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On to battle they march

Teenagers in the UAE are stepping up in the Year of Giving, with community initiatives that are changing lives

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

Dubai

Today’s young people are inheriting a battered world – one that is dealing with the effects of war, climate change, the largest refugee crisis in history and depleting natural resources.

This reality can bring even the most optimistic individual down. But five UAE students are rising above the negativity and working to make a lasting impact.

It’s an attitude that is part of their educational experience.

Hale Education Group, a Dubai and Abu Dhabi-based independent educational consultancy, provides counselling sessions to students who are interested in applying to universities in the US.

The Group mentored these teenagers and helped shape their projects.

Peter Davos, founder of Hale Education Group, said: “The Year of Giving is a worthy initiative from the UAE government that reinforces the qualities and attributes of a socially conscious individual. We encourage our students to identify how they can stand out as residents of the UAE and add value to the community they live in. It is not simply about having a strong college application; it is about the students demonstrating a sense of social responsibility, leadership, and personal growth… they must show consistent commitment to demonstrating softer skills by thinking of others, to make a better society.”

 

Girl Up

Darianne De Anda Basurto

Growing up, Darianne De Anda Basurto said she noticed something interesting in her household.

The 18-year-old Mexican student at Gems Wellington Silicon Oasis, Dubai, said: “I always noticed a slight difference made between my brothers and me. At a young age, it was hard to pinpoint what it was, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realised it was gender inequality. Around the same time, I started noticing it was happening with other women in my family, in my school, in my community, and - thanks to the internet - in the world.”

She decided to do something about it, and started an initiative called ‘Girl Up’.

Basurto said: “Girl Up is a club where teenagers can learn about and contribute towards gender equality. Every member receives weekly emails with stories and challenges, and as a club, you decide how you want to put them forward to the rest of the student body. We also create our own campaigns and collaborate with other clubs from around the world.”

Next, Girl Up is planning to team up with a group called Girls Town Kenya, a grassroots pilot project that is creating a female-only, hydroponic farm on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Basurto said: “They provide victimised girls from the streets of Nairobi a vocation in hydroponic farming, while providing participants a safe place to live, heal and grow into their full potential. They need funds for the land, greenhouses, mosquito nets, chicken coops, and so on. Through Girl Up, we plan to manage their media requirements to make sure more girls in Nairobi are taken off the streets.”

Basurto hopes her initiative will plant a seed of change in society. She said: “I’ve been lucky enough to understand I can fall out of stereotypes and can reach any goal I want, however that is not the case for millions of girls out there. I believe every time a girl becomes more aware, every time we help a girl reach her goals, every time somebody joins the club or asks about it, we eradicate that feeling of helplessness, frustration and confusion.”

 

The Firefly

Dhruv Karthik

When a hotel caught fire in Dubai on New Year’s Eve 2016, 17-year-old Dhruv Karthik was watching.

The grade 12 Indian student at Dubai International Academy said: “After witnessing the incident, I realised the immense threat posed by high-rise building fires in the UAE. Using my knowledge in drones and computer vision, I created an intelligent software for a drone that allowed it to map, navigate, and understand an indoor environment using a single camera. This ‘Firefly’ drone would be able to efficiently search for stranded persons within a building fire to aid firefighters in reaching higher floors more rapidly.”

His project began as a proof-of-concept model for a science research report, which he submitted to the US-based Google Science Fair. Among thousands of competitors from over 109 countries, Karthik was placed in the top 50, and was the only finalist from the UAE.

Since then, he has presented his design at the UAE Drones for Good Award, where he was the youngest finalist.

But he isn’t done yet. Karthik has big ambitions for his drone, and wants to advance its capabilities from monitoring an emergency to actual fire-fighting.

He said: “Right now, I am in the process of creating a discrete, specialised application within fire rescue. I aim to use the computer vision software I created to allow a tiny drone to extinguish a fire at its epicentre, so it doesn’t spread elsewhere.”

For Karthik, the learning curve has been educational and inspirational. He wants other teenagers to know they can achieve anything they set their minds to.

He said: “I believe it is extremely important to remain proactive and aware of any problems faced by a community. A step by one person in the right direction, is a leap for us all. I think young people should respect the ideas that come to them, and see that they are executed to completion. Under the pressure of schoolwork, tests and colleges, it becomes easy to neglect an idea because of other priorities. But a good, well-executed idea, is worth any compromise.”

