Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair has embarked a mission to help educate thousands of refugee children in the region - and wants to encourage others to do their part through open and institutionalised philanthropy
"In the past, people in our culture always kept philanthropy as a private matter. We always say that whatever your right hand gives, your left hand should not know about,” explains Emirati businessman and philanthropist Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair. “But to scale up and have a much larger impact, we need to open up.”
Although he remains best known for his contributions to the world of business as CEO of Mashreq Bank – which was founded by his father Abdullah Ahmad and uncle Saif during the oil boom of the late 1960s – and as chairman of Al Ghurair Investment LLC, Abdul Aziz has long been a passionate philanthropist, supporting causes as diverse as Unesco and the UAE Disabled Sports Federation.
Now, he’s set his sights on educating young refugees – and he isn’t shying away from publicising it to set an example for others. In June – on the occasion of World Refugee Day – Al Ghurair announced the launch of the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair Refugee Education Fund, an AED100m ($27.22m) initiative that will run for three years and that will support thousands of refugee youth displaced by wars and disasters currently living in Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE.
We’re passing through a unique period in which 50 percent of refugees around the globe come from the Arab world
Among those who have publicly praised the initiative are former British prime minister and now UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, as well as Filippo Grande, the UN high commissioner for refugees.
Speaking to Arabian Business in his office at the Mashreq Bank building in Deira, Al Ghurair explains his motivations for setting up the fund, which he says comes at a time of urgent need for hundreds of thousands of young people forced to flee their homes – and their education – because of civil strife. Of the estimated 5.6 million refugees from the Syria alone, approximately 2.7 million are thought to be children. Many of them were forced to discontinue their education as they fled their homes. According to Unicef statistics, of all the out-of-school young people in the region, 80 percent have been affected by war.
“There are many issues facing the Arab world today, and you could focus on any of them. They all are important, but today we’re passing through a unique period in which 50 percent of refugees around the globe come from the Arab World. Somebody needs to look after this issue,” he explains. “Hopefully, in a very short time, we won’t have this issue, but it is a shame that a young girl or boy, aged 12 or 14 for example, [is forced] to miss school and then have forever lost an opportunity for the rest of their lifetime. By giving them assistance we will save them and put them into proper school, and then hopefully they graduate from high school and join college. Three years in the life of a student is a long time.”
Although Al Ghurair says he and his staff had long been thinking of ways to extend a helping hand to the less fortunate, he recalls that the idea for the refugee education fund came to him as a result of an encounter with a young Syrian, Mohammed Said, that he met while running the Abdullah Al Ghurair Foundation for Education set up by his father, which has the stated aim of providing access to educational opportunities for bright, high-achieving and underserved Emirati and Arab youth who come from low-income backgrounds.
“We came across this Syrian refugee who was displaced from Aleppo, and ended up here. He was working in the UAE to support his family and help them to live. He finished high school, but he had no way to join university. He started working for two years to help his family, until he saw our programme,” Al Ghurair recalls, smiling broadly at the memory. “Now he’s doing computer science at the American University of Sharjah. He has full marks, a 4.0 GPA. He’s even been interviewed on CNN. I thought to myself, ‘My goodness, refugees are bright people’ and that they deserve to be looked after. Therefore, this programme [the Refugee Education Fund] came about.”
It is a shame that a young girl or boy is forced to miss school and then have forever lost an opportunity
Over the course of the next three years, the fund has a target of financing and helping 20,000 students across all three countries in which it operates. To accomplish this goal, however, the fund needs help, and has so far partnered with a number of organisations including Unicef, the UNHCR, Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP), Luminus Education and the Emirates Red Crescent.
“We don’t operate. We only fund operating schools. We pick and have run RFP [requests for proposal] for operators. Various schools and organisations in Lebanon, Jordan and the UAE put up their offers on why they should be selected,” he explains. “We selected those partners to help us deliver. Without them, this would be only a dream. It couldn’t happen. Luckily we found those NGOs and schools.”
In the UAE, Al Ghurair adds, the fund has been working with the Red Crescent to identify young residents who have been affected by war. “We have Yemenis, we have Somalis, we have Syrians, Palestinians who will take advantage of this programme, and we’ll put them through to complete their schooling.”
So far, the programme has had an even better start than what Al Ghurair and the staff members working on the fund expected. In the first phase – in which AED45m ($12.25m) was distributed – approximately 6,500 students have been put into school in all three countries.
“I didn’t believe we could deliver so many in the first year. The second year is always easier,” Al Ghurair says. “We’re exceeding our internal expectations.”
It is okay to come out and talk about what you do, particularly if it’s good, to encourage others
While the immediate benefits of the fund will be felt by the students, Al Ghurair says that he hopes it will have a wider effect that he hopes manifests itself in several ways. For one, he hopes that he, and the fund, can help create awareness of the need for education among the region’s refugee population, which in turn he hopes will encourage people to help however they can and – importantly – to be open about it.
“Many people have asked, ‘Why go public with this?’ Traditionally, people don’t go public about philanthropy. If we choose to go public, it’s really to encourage people by saying that it is okay to come out and talk about what you do, particularly if it’s good, and to encourage others to set up similar concepts and make them professionally run. Make it an institution. Be transparent and always go for accountability,” he explains. “We need to see the impact of whatever we do. We really need a shift in which we make philanthropy institutionalised, with a proper organisation in place, and we should run them with proper KPIs [key performance indicators], depending on what you want to achieve.”
Despite the fund being in its relative infancy, Al Ghurair says he’s already had to – for the moment – rebuff some offers to work together with other organisations to lend a hand to the fund. “Our response is to let us deliver first. Let’s see one year of graduates, people going through a full-year programme. We are sharing our experience, what worked, what didn’t work, and we’ll tweak our programme.”
Instead, Al Ghurair hopes that the success of the fund will serve as a catalyst for others, particularly businesses, to take steps to set up funds and help in whatever way they can.
Be transparent and always go for accountability. We need to see the impact of whatever we do
“It doesn’t have to be a huge fund. It could be at a country or city level. Or, it could be that neighbourhoods can set up funds. If there are unfortunate kids in the neighbourhood, it’s good to have the residents set up an organisation,” Al Ghurair remarks.
“If even 15 kids are looked after, I think it’s very good.”
According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2017 there were more than 25.4 million refugees around the world, 52 percent of which were under the age of 18. Of the 7.4 million refugee children under the UNHCR’s mandate, four million are out of school.
The UN statistics also show a significant gap between refugee children and youth with their peers, which grows considerably as they get old. In 2017, 61 percent of refugee children were enrolled in primary school, compared to 92 percent globally, while 23 percent of refugee children are enrolled, compared to the global rate of 84 percent – meaning that nearly two thirds of refugee children who go to primary school don’t move on to secondary school.
Only one percent of refugees attend university, compared to 37 percent of young people around the world.
Statistics from Human Rights Watch shows an alarming number of attacks on educational institutions in Syria. According to the data, between March 2011 and December 2017, there were 652 attacks on education in the country, including 309 direct attacks on schools – nine of which were struck twice – as well as 105 cases in which schools were used for military purposes including as barracks, detention and weapons storage facilities or sniper positions.
The data also shows that at least 218 airstrikes have targeted schools or educational personnel. HRW believes that in some cases – such as a March 2016 airstrike in Idlib that killed dozens of children – schools have been intentionally targeted.
According to HRW, approximately 4,000 schools have been put out of commission, destroyed or damaged since the conflict began. A total of 1.75 million children inside Syria’s borders are out of school, in addition to the hundreds of thousands who have fled abroad.