There is an emotion beyond sadness, beyond anger, beyond hope.

This past weekend, a quick trip to Istanbul meant light travelling – hand luggage would do. But with 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and an approaching winter, I wanted to use my baggage allowance instead to take some donations and that if I had an overwhelming response, I’d ask Turkish airlines to transport it in kind (Turkish airlines has previously volunteered to fly cargo collected for refugees). 

Working some years ago for UNICEF, I have a fairly good idea of how humanitarian missions work, and also where donations go. Usually an organization will make an administrative cut – between 10-25%. Then, they will purchase new supplies or pay staff to provide some degree of service. This is why a lot of organisations ask for money, while others are prepared to accept clothes, medicine, food and other supplies which they will distribute and use any financial donations to meet operational costs. That’s what I was looking for – a local group working directly with refugees, where supplies would get to whoever needed it, as quickly as possible.

There is an emotion beyond anything I’ve experienced when I walked into the room in Istanbul’s Fatih district of a small local organization. On the faces of the Syrians there – no sadness, no anger, no hope. Just faces of emptiness. There is nothing that prepares you for meeting the faces of those who are suffering. I don’t know how those working or volunteering there can find the reserve to work in a place with so many stories that may never have a happy ending, and to continue to do so day after day.

There was an elderly lady in a wheelchair, you could see her lifetime was limited. She could have been in Syria, enjoying her end of days, but instead she was alone in a grey, cold, rainy Istanbul, in a centre with makeshift medical facilities, surrounded by other strangers with that same expression of nothing. They are supposed to be the luckier ones.

When you sit in London, and you’re in the news, you know what’s going on. You know the facts. You know the numbers, you see the pictures and sometimes you hear personal stories, like this. Days earlier I erred on the side of caution to keep a jacket that I ‘might’ wear. That doesn’t matter anymore when huge injustices create so many without. To paraphrase a recent quote, whatever material things you may have, use it, share it, and by doing that you share yourself, you share your humanity that in our intermittent world of short attention spans, status updates and Instagram posts, is just as fleeting.  

Excuse me, where are the Arabs?

Should a lack of Arab students at elite British universities raise concerns for future leaders being developed for Arab states?

Earlier this year I returned to London, to the London School of Economics (LSE) to complete my postgraduate degree in Politics and Communication. In between starting and finishing I was at Al Jazeera, with the last year in Doha. Returning to London, I found my eyes searching for Abayas and Thobes, staring at scantily clad and interestingly dressed men and women and of course seeking warmth in a winter that extended snowfall into April. It was quite the reverse culture shock – from the Gulf to the ‘West’, from heat to freeze and from a small city to a global one, and also leaving the world of work to become a student again. One building I spend a lot of my time in is the New Academic Building.

The New Academic building was a £71 million investment which opened in 2008. The building houses a 400 seat theatre, the second largest lecture hall at the LSE and has hosted notable speakers from Gordon Brown to Sheryl Sandberg, from Wael Ghonim to Kofi Annan. The theatre was named for Sheikh Zayed along with a  £2.5 million donation from the Emirates Foundation. As one of the largest and prominent locations on campus, my first observation when returning to the New Academic Building was… where are the Arabs? By that I mean, where are the Arab students?

Sheikh Zayed Theatre. Photo: IGC

If a prominent theatre has been named after a former ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), does this say something about the links between the LSE and UAE, is this part of an investment to raise the stature and mark the influence of wealthy Arab nations? In my classes, Arabs are largely absent. The student population is dominated by Europeans, Americans and Chinese. This concerns me, when there is such tumultuous terrain in the Middle East, this means there is opportunity for investigation and also change. This means change in the media, society as well as political structure. In the context of the US and Europe, with all but a  few economies have untouched by financial woes, should the Arab world, notably the Gulf with all its recent investments in London particularly be somewhere to be paying attention?

I looked at LSE’s latest enrolment statistics (up until the 2011-12 academic year) and what I found was not reassuring. In that year, there were 3 students from Qatar. The UAE fared much better with 40 (the UAE also has a scholarship for Emirati students to study at the LSE whereas the Qatari education ministry will fund Qataris (living expenses included) who secure places at overseas institutions). I cast the net a little wider in the Arab world :

Algeria: 2

Bahrain: 13

Egypt: 20

Iraq: 0

Libya: 1

Palestine: 4

Saudi Arabia: 10

Syria: 2

Some of these countries listed have experienced, or continue to experience conflict. If the LSE is indeed an elite institution drawing the best from all over the world, where are the Arabs?  The lack of Arabs is concerning, as is asking random students whether they know who Sheikh Zayed was, yielding not a single positive response. So who is attending the LSE? From the same year, here are some triple digit representations:

China 814

France 282

Germany 507

Russia 102

USA 962

Any flags going up here? They should be, these numbers still reflect global power realities –  measured by military. It also seems to me that there should be some shifts. The LSE, to me represents a space where leaders can be cultivated, to go out into the world with a different kind of weapon: intellectual ammunition. Considering the transitions and turmoils in the Arab world, it also represents a space where a new generation of Arab leaders could be cultivated, to then return to their countries with the fruit of intellectual tennis and not just that, the contacts of the many bright minds who will indeed go on to do great things all over the world. The LSE does have a reputation of being an elite university producing Nobel Laureates, and many prominent government and policy people. There are some wealthy Arab/Gulf countries investing heavily inside and outside of their countries in education and infrastructure but where are the students? As studying has intensified and exam season is around the corner, I’ve met one girl from Jordan and a Palestinian, but still find myself looking for someone or something just to connect back to a special world that unfortunately many of my London peers know not much about .

The iPhone carrier that doesn’t want you for a customer

I’m moving to London later this year and have been checking out what every reasonable ‘moving to a new location person’ checks out – places to stay, transport links, which bank to open an account in, gyms, parks/running tracks and of course a new mobile phone carrier. The decision to switch to iPhone land was a pre-requisite as a happily satisfied Mac’y. Apple tells me my options are O2, Orange, Vodafone or T-Mobile.

4 carriers, shouldn’t be a tough decision, lets look at the plans – 18 or 24 months contract or pay by month. Not a hard decision there either. Ease of navigation of website turns out to be a plus here. I’m not ordering fast food or looking to ‘supersize’ my mobile phone contract. But that’s the feeling I get when I’m at T-mobile’s site. I’m guessing iPhone buyers are techno-savvy and don’t need to be talked down to purchasing ‘menu’s’ or someone at HQ thought, this is what user friendly sales is.. a bunch of options with pretty colours on the website. T-Mobile reminds me of walking into a store, looking at the products and hoping that maybe a disgruntled employee will muster up enough energy to come over and say ‘can I help you with anything?’ The only other thing I remember about T-Mobile is Catherine Zeta Jones featuring in their ads, which must have been years ago now…

I’m looking for reliability, consistency and of course a reasonable price. This narrows the choice to Orange and Vodafone. Orange is in the lead because (really) their website is appealing, it invites you in and keeps you there. Something to do with also, friendly, smiling French Orange rep I chatted to at LeWeb a few years back. Image really can be everything sometimes. Vodafone is a close second, brand recognition is working here.

Hold on you say, what about O2? O2 was the first site I checked. After all, where was the Eddie Izzard show in London held last year? At the O2. So, brand recognition, check.  Coverage, check. Ability to check out their website, prices, contract types from Turkey. Fail. Major fail. Can anyone explain the rationality here please?

No Sale: Thanks for the fine print though