Sheikha Jawaher: hearts and minds

As an Eminent Advocate for the UN’s refugee agency, Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi is championing the cause of victims of conflict from Palestine to Somalia. She tells us that the Middle East must do more for Syria’s displaced millions, and recalls the lessons she has learned over three decades of giving

The atmosphere at Sheikha Jawaher’s cool, elegant offices near the Sharjah seafront is somewhat reflective of the nature of her philanthropic activities: there is an air of calm purposefulness to proceedings, staff going about their business in a quietly efficient manner, crisscrossing the octagonal floorspace in busy strides.

Their employer is Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, wife of the Ruler of Sharjah and chairperson of the Supreme Council of Family Affairs, founded to enhance the role of the family within the emirate, and encourage family giving according to Islamic principles. She is also a fast-emerging icon of philanthropy in the Gulf region, one who has spent more than three decades addressing social and humanitarian issues across the Arab world, particularly those concerning women and children.

Most recently, Sheikha Jawaher has turned her efforts to the plight of displaced Syrians, and in May 2013 she was appointed as the UN refugee agency’s first Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children. She has used this opportunity to campaign tirelessly for the rights of millions of young people driven from their homes, and garnered global attention from the UAE to the US.

“Now that we have raised awareness, I hope to translate this into concrete results on the ground,” she says, speaking as one who already has experience of making a tangible difference where it’s needed most. In June last year, she founded the Big Heart UAE Campaign, which is committed to raising funds for Syrians now enduring a fourth year of bloodshed.

“My biggest concern was that it felt like the people of Syria had been forgotten,” she recalls. “I started the Big Heart Campaign because I knew that the 2 million Syrian refugees are not just a headline or a statistic. They will still be homeless after you change the channel, and they will still be hungry and traumatised after you turn the newspaper page.”

According to the latest available figures, the campaign has so far raised more than AED54m ($14.7m) in donations. It has provided immediate relief in the form of food and basic shelter to more than half a million refugees, healthcare to more than 250,000, and put a roof over the heads of tens of thousands of displaced Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria itself.

When the harsh winter of 2013 started to bite, the campaign rallied UAE residents behind its ‘Warm Hearts’ initiative, corralling donations and gifts to provide clothing and blankets to refugees battling sub-zero temperatures in the camps. This was just one phase of the campaign’s evolution: Sheikha Jawaher’s approach to philanthropy is a pragmatic one and one that is unafraid to look for gaps in support and then provide whatever help is needed to plug those gaps. “If we didn’t act fast, entire families would have been at the mercy of brutal frost and snow,” she insists. “There was no time for delay; it was as simple as that.”

“Without doubt the biggest weakness is that our region is not taking full responsibility for solving its own problems

Soon after her appointment as an Eminent Advocate for the UNHCR, Sheikha Jawaher visited a refugee camp outside Beirut, and then in February this year she travelled to the Zaatari camp in Jordan, home to some 106,000 refugees. These trips were vital to understanding first-hand the needs of the refugees, she says. The direction of the campaign has been guided by such experiences and by listening to Syrians themselves; Sheikha Jawaher is a firm believer in empowering people to help themselves, and this spirit underpins the third phase of the campaign, which is focused on education as a pathway not just to employment, but tolerance and peace.

“[Providing] education was always our big dream,” she explains. “We needed to focus on more urgent interventions like life-saving medical treatment before embracing more long-term goals. Now we can look long-term.” Today the campaign concentrates on raising funds to pay for teachers, increasing access to schools, and buying books. For example, it encourages donations of AED50 ($14) for a school bag or AED70 ($19) for a ‘back-to-school’ kit for one of the 1 million young Syrians now forced to live outside the war-torn country of their birth.

She does not hold back on the scale of the problems faced by this displaced generation, and urges her fellow philanthropists and compatriots to do more. “Without doubt the biggest weakness is that our region is not taking full responsibility for solving its own problems,” she insists. “Syrian refugees are our brothers and sisters: we speak the same language and share the same culture. Charity begins at home, so why are we not taking the lead?”

Her hope for the region rests on the young, not just in educating refugee children, but teaching more privileged youth that giving is a responsibility from which they should not shirk. Philanthropy is a state of mind that parents should instil in their children early on, she says. “You can never convince your child to help other children thousands of miles away if they have never seen you help the people right there in your own community.”

The Big Heart Campaign is addressing this issue head-on, inspiring schoolchildren in the UAE through its Young Philanthropists programme. “We need to engage with young children and youth to ensure they understand their duty towards others, so that they create solutions and participate in making a better society,” says Sheikha Jawaher.

Involving young people in helping those less fortunate is a theme that has resonated throughout Sheikha Jawaher’s own philanthropic journey. She opened the first chapter of the Girl Guides in the UAE in 1973, and still supports youth initiatives across the country, including her Children and Girls’ Centres and the Sharjah Business Women Council, which has co-founded an education fund for orphans.

“The more you give, the more you have left

In 2006, her energies extended outside the Gulf when she founded B’hibak Ya Libnan, ‘I love Lebanon’, a campaign which raised AED23m ($6.3m) for 10 Lebanese charities. Another initiative, Salam Ya Seghar, raised more than AED80m ($21.8m) to provide healthcare, remedial classes and school meals for Palestinian children in the West Bank and Gaza, and job opportunities for their mothers. In 2012, Sheikha Jawaher contributed a further $1m towards UNHCR-funded projects for displaced women and children in Somalia.

The breadth of projects she has taken on over the years might daunt a less determined individual, yet Sheikha Jawaher insists that it is from being so engaged that she draws her strength. “The more you give, the more you have left,” she says. “I have a supportive family that gave me courage and taught me that it is never enough to simply have sympathy for others. Actions speak louder than words.”

This is not to say that she has always got it right first time. “In the early days, my first instinct was to try and help everyone,” she recalls. “But there was always another suffering woman or child who I couldn’t reach. I learned that it’s better to focus our contributions on one target at a time so that we make a meaningful difference to their lives.

“Choosing who to help, is one of the most difficult decisions. But if we lift up some segments of the population, we transform them into humanitarians who in turn lift up the people we can’t reach.”

Just as Sheikha Jawaher has learned that you can’t help everyone at the same time, she has also grown to appreciate the value of collaboration with other organisations, in order to make the best of scant resources. Furthermore, experience has reinforced her steadfast belief that empowerment through education and skills development, is the surest way to long-term and sustainable development.

“When we empowered women entrepreneurs in Palestine [through Salam Ya Seghar], we indirectly empowered their families because now the mothers could afford to educate their children,” she says. “And on and on the cycle continues.

“One thing that has changed is that I no longer see our work as just charity, because charity implies that it’s just a one-time aid package to address immediate needs,” she adds. “I see it more as an investment in our society and our future.”

It is an attitude that has earned Sheikha Jawaher the respect of her peers in humanitarian circles, and beyond. “I am always humbled when other philanthropists say I have inspired them,” she smiles, “and if they inspire a new wave of volunteers and humanitarians, then it’s a great start.”