Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
The above-featured image is that of Damascus by France 24.
The Syrian architect and writer on the idea of home in Branagh’s Belfast, smart Arab horses in Homs and the joy of lentils in Damascus
Belfast (Dir Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
I watched this at home recently – there are no cinemas in Homs. It’s a film about war and love and friendship, about difficult decisions in a time of crisis. I liked the story and how real the actors made it, but also the way it handled the theme of home, which I very much related to – how the family was torn between staying and leaving. The whole dilemma of what to do, and how different people deal with similar questions and end up with different answers, was explored so well. It’s a great movie.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a story set in a fictional version of England many centuries ago. It’s about grudges, and Ishiguro writes about this without naming the feeling, creating a fictional creature – the buried giant – for it as a reference. It’s also about a family’s journey to discover this feeling, and to find a way towards forgiveness. What I loved about this story is the indirect and imaginative way it has of dealing with hidden feelings that we bury deep down in our psyche, and how to access them.
I don’t go out much to busy places, and because of the war we don’t have many places to go. But I do go and ride every day at the equestrian club in Homs. My horse is called Salah al-Din. He’s a very strong horse from a special breed – Syrian Arab horses are among the best in the world for strength, endurance and performance. They are really smart animals and very independent and spirited, which is a humbling experience on a daily basis. The social aspect of the club is disastrous; it’s all about the horses.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (Apple TV+)
Samuel L Jackson gives a phenomenal performance in this TV series. He plays an old man suffering from dementia who takes an experimental medicine that gains him a few days of lucidity. He uses those precious moments to access his memories and explain to himself the nightmares he had, which are related to racism. The show deals with different questions with great sensitivity, and in the end it’s about true friendship and genuine feelings. For me, it’s the story of the human mind and how precious this gift is.
Georges Wassouf is from a rural area near Homs, but his career took off from Beirut. I just love his music – he has a poignant way of speaking about love and a fantastic way of bending the lyrics to express the music. It’s also lovely how his artistic character is so closely related to his real-life character. He’s a very accessible figure who lives among his people, and he didn’t change his lifestyle in a way that would separate him from his own small village. Ahla Ayam El Omr, which translates as Life’s Most Beautiful Days, is one of my favourite of his songs.
Homs restaurants are rubbish, but there are plenty of good ones in Damascus. The one that I really like is Naranj, in the old part of the city where the Muslim and the Christian quarters merge. The food is great and the menu is very much based on what’s in season. The breads come right out of the oven, hot and delicious, and I would recommend the lentil dish harrak isbao, which means “the one that burns your fingers” because it’s so delicious that you will dive straight in.
INJAZ Al-Arab and JA Africa have partnered with global consulting firm Oliver Wyman to explore labour market skills gap in the MENA Region and Sub-Saharan Africa in an effort to tackle the unemployment challenge.
The “Youth Employment Perception” survey was conducted in response to the realization that these incremental unemployment figures cannot solely be attributed to lack of opportunities in the formal labor market.
The study took place across thirteen countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar and the UAE in the MENA region, along with six countries in Sub-Saharan Africa i(Eswatini, Gabon, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe).
The study looked at markets across four key areas to provide a dual-perspective from both youth and employers which included sectoral opportunities and challenges, qualifying the skills gap, bridging the gap, and the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market. Interestingly around 60% of youth are unable to secure employment due to lack of relevant work experience, while 70% believe they need updated education and upskilling to find employment, showing just how much a problem the skills gap currently is.
The study surveyed more than 350 employers across the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, and over 2,000 youths across both regions. The employer respondents were selected from various industries to get a broad view, including education, public sector and nonprofit organizations, financial services, manufacturing, engineering, and professional services. The insights from the study will be used to influence the private sector and public policy in addressing these challenges.
