Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Cultural Day of Volunteering

Since I'm not currently working, I spend a lot of time a) job hunting, and b) looking for interesting things to do. And, if I can combine the two pursuits all the better. So when a woman at the last coffee morning alerted me to a volunteer opportunity related to economic development, I was all ears. I exchanged some emails with the coordinator and was connected with an educational event for 1st year university students from Al Ain. The all day workshop included a hands-on business simulation designed to inspire innovation and entrepreneurship among Emirati youth. Right up my alley and an opportunity to network with other volunteers in the Abu Dhabi business sector and hopefully snag a few business cards.

We were asked to arrive by 8:30am for a volunteer briefing and the event was scheduled to begin at 9:00am. The students were coming from Al Ain, which is about a 90 minute drive from Abu Dhabi, give or take traffic. At 8:45, the coordinator came over to where we had gathered (there were about 8 of us) and explained that they had run into a few snags so the workshop would need to start a bit later than planned. When one of the volunteers asked how many students were anticipated, we found out the gist of the "snag" - 80 students had committed to coming and only 15 were waiting to get on the bus in Al Ain. So, the school principal and some others were busy trying to round up additional participants. Laughing about how typical this is for UAE, we all sat down again and settled in for at least a 90 minute wait.

And, the next couple of hours were some of the best I've had to date in UAE. There were 6 of us waiting together: me, another woman from Houston, TX and four men from Syria, Jordan, Bahrain and UAE. Everyone was open, friendly and had a great sense of humor so we talked about all kinds of things that up until this conversation I would have thought might be considered taboo. We discussed the culture of the UAE schools, the lack of ambition among the Emirati youth (many of whom are destined to take over the family business whether they do well in school or not), language and culture, the job market, the oil industry ... we literally talked for hours as the program didn't end up getting started until 12:30!! But, the time flew and it was such a unique and wonderful opportunity to really talk to people from this region. These are the kinds of discussions I wish I had more access to - the ability to learn what the people and the culture are really like here, rather than just second hand info from the American expat wives I meet at coffee mornings who often have very little exposure to locals or Gulf Region expats. I was also able to glean some insight into the job market and how slow everything is, which made me feel a bit better about not having found a job yet.

Around 11:00, our coordinator (who did an excellent job keeping us updated on progress by the way) escorted us to the press conference they had planned for the event. We joked that it seemed a bit optimistic to hold the press conference BEFORE the students had actually arrived, but we went along anyway. The press conference, unfortunately, was almost entirely in Arabic, so most of it was lost on me, but I did see the article in the paper the next day, which was kind of fun (and in English). After the press conference, we went back downstairs, had a light lunch and waited a bit longer. Around 12:15 or so, we finally got our volunteer briefing and the event started about 12:30pm.

We ended up with 40 1st year university students, all women, from all over UAE but all studying in Al Ain. All but one were in full Abaya and Sheila and a few had their faces covered as well. One interesting challenge for the facilitator and organizers is permission for photography. They wanted to really publicize this event and use it to drum up future interest in the program and the organization, so they had a photographer there taking pictures. The problem is that not all Emirati will give permission to have their photos taken (and my understanding is that you never take their photo without permission). So, we had the group split into sides of the room - those who gave permission and those that did not. Further difficulty came at the end when the team who one the challenge was made up of girls who did not give permission, so the final photo is with the 3rd place team, a few girls from the other two teams who didn't mind a photo and all of us volunteers. :)

The general plan of the day (which remember had to be reworked as the time was now cut in half) was to have the teams think of a business they would like to start in UAE, create a business plan, and at the end of the session make a presentation to some 'investors' who would then judge the presentations, give some feedback and declare a winner. Our job as volunteers was to mentor the group and provide our business experience and guidance. I was originally supposed to be paired with the Emirati volunteer, Ali, since I don't speak Arabic, but at the last minute, we ran short and couldn't double up, so I got a group of 10 lovely Emirati girls to work with.

I thought we were off to a good start as I introduced myself, made sure they could all speak English (head nods around the table) and then said they were "lucky" because with me they would be forced to practice their English as I didn't understand any Arabic. Thank goodness UAE culture is built on politeness or at least half of them probably would have demanded another mentor! :) And for the first 5-10 minutes, everyone really tried to speak English, but as the ideas starting flowing, I could tell they just couldn't communicate fast enough, so I didn't mind as they eventually morphed into Arabic. We muddled through just fine, and I was able to help them along as they got stuck or wanted me to review their work to date. And, gotta love em, they did their presentation to the judges in English, which I really appreciated (and I think may have gotten them bonus points as they were all encouraged to use English throughout the program and they were one of only two groups who presented in English).

My group didn't win (or even place) but I think they had fun and learned a little from the day. I certainly learned a lot about the business community, social work organizations, university students and volunteering in UAE. It was a great day, and if the timing and location works out, I'll probably do it again.

Oh and a few things you might be wondering about:

  • yes, only women attended, which may have caught you by surprise, but is very typical here as often classrooms and events like this are segregated.
  • it may also seem strange that the girls were strongly encouraged to speak English when their native language is Arabic. In fact, most of the schooling is conducted in English since UAE is really trying to be an international business hub for the world. As such, English is the primary language used in business here even though Arabic is the official language of the country.
  • hopefully you were impressed that the 4 men from all over the Gulf were open and very friendly with the two American women at the volunteer table. I know I was - goes to show those stereotypes are often crap. 
  • and finally some of you might be wondering if I really stayed calm given the very long delay to the start of the program, and I can honestly say I did just fine. Had we not had such wonderful conversation to make those hours pass quickly, I probably would have gone home and given up on the whole thing, but actually, I'm kind of glad things were delayed as I got an even better opportunity to meet some business people in the area. Oh, and yes, I did snag some business cards and have sent my CV out to a few more companies! :)

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