By Tofol Al Nasr
Washington: Earlier this month, a Qatari student-led team was spotlighted in the Arab Thought Foundation’s 9th annual FIKR Conference in Beirut. The four students, three Qataris and an American, are all alumni of Qatari Foundation International’s (QFI) cultural and educational exchange programmes, who met and formed a distinct, overseas friendship that defied the boundaries of different languages, cultures, and time zones.
As the youngest group of presenters at the conference, the team addressed over 500 attendees regarding their initiative, “YALLAH: Youth Allied to Learn, Lead, and Help”, an online forum where other QFI alumni members from Qatar and the US can discuss current events in real-time.
Among the attendees were General Michel Suleiman, President of Lebanon, Prince Khalid Al Faisal, Chairman of the Arab Thought Foundation, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, Omani Foreign Affairs Minister, Ahmed Nassef, Vice-President of Yahoo! Middle East, and Mohammed Omran, Chairman of the UAE telecommunications company Etisalat.
YALLAH is a student-driven innovation masterminded by four students aged 16-19, Mariam Al Nesf from Raba’a Al Adawiya Secondary Girls Independent School, Mariyam Obaidan, Al Bayan Educational Complex for Girls, Fahad Al Nahdi, Doha Independent Secondary School, and Damon Mallory, a former student at Boston Arts Academy. The students’ designed YALLAH to achieve three goals: 1) provide a forum for open and honest cross-cultural debate among QFI alumni to dispel stereotypes about either culture, 2) create a platform for discussing various topics from politics, religion, to entertainment 3) promote student-run community service programmes that may either run in parallel, taking place in local communities in both Qatar and the US, or in third countries.
Cofounders Al Nahdi and Mallory, both 18, initially came up with the idea for the programme after they met through QFI’s cultural exchange programmes last spring and summer. In the spring, American students, including Mallory, visited students in Doha from QFI-partnered Independent Schools. In turn, the Qatari students visited Washington, DC and Orlando, FL as a part of QFI’s Summer of Science and Service Programme.
Throughout their exchanges, the students challenged stigmas in the media about their cultures. They found themselves correcting others’ perceptions. “We found that we like the same things like music and movies,” recalled Al Nesf. She and her Qatari classmates were notably most curious about income disparity and different religious sects in the US. Meanwhile, American students were perplexed by negative stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, which the Qatari students proved inaccurate. “We got to the point where we are not just ‘school friends’; we are ‘best friends’,” Damon stated fondly, adding that he and his Qatari friends still talk, chat, and e-mail at every opportunity.
Upon learning about the student’s goals with YALLAH, QFI provided logistical support to the student-organised forum. YALLAH is moderated and supported by QFI’s staff in Washington, outside experts, and educators from QFI’s partner institutions; Independent Schools in Doha and Boston. In order to mitigate language barriers, QFI enlisted the services of Meedan.net, an online translation network that facilitates multi-lingual social networking.
During the FIKR Conference, QFI also unveiled its recent partnership with two non-profit organisations: Taking it Global, based in Canada, and One World Now, headquartered in Seattle, Washington. While the former is developing QFI students’ community engagement in the Arab world, the latter is catering to leadership development programs in order to empower students.
The quartet were initially nervous about addressing hundreds of people, especially since it was their first public speaking experience - and they were the youngest presenters and attendees at the conference.
For help in calming their nerves, some of the students called Kristin Hayden, founder of One World Now. “She gave us very good advice: ‘forget everything that you’re here for. Forget everything you want to say. What do you want these people to leave here with?’,” revealed Al Nahdi. “We wanted to feel like rock stars, we wanted to wow them, and that is what happened,” he asserted.
Al-Nesf, 17, on the other hand, overcame her nerves on the day before the conference as she found herself seated at a table with Prince Khalid Al Faisal, who encouraged students at the table to engage in discussion. When he learned that Al Nesf is only 17 years old, Al Faisal expressed his astonishment, as Al Nesf’s discussion skills were on par with the 20 to 30-something year old attendees. “After discovering that I was the second youngest presenter, I was very nervous but after speaking to Prince and other attendees, I gained confidence,” explained Al Nesf. Another Qatari female student, Obaidan, 16, was initially hesitant about travelling to the conference in the first place because it is the first time for her to travel alone. At the encouragement and support of her mother, Obaidan accepted QFI’s invitation to join the presenters in Beirut.
“After the experience, I feel more confident, assertive, and independent,” she reflected, while adding that she aspires to pursue a degree in petroleum engineering either in Texas A&M’s Doha campus or in the US, given her parents’ approval.
QFI is a private US foundation based in Washington, DC, established on the principle that education is the means to improve lives, communities, and nations. “In 2022, Qatar’s World Cup will bring the world to the Middle East and for the next 12 years, QFI will bring the Middle East to the world,” stated Salem, whose sees QFI’s goals as aligned with those of the Qatar National Vision (QNV) 2030. Speaking about Qatar’s winning the FIFA World Cup bid, Damon stated, “I am so proud that Qatar won the bid because out of all, that region deserves it.”
The FIKR 9 Conference is the 9th in a series of conferences established by Prince Khalid Al Faisal bin Abdul Aziz in 2000 with a mission to harness Arab intellectual progress through an international symposium.