Ja'afar Mahasneh is ecstatic. He has achieved his dream of getting a good education and is now a civil engineer.
Sharing a home with seven siblings in Jordan, he had never imagined that with his family's limited income this would be possible. "I was keen to get a good education and even though we were facing tough times, I joined Jordan University,'' he says.
"I still remember one of the worst moments in college, when my professor called out my name in front of everyone and told me that if I didn't pay my tuition fees, I would be thrown out of college. It was such a horrible feeling,'' he says.
Finding it difficult to fund his studies, he was contemplating dropping out of college to get a job to contribute to the family's income when he heard about PepsiCo's Tomooh Education Project. "I decided to apply... to try my luck.'' To his delight, he was selected. "Not only did [PepsiCo] help me complete my studies but it also got me a job at a construction company in the UAE, as a civil engineer after I finished college," he says.
The Tomooh programme originated at the Arab Economic Forum in 2003 when Sa'ad Abdul Latif, CEO of PepsiCo for the Middle East and Africa, pledged $1 million (Dh3.67 million) for the development of education in Middle East countries. Following this, PepsiCo set out to identify the educational needs in different areas in the Middle East. The pilot programme was launched in 2006 in Lebanon and initiatives in Egypt and Jordan followed the next year.
Abdul Latif remembers his years growing up struggling in Occupied Jerusalem: "My father used to often say, ‘If I had only a penny to spend, I would spend it on your education.' But I lost him at the age of six. However, my mother did everything to help me continue with my studies and was a constant source of encouragement to me.''
Overcoming numerous obstacles, Abdul Latif went on to obtain a bachelor's degree from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and then an MBA from the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona.
Keen to help children who find it difficult to fund their studies, Abdul Latif, under the leadership of PepsiCo chairman, Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, launched an educational project called Tomooh (‘ambition' in Arabic ) in 2006. The programme funds the studies of selected students in Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan who show promise and potential but lack the resources to pursue education.
"The Tomooh programme runs in partnership with an NGO in each market: Ajialouna in Lebanon, the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) in Egypt, and the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human Development (Johud) in Jordan," explains Abdul Latif. "In each country, PepsiCo's partners play a unique role in supporting Tomooh. For instance, in Jordan and Lebanon, Johud and Ajialouna provide access to needy students through their community programmes. In Egypt, the UNWFP provides support by rationing food for poor families so that the children can attend school instead of working, thus helping to prevent school dropouts."
Lubna Maher Dada, 19, from Lebanon, considers herself extremely lucky that she will have the opportunity to graduate with her friends. Her educational future seemed bleak when she lost her father two years ago. "Before I entered PepsiCo's Tomooh programme, I was in a private school in Saida, Lebanon. My father passed away when I was in Grade 11. My mother's income could not cover our basic costs, let alone my education. That's when I applied for the Tomooh scholarship programme which enabled me to continue my education and graduate from the private school I had been enrolled in since kindergarten.
"After graduating from school, I wanted to realise my father's dream of continuing my education at the American University of Beirut. The Tomooh programme helped me fulfil this dream and here I am majoring in Chemistry/Premedical,'' she says.
She recalls an incident in school where she had the chance to win accolades. "In grade 12, my school nominated my friend and me to participate in an inter-school general knowledge competition in Saida. We were one point away from winning, when the final question came to us: ‘If a person's mass is 60 kilograms on Earth, what's his mass on the Moon?' I promptly answered, ‘60 kilograms'. But to my surprise, the judges declared my answer wrong. I was shocked as I was sure I was right. I argued with the jury that "the mass of an object doesn't change, it's the weight that decreases on the moon." After a long debate, the judges consulted a physics teacher who confirmed my answer was correct and thus our school won the competition!''
Lubna is sure that if it had not been for the Tomooh project, she would not have had the opportunity to participate in such contests, not to mention win them.
Another student who has nothing but praise for the Tomooh programme is Nehad Abdul Mabood Hussain Abbas, who hails from Lebanon. Paralysed since the age of two, she could not enrol in a regular school because of her condition. "However, when I was 12, I heard about the community schools set up by Unicef, and I joined Dar Al Salam primary school," she says.
Tomooh also provided Nehad and her family of ten with a monthly rice ration. She was also given a nutritious date bar every day.
"The food supply helped me improve physically and concentrate in the classroom,'' she says. "The support given by Tomooh encouraged my parents to keep me in school."
Today, Nehad earns higher grades than her peers. An extrovert, she is hugely popular in her school and hopes to become a doctor.
Tomooh's success can be seen in the fact that the programme has expanded from one country to three, in a short span of four years. It has helped more than 4,000 students in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. "Our plan is to continue to expand the Tomooh programme to help reach out to as many students as possible and further education in the Arab world," says Abdul Latif. "When we help fund education for students, we aim to create better economic conditions for the country, while creating [a pool of] talented youth. Once the students have completed their studies, we may offer them an opportunity to join PepsiCo... it's a joy to have our students joining us.''
Not one to forget his struggling years, Mahasneh, the engineer who now has a job in the UAE as a result of PepsiCo's help, hopes to pay the good deed forward. "I want rise in the ranks to a manager of the company not to get money or to be popular, but to become powerful enough to support students everywhere and those who can't afford to continue their education."
Making a difference
Who: Sa'ad Abdul Latif, CEO of PepsiCo for Mena
What: Tomooh, an initiative by PepsiCo, to provide educational opportunities for deserving students
Where: Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt
Students can apply for a Tomooh scholarship by submitting an application available at select community centres or by downloading the application from the website at www.tomooharabia.com. The Tomooh committee and its partners select and approve the final scholarship winners.
Zenifer Khaleel is an Abu Dhabi-based freelancer