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Touching Lives

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Whoever said that familiarity breeds contempt needs to revisit his thoughts, or better yet, meet with Lina Nahhas and her team – Fiona, Jonny and Aimee, who have come together to initiate The [sameness] Project.

Yasmeen Maqbool talks to the lady who sees beyond the territorial barriers and connects with people. The [sameness] Project is Dubaibased where social innovators spread goodness using online and offline projects to facilitate “moments of sameness”. These are moments where you and I can look past the things that separate us from another, and see the culture and identity difference melt away.

The 43-year-old Palestinian Canadian has been striving to create the sameness moments between people, ever since she experienced one herself. The moment was so profound that it changed her life forever.

It started about eight years ago, when Lina visited Palestine with her newborn Jood. She met with an Israeli mother and felt that something connected them; something bonded them. Lina believes that it was perhaps the same innate desire that a parent has to want a better world and life for her child.

It was like Lina had had an epiphany. “We both realised we wanted our children to live. We looked at each other and thought: We have the same pain, the same joy and the same dreams for our children.” She questioned, “How can it be that we allow the world to do this to our children? And as difficult as it may be, it didn’t take away my Palestinian identity, because it made my narrative as a Palestinian more valid for the human plight.”

She thought, “If I could feel that way with my enemy, it meant that humans have empathy within them when they see someone else’s pain.”

Lina decided that she needed to grow as a human being and not have all the identity layers in the way of her being seen. Those were the seeds of inspiration that instigated her dream and brought The [sameness] Project to life.

Her goal was simple. “Make people see beyond their differences and tap into what makes them innately human in their stories of pain and joy,” she says. She sold her UAE based company Siraj, the first all Arab boutique market research and consulting agency in the region.

After 16 years in the corporate world, she started focusing her energy on working on how to build an empathy
project that would enable humans to see each other beyond their identity masks.

Four years later, Nahhas told family friends Jonny and Aimee Rose Kennaugh about her sameness moment. The casual beachside conversations led to a sit down session where they brainstormed on how to make this sameness idea a tangible experience. They decided to give it a go and see what happens.

They decided to initiate something more than “just another charity” and incorporated a number of projects that brought humanity together.

Probably the best-known project in Dubai entitled Water for Workers where each month, Lina and her volunteers hand out thousands of bottles of water, with stickers that say ‘thank you’ in six different languages to the city’s labourers. It is about far more than offering refreshment says Lina. “It’s about interacting with humanity. We
hang around and exchange our life stories.”

The way it works is on selected Saturdays during the summer, organised crews of volunteers fan out into different communities in Dubai, handing out bottles of water and sparking conversations across the emirate. “It touches them immensely that we are engaging them in conversation and wanting to hear their stories,” says Lina.

But it isn’t enough for them to simply ‘give’, she emphasizes. The key is to engage. As a former researcher, one of her first observations is how blurred the line between philanthropy, charity and CSR (corporate social responsibility) in the region seems to be.

“Charity is invaluable in keeping some organisations running the way they are,” she acknowledges. “However, I do feel that in today’s world, especially in our region, philanthropy can give an excuse for apathy. What we really need is to engage with people on the receiving end — something that will ‘restart our hearts’… and lead to empathy.”

The only thing she would like to stress is that, “We truly need to get the message across that we are in need of support from the Dubai government, for the sake of collaborating on a positive narrative for Dubai, through our
project and that we are equally in need of support of more corporates like Pepsico and Majid Al-Futtaim who believe in the power of social innovation as the future of brand building.

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