AkefAqrabawi, President &CEO of INJAZ Al-Arab, said: “In keeping with our commitment to inspire and prepare a generation of Arab youth to become the leaders of tomorrow, we were pleased to collaborate with Oliver Wyman on a project that has the potential to support the MENA region and Sub-Saharan Africain tackling the unemployment challenge. The survey sheds awareness on the disparity between the skills that youth are currently being equipped with, and the requirements requested by today’s employers. We will continue our work at INJAZ-Al Arab by leveraging the insights garnered from this study to provide the necessary programs and mentorship opportunities to students to close this gap.”
Continuing to discuss the power of the partnership, Pierre Romagny, Partner at Oliver Wyman, said: “We were pleased to partner once again with INJAZ Al-Arab and JA Africa on such a pivotal project to deepen our common understanding of the skills gaps and youth-employer disconnects on the labor market. These insights are critical to point the private and public sectors alike in the right direction to start addressing these challenges. We are proud to have collaborated withINJAZ Al-Arab and JA Africa on this study: 13 program facilitators and 18 friends of the work-readiness programs (employers) across MENA and SSA have provided valuable insights on challenges and opportunities in their market. We look forward to leveraging this report to create awareness with employers and drive opportunities for youth across markets.”
JA Africa’s CEO, Simi Nwogugu, said,”Parts of Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, making it increasingly important that we develop solutions quickly as the region also has the largest and fastest growing youth population in the world. We are grateful for this partnership with Oliver Wyman which will inform the work we do at JA Africa over the next few years to equip youth with requisite skills for productive employment and entrepreneurship.”
For further details on the survey findings and to download the report, visit https://owy.mn/3xS7IQP
First, we heard that residents above the age of 60 would not be allowed to renew their residencies if they did not hold a college degree. Then, after outrage on social media (by locals, to be sure, since any outrage by a resident would lead to arrest or deportation), there was talk that the rule may not be implemented; instead, we heard that those who came up with the decree would, at least, reconsider the age bracket, perhaps hiking it up to residents over 70 years of age (which in and of itself is lamentable).
Then, it was back again to 60 a few months ago, but with a proposal to fine residents annually (that is when talk of KD 2,000 arose). This latter proposal brewed for a while until it was announced only recently – in the midst of a pandemic, in the throes of increased unemployment and suicides and drug-taking and crimes, and in the whirlwind of murders and corruption – that the Public Authority of Manpower would “allow” residents above the age of 60 who do not hold university degrees to renew their residency provided they pay an annual fee of KD 2,000; as though by making it look like a favor, a permission granted, so to speak, the harsh brutality of the cost of remaining in Kuwait would seem less pronounced, brushed under the rug.
Though already considered official by all of us who read about it in the news, it appears that the “decision” needs a couple more weeks, perhaps, to be considered bureaucratically official, unless a person with strings will use his position of power to take a stand against it. The likelihood of such a selfless act transpiring is well, let’s just say, unlikely. Highly unlikely.
Although many residents above 60 who have graduated from college may have breathed a collective, perhaps even audible, sigh of relief, many others will be in tears, for they have parents and siblings aged 60 and above who live with or near them and who do not hold college degrees, and they themselves, holders of college degrees, will not be able to afford such a fee to keep the family together. And what about us locals? We cannot ignore the two-thousand-dinar elephant in the room.
Many of us who work in the public or private sector, with or without university degrees, or even with Master’s degrees and PhDs, would not ourselves be able (or willing) to pay such a lofty fee. Two. Thousand. Dinars. Imagine. And if we think this will not affect us, we are wrong. “They” are us! They, who we consider expatriates and foreigners and residents are us. We are them. We are one in this society. All of us. Each one of us, a thread of the same fabric, interwoven. What hurts us hurts them and vice versa. Let this register for all of us. Again and again and again.
There are residents in their sixties who were born here and have lived here their entire lives; residents who do not want to go “home” because their “home” is here, in Kuwait, where they belong, with us. Kuwait is the land in which they want to be buried, in which their parents were buried. After all their years of service to our country, we are now showing them the door under the pretext of making rules we know people cannot implement, all so that residents can leave of their own accord.
