Soothe op­er­a­tor

Aid for those af­fected by war should in­clude not just food, cloth­ing and shel­ter, but also yoga and med­i­ta­tion, Mawahib Shaibani says. Here’s how she pro­vides a salve for bro­ken souls. By Mri­nal Shekar

Friday - - Making A Difference - PHOTO BY AIZA CASTILLO-DOMINGO

The pink se­quinned dress floats like cot­ton candy around her, the heels el­e­vate her el­e­gance and her hair and sub­tle make-up cre­ate the per­fect pic­ture of poise.

Sit­ting un­der the arc lights in the Gulf News stu­dio, Mawahib Shaibani, 49, is set for her photo shoot, but Aiza Castillo-Domingo, the pho­tog­ra­pher, is not very happy.

‘Ma’am your skin is shin­ing a bit too much,’ she says, pre­par­ing to daub off the ‘of­fen­sive’ sheen with a wad of tis­sues.

‘It’s not per­spi­ra­tion or make-up that’s caus­ing the shine, you know,’ says Megha Pai, who is ac­com­pa­ny­ing Mawahib. ‘It’s the years of med­i­ta­tion.’

Megha is me­dia co­or­di­na­tor of Art of Liv­ing and In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for Hu­man Val­ues (IAHV), two sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tions that are work­ing across the world to heal hearts and minds.

Med­i­ta­tion, as taught by Art of Liv­ing, helps peo­ple learn how to breathe bet­ter, thereby in­creas­ing their oxy­gen in­take, which im­proves over­all health and re­duces stress, ex­plains Megha. The re­sult? Glow­ing skin like Mawahib’s.

As di­rec­tor of IAHV Iraq, a chap­ter of the vol­un­teer-based not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion head­quar­tered in Geneva, Mawahib over­sees re­lief work in 15 Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries, with Iraq and Syria be­ing the fo­cus. For more than a decade, this Emi­rati has been work­ing in re­mote ar­eas, help­ing vic­tims of strife and war in an en­vi­ron­ment where pain is en­demic.

‘We have a four-step ap­proach ev­ery time we en­ter an area that has suf­fered from in­ces­sant fight­ing and the scars of war are still fresh,’ she says.

‘First is emer­gency re­lief, where we pro­vide food, cloth­ing, shel­ter and med­i­cal care to all those who are af­fected.’ Once peo­ple’s im­me­di­ate needs are taken care of, her team con­cen­trates on trauma re­lief, em­pow­er­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity.

Mawahib does not be­lieve in find­ing a quick-fix path to re­cov­ery. She says it’s not un­usual to face cyn­i­cism and hope­less­ness ini­tially, but ul­ti­mately, the scars of war be­gin to heal.

‘Hope­less­ness does not fig­ure in my dic­tionary. How can it be an op­tion when hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of peo­ple, are ex­pect­ing me to save them from a calami­tous sit­u­a­tion?’ Mawahib asks.

It’s this at­ti­tude that al­lows her to help those who have lost not only all they hold dear, but their very rea­son to be alive.

‘Over the past 13 years that I’ve been work­ing with IAHV, I’ve trav­elled to some of the worst war zones try­ing to re­store and re­pair what’s left,’ she says.

Along with the process of re­build­ing in­fra­struc­ture, cre­at­ing the means to earn a liveli­hood and im­part­ing life skills, Mawahib also of­fers lessons in yoga and med­i­ta­tion to women and the youth. They are im­por­tant tools to em­power peo­ple to deal with the toxic pes­simism that sur­rounds them, she be­lieves. ‘Our breath has power. The mo­ment we learn how to fo­cus on the way we breathe, we can con­trol our emo­tions and wash away all the dark thoughts of hate and anger,’ she ex­plains.

A grad­u­ate in fi­nance, Mawahib started her ca­reer as a banker. So what made her switch gears?

‘I be­long to a cul­ture that ex­pects its women to be per­fect in what­ever they do. And when you have the ex­pec­ta­tions of your loved ones weigh­ing heavy on your shoul­ders, there is no room for er­ror,’ she ex­plains. ‘So for 15 years I worked as a bro­ker in the bro­ker­age and fi­nance sec­tions of in­ter­na­tional banks. Since I was one of the very few women in a male-dom­i­nated field, I’d put in ex­tra hours try­ing to prove that I had what it takes to be the best. In the process, I was spend­ing all my wak­ing hours in the of­fice, driven by num­bers and achiev­ing goals.’

This con­tin­ued un­til the day a friend pointed out to Mawahib that she was rac­ing on the wrong track. In­stead of climb­ing up

Along with the process of RE­BUILD­ING in­fra­struc­ture, CRE­AT­ING the means to earn a liveli­hood and IM­PART­ING life skills, Mawahib also of­fers LESSONS in yoga and med­i­ta­tion to youth and women

the cor­po­rate lad­der she was on the fast lane to burn-out. ‘She sug­gested I try med­i­ta­tion and yoga. Since she was a fan of Art of Liv­ing, I went along.’

Head­quar­tered in Bengaluru, In­dia, Art of Liv­ing is an ed­u­ca­tional and hu­man­i­tar­ian move­ment en­gaged in stress man­age­ment through yoga and med­i­ta­tion and per­son­al­ity de­vel­op­ment. The or­gan­i­sa­tion op­er­ates in 152 coun­tries and has touched the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple, through its stress elim­i­na­tion work­shops.

