The Mawada Project: Shaping Children through Community Service
How does one build empathy and compassion in a country that has been spared much of the violence, upheaval, and economic hardships experienced all around it? And how does one get children to engage in the real world, outside of school walls? For Noha Mahdi, the answer was The Mawada Project.
Mawada, which means fellowship in Arabic, provides educational community service and volunteer opportunities for children aged nine and above. The project’s goal is to provide transformative learning experiences for children that will shape them as thoughtful, responsible, and contributing young leaders and shapers of the future.
Noha was inspired to initiate The Mawada Project after spending eight years living in the United States and Canada, studying education and psychology and earning a Masters of Education from Harvard University in 2012. At the time, Noha noticed how normal it was for people to volunteer in their communities: “It was amazing to me how many volunteer opportunities there were there, and how common it was for everyone from a five-year-old to a 70-year-old to volunteer to help others.” But upon returning to the United Arab Emirates, she realized that was missing from children’s experiences in the country. Noha noted that her volunteer experiences “were very powerful and taught me a lot. I wanted our children to have the same opportunities, and to learn and develop their own skills while helping others.” This is what spurred Noha in 2016 to create The Mawada Project.
Mawada is one-of-a-kind in the UAE. Noha mentioned there are few opportunities for teenagers to volunteer or participate in skill-enhancing extracurricular activities, and what opportunities do exist are limited and inconsistent. Opportunities for younger children are all but nonexistent.
Since its inception, Mawada has worked with over 200 children, benefiting over 550 people in the community. It offers weekend, after school, and summer camp programs at different locations in Sharjah and Dubai, coordinating with local schools to reach out to children and parents. Participants have handed out meals to workers during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and visited nursing homes and children’s hospitals.
One project Noha is especially proud of is “The Gift.” Children made dolls, wrote letters, and designed gift boxes to send to refugee children in countries like Iraq, Jordan, and Greece. “We’re proud of the shift we see in participants when we have the conversation with them about the lives of refugee children, the challenges they must be facing, and our responsibility to do what we can, even if only in a small way, to help make their lives easier and better.”
In the summer, Mawada recruits teenagers to teach younger children who require education support. The program is done in collaboration with the Sharjah Science Museum and aims to help teenagers develop responsibility and empathy.
Each program at Mawada is designed with seven goals in mind: community needs, human connection, purpose and awareness, empowerment, skill development, reflection and improvement, respect and humility for those on the receiving end, and children’s safety. “It’s really important to us that our programs are authentic, meaningful, and reflective experiences for our kids,” Noha noted. “While there are many things one can contribute from a distance, we are strong believers in the power of direct human contact, and the impact that has on both giver and receiver.”
The response from parents and the community has been very positive. Parents in the UAE appreciate the opportunity for their children to build empathy and develop diverse skills. There is an increasing awareness among parents that their children need more than just good grades if they want to get into top tier colleges in the United States, Europe, and around the world.
The Mawada Project has also received a lot of positive attention at the organizational level. In 2015 as part of the Innovate for Society competition, Mawada won a grant from Al Bayt Mitwahid, a social organization based in Abu Dhabi. Most recently, Noha presented the organization to the Ruler of Sharjah Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, and won an additional grant.
Noha shared that she hopes Mawada will become a hub for children’s skill development and volunteering, not just in Dubai and Sharjah, but all over the country. “I would also love for our character building, service learning programs to become integrated into the regular school curriculum, and for service work to become a mandatory part of schools in the country, and the region!” She suggested, “If all kids had to put in a certain number of service hours per year in order to graduate and receive their diplomas, how much more compassionate, tolerant, and peaceful might our world become?”
Nadia Eldemerdash is a writer and editor based in the United States. She has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto, where she studied social issues and public policy in the Gulf region.