But they will not leave of their own accord. Ever. They will leave because neither they nor their university-degree-holding families were able to pay such an outrageous sum; they will leave because they are tired of living in a country that does not want them here. So many have left already; others are waiting for the right moment to leave. Others are waiting anxiously to see whether things will get better (or get worse).
We cannot stay silent. We cannot. And the last thing residents need is sympathy; if we are to feel sorry for anyone, we should feel sorry for ourselves for who we have become. Instead of patronizing them with our sympathy, residents should be applauded for their resilience, their bravery, and their contribution. They should be rewarded; they should be given more benefits as time elapses, not less.
We have a lot to learn from them. Even while many are treated as second-class members of the community, they stay, they work, and they support their families. This rhetoric of residents profiting from us is immature and arrogant; we must remember they are doing us a favor, a huge one, by being here as well. We are in this together; and in a healthy community, that is how things work; we give and we take; we take and we give.
Some residents may still find a way to stay here, in their home. But with this new “fine,” there is no way they can save money or help their families. And how can we sleep at night knowing we are creating obstacles for residents to send money back home? How can we sleep at night knowing that there is no money to pay for a parent’s kidney transplant or a relative’s tumor removal or a child’s education because the money is being paid to an oil-rich country instead? What principles are we building our foundation on?
These are certainly not our principles. And as long as we hold on to these pseudo-principles, we will continue to create laws which protect us and ostracize others, laws which are far, far away from the values of our heritage, founded on hospitality and inclusivity. Aren’t we tired of this us vs them attitude? Do we really want a Kuwait for Kuwaitis? Is this our legacy? Can’t we remember who we are?
It’s done. All we can do now is lament and ensure we resurrect a new Kuwait based on the ideals of our welcoming forefathers who never flinched at demographics. All we can do now is remember that what goes around comes around. This is a law. It is not a doomsday prophecy, but a warning, an invitation to recalibrate, a chance, an opportunity, to restore the karmic balance.
This is our chance to wake up and ask ourselves: Is this our legacy? And we should ask ourselves this question every night. That way, we can rectify the situation before karma knocks on our door. Loudly and fiercely. Two thousand dinars. Let’s remember that number. For it may come back to haunt those of us who stayed silent, those of us who spoke out for justice only when it came to our rights and, often, at the expense of others.
The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF), a UAE-based global humanitarian charity dedicated to helping refugees and people in need worldwide, has made an impassioned call to citizens around the world to generously support its 2021 Zakat and general donations drive during Ramadan.
These fundraising activities under the“Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign are part of a comprehensive long-term programme that TBHF has launched. In partnership with four leading UN agencies, namely, UNHCR, UNDP, WHO and UNICEF, the foundation is addressing humanitarian development challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic amongst vulnerable populations in the MENA region.
Furthering TBHF’s ongoing response efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 worldwide, the programme will set the blueprint for TBHF’s COVID-response strategies in the long term. Evidence and research-based findings from the programme will enable TBHF and partnering UN agencies to identify the most pressing needs of the region, and subsequently aid the designing of sustainable and long-term interventions. The programme will also encompass advocacy campaigns aimed at bridging the gaps in vital sectors of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare and Education, which have been heavily impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Announcing the launch of “Let’s Lessen the Gap”, TBHF revealed the programme would address both the critical health and non-healthcare needs of marginalized populations to allow for a return to normalcy in the MENA region. As COVID-19 continues to shape the lives of individuals and societies around the world, TBHF is appealing to people worldwide to act on their humanitarian instincts and support in lessening, and eventually closing the gap between vulnerable communities and their access to the tools and resources they need to become enablers for building a prosperous MENA region of tomorrow.
To know more about how you can get involved and make your contribution, visit www.lessenthegap.org. Contributions can also be made via SMS by sending the word ‘sadaqa’ to the Etisalat numbers: 7857 to donate AED 10; 7859 to donate AED 50, 7788 to donate AED 100, or 7708 to donate AED 500. For Du: 9965 to donate AED 10; 9967 to donate AED 50, 9968 to donate AED 100.