‘I sud­denly re­alised that my ed­u­ca­tion had not em­pow­ered me to deal with my stresses and my ex­pec­ta­tions. Un­til

then, I felt I was in a dark room strug­gling to find my way out, look­ing for an­swers and so­lu­tions out­side of me, not know­ing that I was look­ing in the wrong place. I had a lot of money yet no peace. But once I did the med­i­ta­tion pro­gramme, the jour­ney of self-ex­plo­ration from my head to my heart led to an in­stant sense of spir­i­tual up­lift­ment and con­tent­ment,’ says Mawahib.

It was just a mat­ter of time un­til she gave up her job and de­cided to vol­un­teer for IAHV. ‘I wanted to dis­cover my roots and my cul­ture. Ba­si­cally, to man­age peo­ple’s lives, and not their money.’

Thir­teen years on, Mawahib is still pack­ing her courage and pos­i­tiv­ity and trav­el­ling to ex­tremely dan­ger­ous zones, liv­ing there for pe­ri­ods of time, try­ing to re­build bro­ken lives. Part of her ini­tia­tive in­cludes set­ting up com­puter work­shops, teach­ing tai­lor­ing, cook­ing and ba­sic in­ter­net skills, and of­fer­ing cer­tifi­cate cour­ses in tourism and bank­ing so that those af­fected are able to im­prove their stan­dard of liv­ing. Mawahib and her team of train­ers also pro­vide med­i­ta­tion and yoga cour­ses so ‘their emo­tional scars heal in a more ef­fec­tive man­ner,’ she says

The re­wards have been enor­mous. ‘I re­mem­ber a group of women in Iraq ask­ing

Over the years, Mawahib feels it is the YOUTH who need more help as any UP­HEAVAL causes a di­lap­i­da­tion of their spir­its. ‘I feel that their IN­NO­CENCE gets buried un­der a cloud of RAGE and ANGER’

me to teach them Pho­to­shop after they had learnt [com­puter ba­sics], clearly show­ing signs of hunger for more knowl­edge. The mo­ment they mas­tered the soft­ware, they were mak­ing cards, cal­en­dars and sou­venirs for sale.’ It is that sign of con­fi­dence and willpower, Mawahib says, that is tes­ti­mony that life in these ar­eas is re­sus­ci­tat­ing.

‘Never have I felt the need to con­vince peo­ple in war-torn ar­eas that apart from food and med­i­cal aid, they need spir­i­tual help as only then will all their wounds heal,’ she says.

It is this trust that is the first step to change. ‘And then it is a domino ef­fect. Once peo­ple open their hearts and minds to em­pow­er­ment, then it is easy for them to ac­cept that they are the mas­ters of their destiny,’ she ex­plains.

But es­tab­lish­ing hap­pi­ness and over­all well-be­ing amid a shroud of suf­fer­ing can be an up­hill task. ‘Trauma and hunger are two im­me­di­ate prob­lems ev­ery time we en­ter a con­flict zone. Peo­ple can­not be happy if they are hun­gry,’ Mawahib says. And it is this sa­ti­a­tion – spir­i­tual in­cluded – that has helped her win many hearts, if not bat­tles. ‘I will never for­get what a group of women in Bagh­dad who had been vic­tims of war once told me after we had just done a project with them: “Un­til now we only knew the art of dy­ing, but now you’ve taught us how to live and laugh. Thanks to you, we have now be­come war­riors of love.” For women who had lost all hope of a bet­ter life, let alone un­der­stand­ing the art of liv­ing, this made for an un­for­get­table mem­ory,’ says Mawahib.

In the UAE now to catch up with fam­ily, she is pre­par­ing to head to Mo­sul in Iraq, a town that has been in the news re­cently for in­tense fight­ing. ‘Apart from en­sur­ing that the in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple who have re­cently fled Mo­sul have ad­e­quate emer­gency re­lief sup­plies, I am also go­ing to be fo­cus­ing on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of women who have faced vi­o­lence,’ she says, a smile still on her face.

But more than the women, Mawahib feels it is the youth who need more help as po­lit­i­cal up­heaval causes a di­lap­i­da­tion of their spirit. ‘Over the years, I’ve re­alised that their in­no­cence gets buried un­der a cloud of rage and anger. They be­lieve re­venge is their only re­course.’ That is why Mawahib be­lieves it is im­por­tant to fo­cus on clear­ing this debris of neg­a­tiv­ity, so that the young peo­ple be­come driv­ers of change and peace. ‘It’s only when the young take our en­ergy for­ward to help oth­ers, that peace can be­come a sus­tain­able op­tion,’ she says.

Mawahib is all praise for the UAE gov­ern­ment declar­ing 2017 as the Year of Giv­ing. But in the long run, she be­lieves the onus lies on par­ents and teach­ers, as they alone can nur­ture val­ues of com­pas­sion among the young. ‘I hope more and more peo­ple come for­ward to vol­un­teer their time. When we con­nect with dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple at a per­sonal level, it can be a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.’ Is that the only chal­lenge she fore­sees? ‘Clothes from China,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what we can do to en­sure the clothes made by women at our camps can be cheaper than what is made in China.’ The smile now turns to a soft gig­gle.

Maybe Mawahib needs to put on her fi­nance hat once again.

Mawahib with blan­kets and mat­tresses for refugees at Iraq’s Er­bil air­port in the Kur­dis­tan re­gion

Med­i­ta­tion is prov­ing pop­u­lar in Duhok camp, Iraq, Be­low: Mawahib watches along­side AOL founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, as Duhok refugees make bread

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