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 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 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.