When was the last time someone’s story ignited a light inside of you? Or made you believe that there is a better future within your grasp? It’s a question Japanese watch manufacturer Citizen is seeking to answer with its #MyBetterStartsNow campaign that was launched last month in celebration of the brand’s centennial.

The campaign aims to unearth individuals from the UAE who have stories of positive change and inspiring causes to tell and award one deserving individual whose determination, dedication and ability to overcome struggles stand apart from the rest. A grand prize of Dh25,000 will help them further their cause or initiative.

Citizen has left no stone unturned in seeking out these unsung heroes — the brand has been reaching out to people through social media platforms as well as spreading the message through the campaign’s very own ambassadors — Emirati innovation specialist Reem Al Marzouqi; Diaa Allam, a Dubai-based Egyptian calligraphy artist; Indian motivational speaker Simerjeet Singh and Katie Pattison-Hart, a British national who rowed across the Atlantic to raise awareness about human trafficking.

And the result has been overwhelming — Citizen received hundreds of entries from people of all nationalities and walks of life, some who heard of the contest through word of mouth, others personally recommended by the ambassadors and then our readers who discovered this inspiring campaign through Friday’s interview with the ambassadors published last month. We spoke to three such nominees to find out what winning the #MyBetterStartsNow contest means to them. Each one of them has overcome a myriad obstacles in order to champion a moving cause that’s improving the lives of people around them.

Majd Alwaa

Majd dreams of opening a centre that would teach people calligraphy
Anas Thacharpadikkal

Preserving and promoting the Arabic artform of calligraphy is a long-held passion of Majd, a qualified pilot, because he attributes it to assisting him when, as a youngster, he faced some challenging times — he was then able to draw comfort from the art. Eager to convey its beauty and cultural significance, Majd established an Instagram page — it now boasts 81,000 followers.

Why are you passionate about calligraphy?

My parents separated when I was eight, which meant I lived in the UK with my dad and my mum lived in Syria. The year they separated, we lived in Syria for a bit and I met a calligraphy teacher who got me interested in its guidelines and all the different fonts and styles. I was good at art, and drawing was how I relieved the stress at home and dealt with the bullying I endured at school for how I looked and my religion.

What made you decide to move from the UK to the UAE?

When the Syrian war started I was in secondary school and had to risk everything to meet my mum. That motivated me to work towards a way to have her live with me. My move to the UAE was largely guided by the fact that I could sponsor my mum here, work in Dubai’s thriving aviation industry and pursue calligraphy.

How did you hear of the #MyBetterStartsNow campaign and what does it mean to you?

The campaign’s ambassador, Diaa Allam, who is a good friend and mentor, nominated me. You can always shape your life if you believe in yourself, that’s why I relate to the #MyBetterStartsNow. Everyone who used to bully me in primary school now asks me, ‘How did you make it? You’ve moved away and we’re still in the same place.’

How will winning this contest help you?

It will help me get the funds I need to start a centre where I could teach people calligraphy.

Manmeet Singh

Manmeet'S CakeForCake project is based on a footwear company's charitable initiative
Anas Thacharpadikkal

In 2016 Manmeet, a project manager in an Oil & Gas technology company, came up with an idea to help those less fortunate to feel appreciated. He came from humble beginnings, and wanted to give back. He opened a bakery in Abu Dhabi and launched CakeForCake, based on footwear company Toms’ charitable model — when a customer buys a cake of 1kg or above, Manmeet surprises someone less fortunate with a cake.

What specifically inspired you to focus on birthdays?

The president of my company was surprised with a birthday cake when he checked into an Abu Dhabi hotel. If that made such a big difference to his happiness, I could only imagine the amount of joy it would bring to blue-collared workers, particularly when most of them don’t have enough money or friends to celebrate their birthdays with.

What has the response been like?

We have celebrated more than 800 birthdays. We surprised a labourer in Musaffah with a cake full of candles and he didn’t know what to do because it was the first time he had ever received a cake. A 65-year-old Pakistani man in Al Ain had never cut a cake before. These experiences inspire and motivate us to do more.

How did you find out about the #MyBetterStartsNow campaign and what does it mean to you?

My wife read Friday’s feature about the campaign and sent in my nomination immediately. #MyBetterStartsNow reflects how we didn’t wait too long to start CakeForCake once the idea came to me. I believe that we have to celebrate people and spread happiness now, not later.

How will winning this contest help you?

I plan to create an app that will help us gather data and allow customers to nominate people.

Nicole Fiorentino

Nicole's Widad Center offers kids the tools and resources mainstream schools can’t, such as hands-on experiential learning involving touch, auditory and visual processing
Anas Thacharpadikkal

A dyslexic who benefited from education at an alternative school in the US, Nicole was moved on hearing that children with learning issues were not offered alternative education in the UAE. Determined to address the issue, she established and now runs Widad Center, which offers kids the tools and resources main-stream schools can’t, such as hands-on experiential learning involving touch, auditory and visual processing.

Why is alternative education vital to you?

I grew up dyslexic and was blessed to have access to an alternative school in San Francisco. This inspired me to pursue special education as a career and give back to the community. The children that come to us have been asked to leave mainstream schools because they can’t go any further. I want to make sure that these children do not suffer because it is hard out there and they could be stigmatised.

Why is it important for alternative education to be accessible?

We need to be open to the fact that not all children work well in class sizes of 26 students or more in big schools without hands-on learning approaches. There’s a huge need and demand for educators and governments to give parents a choice in the type of educational system that works for their family.

How did you find out about the #MyBetterStartsNow campaign?

I was nominated by Arfa Shahid from ARY News. In fact I didn’t even know about the campaign until she’d entered me into the contest. But #MyBetterStartsNow is a [mindset] I believe in — there’s no better time than now to do something you love, you’re passionate about, and you want to change for the greater good.

How will winning this contest help you?

I would use the prize money to get us an alternative school status.

#MyBetterStartsNow details

It’s not too late if you still have an unsung hero in mind, whose contribution to society deserves to be lauded — the competition is accepting entries until March 15. Citizen is still looking for more inspirational people similar to these. Log on to www.citizen-me.com/mybetterstartsnow/ to participate. You can also send in your story to info@citizengulf.ae along with a photograph to stand a chance of winning Dh25,000, to turn your dream into a reality.