START - the art of success

Founded six years ago, START was an ambitious programme to provide art education for underprivileged children in the region. Director Tanaz Dizadji reveals how it has become a huge success, reaching close to 6,000 children
By Anil Bhoyrul
Fri 12 Apr 2013 06:16 PM

When Tanaz Dizadji was just thirteen years old, her art teacher gave her the bad news. “She said I wasn’t patient enough. I was more keen on math.”

As it turned out, her teacher proved to be both right and wrong. Dizadji went on to become a hugely successful chartered accountant in the UK, before ditching it all three years ago to take over as director of START. “I’ve never looked back,” she says.

Patience right now is a key part of Dizadji’s life. Established by partners Art Dubai and the Al Madad Foundation in 2007, START provides art education for over 1,000 underprivileged children every week across Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, India and the UAE. Practising artists, art professionals, art students and non-art professionals are given the opportunity to be part of an art education programme through teaching or mentoring children with special needs or those who live under difficult social circumstances.

So far it has been a huge success, with close to 6,000 children reached since the programme was launched. And it’s a busy schedule  — 20 workshops a month are held in the UAE, 40 in Jordan, 36 in Lebanon, 32 in Palestine and sixteen in India.

On top of that, START has launched three special scholarships to help develop underpriviledged children in the workplace.

“This is not a case of let’s do art and make you happy. This is about helping children connect. We use art as a therapy to connect with kids. It’s about creativity, and giving them something to work with as they develop. We [have] given them exposure to different cultures,” says Dizadji, who travels to most of the camps at least once a month.

“The best reward for me is seeing them grow up. Some of these kids were just eight when we started working with them and now they are thirteen. They are now even mentoring  other kids themselves,” she says.

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One of the most remarkable aspects of START is how it has branched out from initially running workshops into providing full scale scholarships. Since 2011, three different ones have been provided. In the UAE, START provides a one-year scholarship programme to encourage motivated and talented children with special needs in the UAE to pursue their passion for the arts. The START awardee is mentored by artists and interns at prestigious galleries in the region, visits the START House in Jordan and participates as a volunteer at START Workshops.

In Jordan, START provides a three-year scholarship programme to enable and support motivated and talented disadvantaged children in Jordan, to develop their skills and creativity and give them the opportunity to achieve higher qualifications in the arts.

Access to higher education is limited for many refugees because of their difficult socio-economic situation. Therefore, the START Scholarship Programme provides financial support for university tuition fees, accommodation and subsistence costs. Awards are given according to artistic and academic merit. A third scholarship was recently added for a child to attend the The Dubai Autism Centre.

None of this is cheap  — but again, Dizadji has been behind the hugely successful fundraising events to finance these programmes. Its annual Royal Gala dinner, held last month in Dubai, saw a record $1.1m raised through a charity auction.

Led by internationally renowned auctioneer Jonny Gould, the auction featured two stunning timepieces for him and her generously donated by Harry Winston, Inc, namely the Midnight Automatic 42mm and the Midnight Lady 39mm as well as a series of works from celebrated artists. Names such as Aaron Young, Cindy Sherman, Arman, Safwan Dahoul, Nadim Karam, David Mach and Mr Brainwash attracted high bids from the evening’s patrons.

The auction was held as part of a thematic evening under the banner of ‘Beauty Through the Raw’.

“You get nervous about putting on these kinds of events because you are relying on people to give their time and money, but this year we raised more money than ever, which is not only very humbling but a huge vote of confidence for what we are doing,” she says.

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The ‘UAE START Scholarship Award’, supported by PHD, is an eighteen-month vocational scholarship that was given to  Safiea Ahmad Khalfan, an Emirati orphan from Al Zayed orphanage in Abu Dhabi. During the scholarship Khalfan will intern with prestigious organisations across the UAE, allowing her to experience mentorships and develop her vocational and technical skills.

The ‘Jordan START Scholarship Award’, supported by Majid Al Futtaim, was awarded to Dana Saleh, a young and talented student who is pursuing a career in interior design. The award will cover tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses, a remarkable gesture to give her, in her own words, “a golden opportunity with a complete education in the field of art and design, my own private world.”

The ‘Dubai Autism Scholarship Award’ went to Noamann Ahmad, who will receive a full time education at the Dubai Autism Centre, providing him with the special level of care and tutorship he needs.

It’s been quite a journey for Dizadji herself to get to this stage. She left Iran at the age of three to move to the UK, and after studying accounting and finance became a chartered accountant for PwC. Feeling “restricted” by the world of auditing, she went to work for the charity Elephant Parade, tasked with saving Asian elephants from extinction. She was approached by the founders of START in 2010 to move to Dubai to run the operation, and during the last three years has seen the programme grow significantly.

“In the next five years, we are looking at many new locations and also doubling capacity in each country, but also finding a way to make our operations more sustainable. I think we have done a lot already, but as far as I am concerned, this is just the beginning.”

Few would argue with that.

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