 

English For All

Vania Constantinou

When your life is made easier through the presence of support staff, like drivers, cleaners and house help, what can you do to give back?

It was a question 16-year-old Dubai American Academy student Vania Constantinou asked herself. The grade 10 Cypriot national said: “I wanted to have an impact on our community and I realised that the support staff members are the ones working hard at our school every day and are often under-appreciated. I felt it was very important to start an initiative, which could bridge the gap between students and support staff, as well as improve their English skills, so that it could help them in the future.”

Working with her counsellor at Hale Education Group, she started the ‘English for All’ initiative in October 2016, with the aim of getting cleaners, bus conductors and drivers in her school to learn a new language.

“The aim of the club is to practice and teach English, but also to engage with them and show our appreciation for their work. Lesson plans are prepared prior to the lesson, which consists of worksheets, writing activities, stories, reading comprehensions as well as oral activities. Every week, around 20 support staff members participate in the lessons, along with five student volunteers. In our lessons, we try to incorporate different celebrations as well, such as UAE National Day, Christmas and Valentine’s Day.”

The positive effect of her community initiative is palpable.

Constantinou said: “Over the past months, I am able to see that the lessons have made the support staff more comfortable in communicating with students, and new people show up often to the lessons. Many support staff members are keen on telling their stories, so my next initiative is to create a series of short stories written by them. You never know, it could be published one day!”

 

Cricket for a Cause

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Ashar Yahya

In Pakistan, 12.3 million children of primary school age do not go to school – that’s 58.8 per cent of all primary school aged children in the country, according to a 2016 report by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef).

For 18-year-old Pakistani Canadian Ashar Yahya, visiting Pakistan and seeing this reality with his own eyes was a moving experience.

The grade 13 student from Dubai College said: “I have seen so many children in Middle Eastern countries, as well as my parents’ native Pakistan, working from such a young age, rather than attending school. I firmly believe that education is every child’s fundamental right.”

Yahya partnered with Dubai Cares and initiated ‘Cricket for a Cause’, an annual charitable cricket league that has been running in the UAE for two years.

Its aim is to raise funds to help children in developing countries gain access to a quality level of education.

Yahya said: “Across the two events over the past two years, we have been able to raise over Dh55,000, and have received sponsorships from multinational companies. The league has had over 150 players involved, across the two seasons. Hopefully, the league will continue to be around for many years to come, and will continue to grow even more over time. ”

If young people live privileged lives, it should drive them to help others, Yahya said.

“Living in the UAE, we are very fortunate to have a comfortable, protected and organised life. We need to ‘pay our dues’, and consider how we can make a difference to those less fortunate than ourselves. We owe it to ourselves and our wider community to help those less fortunate, as there may be a future leader in developing countries. Who would’ve thought that the last Nobel Peace Prize winner would be Malala Yousafzai, a young girl from the northern regions of Pakistan?”

 

Saving Earth

Mariam Ehtesham

The Earth is warming at a pace not experienced within the past 1,000 years, according to Nasa. This year has already seen global temperatures peaking at 1.38 degrees Celsius above levels experienced in the 19th century.

Mariam Ehtesham, a 17-year-old Indian student at The International School of Choueifat, Ras Al Khaimah, has been working to do her bit for the environment ever since she was in elementary school.

At age 10, she became a member of the Emirates Environmental Group (EEG) and since then, has been involved in recycling campaigns, planting trees and educating the community about global warming.

Ehtesham has collected thousands of kilograms of paper, plastic, cans, beverage cartons, and batteries, for recycling. Her consistent effort to collect waste was acknowledged by the EEG, as she landed an award for being the highest collector in the UAE.

She said: “I also participated in summer neighbourhood recycling projects and planted a tree for each 100kg of paper I collected, resulting in over 12 trees.”

Ehtesham became the pioneering member of the first “Cartoon Club” launched by EEG, aimed at spreading awareness about the environment to young children in an engaging way.

She said: “I think that this a topic we should all be concerned about, more so because the rate at which the environment is deteriorating is not constant – it is accelerating. So it requires an acceleration in our concern, if we dream of combating climate change.”

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