DUBAI // Inspirational Arabs were recognised for changing the lives of thousands, as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid urged people to “fight the wave of desperation that is taking over our Arab world”.
A refugee co-ordinator who scrambles boats for drowning refugees and members of the White Helmets rescue workers of Syria were among five recipients of the Arab Hope Maker Awards. Each were handed Dh1 million in recognition of their dedication.
The awards ceremony in Dubai Studio City on Thursday night was the culmination of a region-wide search to identify role models, humanitarian workers and inspirational individuals helping their communities.
In total more than 65,000 were nominated from 22 Arab states.
The plan was to choose one winner, but when Sheikh Mohammed, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, stepped on to the stage it was revealed that all five finalists would receive the Dh1m prize.
Nawal Al Soufi, the official winner, works to save refugees from sinking boats in the Mediterranean. Born in Morocco and raised in Catania in Sicily, she fights a daily battle to stem the tide of Syrian deaths as they try to cross from North Africa to Italy.
“My phone rings from 10pm until 6am,” she said. Knowing what is at stake, she said, she cannot fail to answer. Sometimes she receives calls before the coastguard, such is her reputation as someone who will help.
“A man on the line was screaming in Arabic, saying ‘we’re drowning, we have children, we have women. There’s water in the boat, but we can’t get it out.’ I sleep with my phone tied to my hand – it never stops ringing.”
By day, Ms Al Soufi dedicates her time to offering refugees guidance, collecting clothes for them and securing Sim cards.
“I really feel like the refugees are a part of me. It makes me happy to be able to plant hope in the eyes of someone whose [hope has] died,” she said.
Among the other finalists were the White Helmets, collectively, who were the subject of an Academy Award-winning Netflix documentary this year. Often the first and only emergency service on the scene, they have braved bombings and chemical attacks to help civilians in northern Syria. Many have died on duty.
Maaly Al Asousi from Kuwait, Majida Jebran from Egypt, Hisham Al Thahabi from Iraq, completed the five winners.
Ms Al Asousi was recognised for her volunteer work in helping those in need in Yemen, which she left her home country for in 2007.
Majida Jebran, also known as Mama Magy, was recognised for volunteer work in the poorest parts of her home country.
Meanwhile, Mr Al Thahabi had helped shelter and reform hundreds of homeless children in Iraq.
Arab Hope Makers was set up by Sheikh Mohammed in the belief that hope, work, positivity, and optimism are what the Arab world needs.
“These are the unsung heroes, who do good and do not wait or ask for reward,” Sheikh Mohammed said on Thursday night.
“While they may not actively seek fame, it is our responsibility to acknowledge their humanitarian contributions and ensure they are presented as heroes to young generations who need role models to truly achieve positive effect and change.”
“We will not and cannot be desperate and we have to fight the wave of desperation that is taking over our Arab world.”
He said that building nations is not only achieved by governments, but by people who are key to tackling social, economic and cultural challenges.
“Closing the door of hope means opening the window of despair,” he said.