Zakat contributions can also be deposited directly into Zakat Fund account no: 0011-430430-020 at the Sharjah Islamic Bank (International Bank Account Number ‘IBAN’: AE040410000011430430020).
COVID-19 hastens diverse humanitarian challenges in MENA
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified many decades-long developments and humanitarian challenges in the MENA region such as high youth unemployment, inequitable development pathways, resource scarcity, gender discrimination, restricted access to services, and the devastating effects of ongoing conflict in some countries.
According to reports by UNESCWA, unemployment surged in the region with rates reaching up to 26.6% for youth compared to 13.6% globally. An estimated 25 million Arab youth are not in formal education, employment or training.
Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the learning crisis, disrupting education at an unparalleled rate across the region. A 2020 UNICEF report states that approximately 40% of students, accounting for 37 million children and young people across the region, were not reached by digital and broadcast remote learning.
The pandemic has also posed severe challenges in fragile and conflict-affected nations in MENA, overwhelming weak and overcrowded existing healthcare systems. A UNICEF study titled ‘The Potential Impact of Health Care Disruption on Child Mortality in MENA Due to COVID-19’ draws up a scenario highlighting a particularly bleak reality for children aged 0 – 5. It predicts that a protracted reduction in the supply and demand of primary health care services for children could potentially increase their mortality by nearly 40 percent, compared with a baseline scenario without the COVID-19 virus.
Additionally, refugees and displaced populations in the MENA region and across the world have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Exclusion, discrimination, and inadequate access to health services have heightened protection risks and tested international standards of refugee protection.
UN partners in four sector-specific areas
The “Let’s Lessen the Gap” campaign and post-COVID programme will see TBHF collaborating with multiple UN agencies working on the ground in MENA to implement long-term strategies and initiatives in the fields of Protection, Livelihoods, Healthcare, and Education to assist those who are least likely to have access to these essential services.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. UNHCR will partner with TBHF to empower, protect, and improve the lives of refugees and internally displaced people affected by COVID-19 in the MENA region.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which works in 170 countries and territories to bridge gaps in inequalities and exclusion, will join hands with TBHF to support youth livelihoods, develop capacity and skills, and accelerate structural transformations to advance the sustainable development agenda in the targeted nations.
To build a better, healthier future in a post-COVID world, TBHF will partner with the World Health Organization (WHO) along with other global organizations coordinating vaccine efforts to roll out vaccination programmes that give highest priority to vulnerable populations.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), which works in some of the world’s toughest places to build a better world for the most disadvantaged children, is TBHF’s partner in improving access to learning and education opportunities for children of marginalized communities across the region.
Fundraising for “Let’s Lessen the Gap” commences in April 2021
Appealing to the public, high net worth donors, and the private sector to honour the spirit of giving embodied in the obligation of Zakat, Mariam Al Hammadi, Director of The Big Heart Foundation, said: “At TBHF, we believe in our collective ability to support the most vulnerable communities in the region through these difficult times and beyond by steering efforts towards inclusive programmes that address the economic and social consequences of the crisis.”
Al Hammadi added that although 2020 was an extremely challenging year, it also demonstrated collective resilience as schools, offices, and essential services continued to operate without fail. “Unfortunately, this only represents the reality of the world some of us live in. In many communities and countries that The Big Heart Foundation supports, solutions are still being sought to aid the response and recovery process. It is this gap that we aim to address and bridge through your support this Ramadan, and in the coming months.”
Fundraising activities of the programme have commenced with TBHF’s Zakat 2021 campaign. To know more and make your contributions, visit lessenthegap.org.
By Vani Saraswathi, Editor-at-Large and Director of Projects, Migrant-Rights.Org
As of February 2020, millions of migrants –– primarily from South and Southeast Asia and increasingly from East African countries –– were holding up Gulf economies, working in sectors and for wages unappealing to the more affluent citizens. In countries with per capita GDP of US$62,000 or more, minimum wages ranged as low as US$200 per month.
