiene was a huge problem; she would never wash her face in the morning, and if she had a runny nose, she would just wipe it on her sleeve. On numerous occasions, I had to ask her to shower. I was repulsed. It was the third week into her stay when she awoke in the morning and proceeded to tell me about her dream. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I called the agency to explain the situation. I asked Cherry to pack her bags, gave her taxi fare and sent her back to the agency.

Cherry was my second live-in nanny. She had replaced Rose who had been with me for 18 months. I didn’t realise how good I had it with Rose until Cherry walked into our life.

Rose was also from the Philippines. She was a mother of three looking to improve her family’s lifestyle back home, build a house and pay for her children’s education. Apart from being extremely emotional, crying all the time, upset at the slightest criticism, she was great with the children and adored the girls. I’d hired Rose through the same agency I used to hire Cherry.

This was my first ever experience with employing a live-in housemaid. I’d given in to pressure. I had three children under the age of three, my husband was commuting to Saudi Arabia and I was waking up six times a night attending to the girls. I had reached the point where I could no longer function on my own. I needed a break. Even if it was 30 minutes alone at Café Macchiato, just some time to gather my thoughts, it was enough.I was completely against having a stranger move into my house. At first, it was just hiring a part-time helper a few days a week. Diane worked for a cleaning company during the day and was looking for some extra work in the afternoon. Tracey had recommended I give her a go. Di was sweet and loved playing with the children. Having her with me a few days a week was a relief. She made it easy to explore the idea of finding a permanent helper. “Madam,” she would call me. I never felt comfortable with it. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t treat Di as a servant. She was a blessing in my life, and she gave me the break and peace of mind to leave my kids alone with her if needed. We used her a great deal for babysitting in the evening when Tarek and I wanted to see a movie or have dinner nearby.As time passed and Tarek’s work situation changed after the financial crisis (more on the impact of the crisis later), I had no choice but to begin the search for a permanent housemaid. It was unusual for me considering that I had grown up in a country where servants only worked for the rich and famous.

Stay Tuned for the next instalment of “Maid in Arabia.”
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Lifelong mates formed over an Arabian coffee

Arabian Coffee 1

When I arrived in the UAE in 2008, its population was around 6.7 million. Today, the World Bank estimates the Gulf nation’s population to be 9.2 million. In 2011, a study by a Kuwait-based diplomatic centre revealed that 84 per cent of the United Arab Emirates’ population were expats – at the time 8.5 million people were living in the country and over 7 million were foreigners.

You’d think these statistics would help ease the burden of making friends. Expats outnumbered the Emiratis, meeting people was easy but forming friendships was challenging. As I said in my previous post, everyone seemed to have their own circle of friends and many women weren’t interested in making new friends or welcoming new arrivals.

“When the girls start school, you’ll find friends,” one mother told me. Very comforting, considering my children were three, 18 months and I had a newborn. I remembered her words when Janah began attending the local Abu Dhabi Montessori Nursery. It’s there I met Anna and Octavia. Their sons attended the nursery with Janah during our first year in Abu Dhabi. Anna was a fellow Aussie from Melbourne, while Octavia was American.

Café Macchiato became a meeting point for friends and the place I’d go to have coffee with my new group of friends. It was here, in this little coffee shop tucked away in a small community shopping centre, that I met Tracey and Stan. There was something comforting about saying ‘hello’ to a complete stranger in the United Arab Emirates. I spent a lot of time in cafes back home in Sydney, but I’d never have thought to turn to a complete stranger and start a conversation.

Here in the UAE, it happened everywhere I went. Even in the bathrooms, while washing hands at the basin, conversations would begin and numbers would be exchanged. I imagine that it’s because all expats are in the same situation – everyone is trying to settle in, make friends and have as much of a normal life in an unfamiliar environment.

Being an Aussie I knew about Stan and Tracey’s popularity, and although I was a little star-struck in the beginning, as time passed our friendship grew. We’d have family outings; Tracey and I even co-hosted a radio sports show. When Janah had an allergic reaction and I had to rush her to the nearby medical centre, it was Tracey who dropped everything and raced to my house to watch Serene and Alisar. On numerous occasions, Stan even recommended I apply to work at CNN in Abu Dhabi.

Months after meeting Tracey and Stan, Suzie, a beautiful American woman, entered my life. Suzie had moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband and two daughters, Aaliyah and Thalia. Our friendship blossomed and when she and her family moved to Dubai we weren’t far behind. Today Suzie lives in Canada where she says making friends hasn’t been as easy as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Unlike the UAE, Canada is home to millions of Canadian residents and citizens, whilst the driving force behind the UAE is its expat populations. Although we live in a foreign country, we’re not made to feel like outcasts.

I had also met Jodie and her family at Macchiato – her daughters were the same age as Serene and Janah. The girls connected at the café, playing together while Jodie and I learned more about our Australian connection. Playdates for the children were just as important as the adult conversation for their mothers. It’s how we managed to stay sane in a city where there was little to do despite the rapid development.

They’ve all left now, but we continue to stay in touch on social media. I’ve made new friends since moving to Dubai but it’s these women who I met early on that continue to stay with me. We’ll always have the memories we shared in Abu Dhabi!

Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai
Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai

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