Every week, the Soukie Speaks’ Club Courage series celebrates a brave entrepreneur in the Arab startup ecosystem, by sharing their story and the impact that their startup is having on the community. This week we interviewed Noha Mahdi the founder of The Mawada Project.
1) Tell us a little about yourself, your educational background and how you got into entrepreneurship.
My whole life, I’ve been a dreamer and a bit of an idealist. I can’t stop myself from thinking of all the wonderful ways the world and our experience in it could be made better. I care for the well-being of our communities and I am always thinking of ways to make our collective experience on Earth a better one. It was this very sentiment that started me on my journey towards entrepreneurship.
I first studied biochemistry at Mcgill University and then completed my master’s degree in Educational Neuroscience at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Since then, I’ve been passionate about education and believe it holds the power to truly transform individuals and societies, which is why I founded The Mawada Project.
2) What is The Mawada Project and what can participants expect from it?
The Mawada Project is a startup aimed at creating community-service learning experiences for children (aged 9+) in the United Arab Emirates.
Essentially, we provide opportunities for children to engage in meaningful service-work in a consistent, safe and structured way, while building and developing life skills and character. This includes doing things like hospital visits (reading or entertaining hospital patients), teaching under-privileged children, caring for the elderly or orphans, environment clean-ups, etc. The list of options is endless. Our job is to give you the chance to interact with pockets of need within our community and do meaningful work that will uplift those around them, in small or big ways.
The character and skill building comes with the service work. Not only do we teach children to “give” and “serve”, we also want them to learn from the experience and use it as a means to broaden their horizons and experience settings in situations they wouldn’t otherwise have access to and develop core skills that will empower them in school and beyond.
P.S. “Mawada” is Arabic for unity, goodwill and compassion. To us, it represents the core of what we hope to experience ourselves and bring to others.
3) Who is your target audience and why?
For now, we’re focused on providing these experiences for children aged 9-18 in the UAE. We’re starting with a focus on Sharjah and Dubai and hope to expand to other cities eventually. Why 9+? Because we truly believe in the transformative power that these experiences have on children and want to develop their sense of “social awareness” and “service to others” from a young age. That way, it will become an ingrained habit.
Because the UAE is a fantastic place to live, children are rarely exposed to the areas of need in a society and don’t get to interact with those who are struggling in different ways. We want them to have that exposure and to use it to build on and add to what they’re learning at school.
While our focus is children for now, we will likely expand to providing similar opportunities for adults in the near future. That would include corporate trainings and corporate social responsibility (CSR) events for employees.
4) In many Western high schools and universities, students have to complete a certain number of community services hours in order to graduate. Unfortunately, in many educational institutions in the MENA region this requirement does not exist. Why do you think this is the case?
I think the structure of society is quite unique in the UAE. Thankfully, most of the people here are fortunate and blessed in many ways. What this does is it keeps the areas of “need” and “struggle” slightly out of sight. Whereas in a place like the U.S., you see homeless people on the streets, we don’t have that here. I think the fact that there is thankfully less need and it’s less visible means that this requirement isn’t as pressing here as it is elsewhere.
I also think we’re simply not used to seeing structured and organized efforts of community-service work and volunteerism. It’s not yet part of our social fabric, and we don’t grow up seeing it all around us, like you would in other countries. While it’s in our DNA to do good and be kind where we can, it’s the structure and organization around it that I think is lacking, and that’s what we hope to bring. We would love for community-service hours to become a graduation and even work requirement across schools, universities and companies across the UAE, and have been happy to see a slow, but growing, movement towards that in many places.
5) Does The Mawada Project intend to work with UAE schools to introduce the culture of volunteerism? If so, how?
Yes, definitely. We plan to take our programs and events to schools so that students can participate more regularly and have access to these kinds of experiences directly through their schools. We’ll do this by organizing weekend and after-school programs that fit into the school schedule. While we will always offer our services to individuals, we hope that by going through schools, more students are transformed by the experiences and we do more good!
6) What advice do you have for young people who want to be socially active, but whose parents don’t see the value in volunteering, because it takes them away from their studies and family responsibilities?
We need to start looking at the long-term, big-picture of things. Of course, studying and family responsibilities are important, I am certain that the experiences and learnings that can be gained from service-work and volunteerism will only add to and not detract from them.
Students who have given their time in service realize the importance of their privilege, the importance of their education and the ways in which they have a responsibility towards others. This makes them better students, better learners and more mindful, caring, positive individuals. There’s also research that suggests that “giving” increases levels of happiness. It’s a win-win-win for everyone, on all levels. Don’t give up and show your family and parents and loved ones that by giving your time to others, you’re also helping yourself and them.
7) What advice do you have for parents who want to make their children more socially aware and active? What if their children aren’t interested? What can parents do to make volunteering appealing to them?
One thing that we’ve seen in our programs is that most people don’t realize how great the experience is going to be until they try it. Students and children may fear that they’re not going to know what to do or that it’ll be awkward in some way. As soon as they get into it and immerse themselves in the experience (with our training and support, of course) they love it!
Being able to make a positive difference in someone else’s life is empowering and intoxicating in the best of ways. Give them the responsibility – have them come up with the ideas and solutions rather than telling them how or what to do. Encourage them to try it once or twice and I’m almost certain they’ll warm up to it.
8) Is there any way that members of the wider UAE community can support The Mawada Project? If so how?
There are a few things that would be helpful to us at this stage.
- Spread the word – if you know any children (or their parents) between the ages of 9 and 18, let them know about us and our program. We’d love for as many kids as possible to join us and be transformed.
- Service opportunities (areas of need) – if there are areas of need that you notice or know of around you, please let us know. We’d love to find ways to organize our events and programs around any areas of need in the community.
- Group packages – if you are in charge of a school or company and want a large number of your members to experience what we offer, please feel free to reach out. We’re more than happy to create custom solutions and packages that will meet your needs and allow you to learn through group service-work experiences.
9) What project(s) is The Mawada Project working on currently and how would you like to see the startup grow?
We’ve just had a few small pilot programs and we’re ready for a full launch. We’re currently working on our fall set of weekend service-programs. These will be available in packages of 8-10 weekends and we’re excited to engage as many students as possible.
10) How can people learn more about you and your project(s)?
Make sure to visit our website (which will be renovated and updated soon) and follow us
on our social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as we start to generate content and stay tuned to our updates! Or, feel free to email: firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to our mailing list.
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