Men were packed into portacabins and decrepit buildings, six to a room if lucky, hidden behind screens of dust and grime, away from the smart buildings they built and shiny glasses they cleaned. The women were trapped 24/7 in homes that are their workplaces, every movement monitored. It is accepted and normalised without question that these men and women will leave behind their families in the hopes of building a better future for themselves. That they may live all their productive life in a strange country, excluded from social security benefits and denied all rights of belonging, is seen as a small price to pay for the supposed fiscal benefits. The fact that the price is too steep is rarely discussed.
“Why did able-bodied, productive individuals struggle for food and shelter in some of the richest countries in the world?” #DevMattersTweet
Then came March, and a worldwide upheaval as the COVID-19 pandemic struck nations indiscriminately. The official response across the board ranged from well-meaning but knee-jerk, to discriminatory and short-sighted. Some of the strictest lockdowns were implemented in the most congested areas of Gulf cities, where migrants live. However, their labour was considered essential, as the process of nation-building could not be paused. Attempts to decongest were hopeful at best, but the majority continued to live in cramped quarters, were bussed into construction sites, and remained vulnerable to this new infection, as they had been to other infections and health perils.
The women, hundreds of thousands employed as domestic workers, have been invisible at the best of times because their ability to leave home and enjoy an off day or free time has always been at the discretion of their employers. The pandemic guidelines prevented even this thin leeway, with some countries explicitly prohibiting domestic workers from socialising, even when their employers were allowed to. Domestic workers, like a lot of other poorly-paid and badly-treated workers, were considered essential workers. With entire families working and studying from home, their workload increased exponentially. They were also exposed to strong chemical cleaning agents without proper protective gear. While their services were essential, even critical, the individual was considered dispensable and replaceable.
Force majeure rules allowed companies to reduce pay, terminate workers, or put them on leave without pay. Measures were introduced to ensure business continuity even if these measures infringed on workers’ rights. The lack of civil society and trade unions and inability to negotiate collectively –– all disempowering conditions that preceded the pandemic –– meant workers’ voices and representation were limited and muted. No mechanisms were established to challenge the unfair implementation of the measures. Access to justice was riddled with even more problems than before, as wage theft and other labour abuses from the pre-COVID era were yet to be resolved. This post is not even attempting to explore the vulnerabilities and exclusion of undocumented workers –– many of whom are forced into irregularity by the sponsorship or Kafala system.
“When a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.” #DevMattersTweet
In the plethora of webinars that consumed the early months of the pandemic, human rights advocates and activists repeatedly spoke of the lessons being learnt, the new normal that awaited us at the end of the dark tunnel, with ‘building back better’ punctuating every discourse. What they failed to recognise is that when a population has been dehumanised and othered for so long –– as being temporary, their labour merely transactional –– a pandemic will not magically correct decades of poor policies.
In fact, we saw the opposite, with migrant workers being blamed for spreading infections, because of their living conditions over which they had no control over. Ten months into the pandemic, it is almost back to business as usual, with malls, offices, schools and even tourism, opening up in stages. Vaccination drives have begun, with a promise to include migrants in all of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries. But the most marginalised are still housed in deplorable conditions, their temporariness being reinforced. And the first sector that re-opened for recruitment was domestic work bringing in more women from impoverished countries reeling from the impact of the pandemic.
If there is one takeaway for human rights advocates it is that a socio-economic environment devastated by the pandemic is not fertile ground for righteous policies. If anything, origin and destination countries may go lax on due diligence over corporations in the name of business continuity and impose tighter controls over migrants under the pretext of protection.
“The last year has seen an increase in wage theft, and there is an urgent need for transnational mechanisms to deal with this.”#DevMattersTweet
There are key questions we need to ask ourselves and the governments:
In the coming years, climate change, population imbalances and economic distress will increase migrants’ vulnerabilities, and solutions cannot be rooted in the current environment of inequity and discrimination.
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