Dubai: Having a good education is the foundation to a better life, it is often said and quite rightly so. Add to that, loads of grit and determination, and we have the story of four Arab youths who have survived conflict zones and personal hardships to be the first in their families to attend university and thereafter find good employment.
Meet Kinda Al Matari, who was born and grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon; Mohammed Kassem, who hails from Palestine; Zainab Al Lami, from Iraq; and Mohammed Kassab, a Palestinian student who grew up in Lebanon.
Sharing their success stories during a Youth Talks event organised by Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE), in collaboration with Accenture, at the Partners Hub at Expo 2020 Dubai, their tales were inspiring to say the least.
Kinda Al Matari: PCR test administrator and first to attend university in her family
Al Matari was born and brought up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. She attended a school run by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), a UN agency that provides free secondary education to around 539,000 Palestinian refugee children.
She said: “Being a girl born in a low-income family at a refugee camp, pursuing a bachelor’s degree at American University of Beirut (AUB) was like a dream. With Abdullah Al-Ghurair Foundation for Education, I was able to make my dream of attending AUB a reality. “I am an AUB alumna now with a Bachelor’s Degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences and this strengthens my belief that every great dream begins with a dreamer and everyone has within himself or herself the strength, patience and passion to reach for the stars to change the world,” she continued.
Al Matari graduated from AUB in 2021 with a BS in Medical Laboratory Science. She was the first in her family to attend university and is now fully employed in Ajman
She said: “When I was young, I wanted to become a dermatologist, I wanted to treat girls with acne. I saw a lot of girls suffering from low self-esteem. But now my goal is more about working right away, so I can make money. And I am happy to say that I now have a new job as a PCR test administrator.”
Mohammed Kassem: Design and technology teacher paying it forward
Kassem hails from Palestine. He completed an MS in Mechatronics Engineering at the American University of Sharjah in 2019 and is currently working as a Design and Technology Teacher at the Ministry of Education in Abu Dhabi.
Kassem grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon. He received a full tuition scholarship for his bachelor’s degree, but had to work his way through university, working 15-hour days to cover his living expenses. He then went on to receive a second fully-funded scholarship from AGFE to complete his master’s degree in the UAE, where he has lived and worked for the past nine years. He is now looking forward to opening his new business soon.
He said: “I see myself growing and I always look for better opportunities wherever I can find them. I own a car — something I used to dream about when I was a kid. I was there for my sister when she needed to buy things for her new-born baby, and for my mum when she required medicines and therapy for her arm, and also for my brother who is living alone in a different continent.”
He continued: “I used to think that true strength lies in never showing any weakness, pain or suffering, but life so far has taught me otherwise. Joy, sadness, love and even pain are feelings that I welcome with open arms, and I do not fight them. Instead, I let them seep deep into my heart to shape it. I am not scared anymore.”
As for the future, he said: “I have one big dream now which is to reach out to students who are in the same situation as I was, through my own philanthropic organisation. I want them to dare to dream big and help them achieve those dreams.”
Zainab Al Lami: A proud first-generation engineer
Zainab Al Lami is a proud first-generation student from Iraq who is majoring in Industrial Engineering at American University of Sharjah. She regularly makes the dean’s list and has completed more than 100 hours of community service.
She recently completed her major internship with Al Ghurair Foods in the operations department and will be graduating next semester to enter the workforce.
She said: “If you really want something, it will come true. After my parents got separated and my dad left, we were in a bad financial condition. My family had to split up, my brother went to Iraq because of his visa under my dad, and then he moved to Ukraine to study. My oldest brother and sister stayed in UAE, but lived separately in their friends’ houses. They were the ones who worked to support us. They are my role models. My mum, my three younger siblings and I moved around in different countries. It was as if everything had crashed and nothing was the same anymore.
“So, we moved to Kurdistan, Iraq — Sulaymaniyah in particular, because it offered better education opportunities than the rest of the cities. I was so obsessed with the idea of joining university. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay in Kurdistan due the conflicts in the country. So, we had to move to Turkey, Istanbul. During that time, I applied again for the AGFE scholarship. One fine day, I got an email notification from AGFE. I opened the mail immediately and the first thing I read was: ‘Congratulations!’”
She continued: “The moment I landed in the UAE, I started working. I had a month before university to make money, to buy new clothes and supplies for the university. I was too excited that finally I got the chance to pursue higher studies. I joined the leadership programme — something that I always wanted back in Iraq. I became a leader. I even conducted a workshop about transitioning from high school to university. I was also invited to deliver a talk about being a first-generation student and help the new first-generation students on how to navigate campus resources.”
She added: “I tell myself and everyone else to help at least one person in their lifetime to access education.”
Mohammed Kassab: A Masters' student in machine learning on full scholarship
Kassab is a Palestinian student who grew up in Lebanon. He completed a BS in Electrical Engineering at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) on a full scholarship from AGFE. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from AUS in 2021 and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Machine Learning at Mohammad Bin Zayed University for Artificial Intelligence on a full scholarship.
Mohammad lost his father when he was in the senior year of high school and had to delay his university studies for three years to take over his father’s business and support his mother and younger siblings. He said: “Even though I am a first-generation college student, my parents have always been supportive regarding completion of my higher education. They have always motivated me to excel in school and stressed the importance of education.”
He continued: “Going to AUS did not only provide me with the opportunity to learn about my major and obtain a degree, but it also gave me the opportunity to interact with the other students, learn about their backgrounds, share experiences and gain new skills. Throughout my years in AUS, I have had a couple of friends who were first-generation college students and they were eager as well about learning and increasing their standards of living.”
The dreams of these four Arab youths have become a reality — thanks to AGFE, a non-profit, philanthropic organisation serving as Al Ghurair’s family legacy and contribution to the education sector in the UAE and Arab region.
AGFE said it is vital to “provide learners with the educational and career development opportunities they need to become future leaders of the region — skilled for today and prepared for the opportunities of tomorrow, contributing in turn to the growth and development of their communities”.