Olga Zolotova and Mohammad Khalaf during one of their previous mountaineering expeditions. Image Credit: Courtesy: Olga Zolotova

Dubai: Two Dubai residents are preparing to scale the highest peak in South America — Mount Aconcagua — in February to raise awareness about the Emirates Red Crescent Learning Centre, a school created for displaced children whose education has been disrupted.

Olga Zolotova, 27, from Russia, and Lebanese-Canadian Mohammad Khalaf, 30, have set themselves a personal target of climbing seven summits — the highest peaks of each continent, with each ascent being dedicated to noble causes in their community.

The school, which opened in July, 2017, has 120 children aged 8 to 12 who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with many coming from Syrian camps.

“When they tried to enter the local schools, they were rejected as, at their ages, they couldn’t write and read. So Red Crescent created this special learning centre with the specific basic educational programme for kids of older ages. Now we teach them basic skills, English, Arabic, arithmetic, computer skills and science,” said Mohammad Al Hajj Al Zarouni, Director of the Dubai Brunch of Emirates Red Crescent.

The school, which is located on the third floor of Red Crescent building in Dubai Festival City, is funded through collaborations with local organisations, companies, and donations from individuals, he added.

“The purpose is to eventually integrate these children, some of whom are orphans, into the local schools and to have space for the next batch of kids,” Al Zarouni said.

In support of the cause, Zolotova has launched a campaign inviting the public to contribute by donating stationery items through Emirates Red Crescent donation boxes, which will be placed in Times Square Centre from February 6 to 28 every day between 10am and 10pm.

“We have been visiting the school and we met those children and, despite of all the horrors that they were through, what we saw is the sweetest and strongest little kids. This temporary school became their home and Red Crescent volunteers became their family. They love studying and they can’t wait to be accepted to the local schools and start their long educational journey,” she said.

The Emirates Red Crescent has also partnered up with Uber as part of the campaign to support the new learning centre.

“Uber drivers will also be picking up stationery items on February 27-28 from people’s homes/offices [free-of –charge] and dropping them off at the mall,” said Chris Free, General Manager of Uber UAE.

With the centre running on donations and volunteers’ support, stationery items such as notebooks, A4 paper, pens, pencils and sketch books, along with other items, are always welcome.

The climb

In support of the campaign, the duo, who carry a simple logo ‘Sport for Health; Sport for Help,’ aim to summit Aconcagua, which sits 6,962 metres above sea level and is the second highest of the seven peaks after Mount Everest.

“We start our climb on February 12th, it will take us 18-20 days to reach the top. Our flag on the top of South America will be raised for this small school that carries much bigger idea — the idea of international support that starts from the individuals,” said Zolotova.

As they prepare to climb their third summit together, they sought to highlight that while they come from different cultures and backgrounds, their belief in giving back to society is what unites them.

“Behind our sport challenges, there is always a bigger idea. We run, cycle and climb for people; by crossing hundreds of kilometres per day or climbing peaks of the continents we raise awareness of those who in need and we send message to society — we are here to help each other,” Zolotova said.

To prepare for the climb, Zolotova and Khalaf have been training for over three months and undertaking everything from strength training sessions five days a week, and cardiovascular training up to six days a week, to yoga and even a few local hikes, Khalaf said.

“There many factors that affect your summit success rate, so we are doing everything from our side to increase that. As for the altitude, there is nothing really that can prepare you for that it’s just something that differs from one person to another and from one time to another,” Khalaf said.

The duo explained that with every 100 metres up the mountain, the level of oxygen decreases. However, they believe that mental strength is the key to success.

“Up there in the cold, with altitude pressure and without basic amenities, it can be quite easy to give up. What personally drives me and makes me keep going is the idea of us doing it to help others. This is the really powerful one,” added Zolotova.

Zolotova has previously taken part in several challenges including completing a 200-km run in 24 hours to help collect toys for children suffering from cancer in Pakistan in 2016 and cycling 400 km solo across seven emirates in 24 hours to support children’s education in developing countries.