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Tue 6 May 2014 02:44 PM

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Mind over matter: Lama Younis interview

Saudi academic and entrepreneur Lama Younis reveals why she set up the Hissah Enrichment Centre, and how she aims to develop individuals, communities, and cultural perspectives in the GCC region

Mind over matter: Lama Younis interview

“You were born unique and you should continue your life journey being unique,” exclaims the animated young entrepreneur sitting across the table from me, addressing the region’s females from her office in Dubai’s Knowledge Village.

“As a Saudi woman I found it incredibly challenging to get to where I am today. I wish for women out there to follow what they really want to be, what they really, truly, passionately believe in.

“Don’t just follow the crowd. I find it sad that you see so many women trying to do cupcakes. One person does it, and then 10,000 women want to do it too, just to be on Instagram!” she continues.

“I’m not a fashion designer, but I love shopping for clothes. I’m not a baker, but I love eating cakes. I’m not an artist, but I love the history and story behind each piece. I’m a forensic psychologist and criminologist and I love what I do.”

The woman issuing this rallying cry for women across the Middle East to pursue their unique destinies is Lama Younis, founder of the Hissah Enrichment Centre, and advocate for personal and societal improvement.

An academic high achiever who recently entered the world of entrepreneurship, Younis is vocal in her belief that individuals, families and communities can be transformed through empowerment, and has put her money firmly where her mouth is.

Hissah – named in honour of Younis’s mother – was launched in December 2013 with the aim of enriching interpersonal skills, developing personal empowerment, and improving social relationships on personal and professional levels for adults, youths, and children.

And while Younis’s particular area of interest is the understanding, education, and prevention of child abuse in the region, the Hissah Enrichment Centre caters for a much wider array of needs.

Offering services such as anger management, child protection training, coaching and life success skills, understanding personality, handling conflict, understanding culture formation and impact, and much, much more, Hissah is open to just about anybody and everybody, including individuals, couples, companies, governments or groups.

 “We try to do so much here,” says Younis as she runs through the numerous aspects of the business.

“There’s psychology services for children, and family and work life; personal assessments; workshops from people who fly in from Harvard, London and Canada; classes on stress management, leadership, life social skills, career advice.

“We cover a lot of ground!”

Admitting she would never try to kid customers into thinking she is capable of covering all of this ground herself, Younis is quick to praise the team she has assembled at the centre, each of whom offer a different and specific expertise.

“I’m simply not accredited to do everything myself,” she says.

“A lot of people in Dubai seem to sell themselves as being able to do it all, but it’s not right to do this. All of us at the centre do different things, so our clients get expert attention when they come to us.”

Speaking like a born businesswoman, it is easy to forget that Younis has spent the majority of her life immersed in academic study.

Her scholarly journey is as fascinating as the work she’s setting out to do with Hissah.

It all started in 2005, a week before she was due to attend medical school, when she questioned once and for all whether the path laid out in front of her was the path that she truly wanted to take.

“I realised it wasn’t,” she confirms with a slight smile.

“Forensic psychology was what I wanted to get into, which in Saudi Arabia was a much more difficult thing to do. I first had to do a bachelor degree in psychology, which I did at Effat university back home, and then as soon as I graduated I did training in Lebanon with children who had psychological problems.

“I then got accepted to Middlesex University in London and did a double masters there in criminology and forensic psychology.

“I was later told that I was the first female from the Middle East to have this title, which was quite amazing.”

Her learning didn’t stop there. Deciding to focus on child protection and child abuse, Younis toured the Middle East to develop her understanding of the subject from various cultural perspectives, before heading to another prestigious institution in 2008.

“I realised I wanted to do more about law and psychology so I went to Harvard and did a post-graduate in the law department focusing on psychopaths, delinquents, criminals and terrorists,” she continues.

“Then I went back to the UK to do a PhD in international childhood studies at Birkbeck, University of London. I also did some work back at Effat University with first and second year students, and since 2007 have been working as a freelance consultant.

“Also, while I was doing my PhD, I wanted to learn more about trauma therapy, so I did a degree in level seven PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

“So that’s basically what I do.”

Equipped with for what other people would be a lifetime of learning, Younis decided to put her knowledge into practice, and decided to open Hissah only three months after finishing her PhD.

Assessing the needs of the GCC, and the benefit she could bring to its residents, she started to put together a business which would allow her to fill the gaps she saw existing in the region.

And so, in no time at all, Hissah was born.

When I ask her why she chose Dubai over any other of the GCC’s cities, her answer is straight to the point.

“Dubai is a hub. A lot of people come here and it’s easier to open a business than other places,” she says, adding that it helps to come for the Gulf region.

“The UAE is actually very open, and it’s easier for people from the GCC to operate here. I’m treated exactly like a local, which makes me feel special.

“Coming from Saudi Arabia I also feel very close to home. My family has already visited twice!

“But most of all, we can do good work from here. Dubai ticked all the boxes.”

Despite the apparent ease with which she was able to launch Hissah, she admits that the move from academia to business was a tough one.

She says: “Going into entrepreneurship having been an academic was a very big challenge. A challenge but also very interesting. It was a great self-development phase for me. I expanded my horizons and it was something of an epiphany moment – self realization that I could really do it.

“I felt it was a very big deal that I can now call myself an entrepreneur. I’m very proud and happy to be able to do that. I feel very rich because I’ve learnt so much.”

Despite her newfound business skills, it’s her study and work in the field of child abuse that is particularly important to Younis. And she laments the misunderstanding of abuse in the region.

“There is a massive difference between punishment, discipline, and abuse, but there is sometimes a cultural barrier to understanding this, which is very difficult to overcome,” she says.

“There’s a lot of different foundations and associations in the Middle East doing different things to change that, but there’s always more to do.

“We’re encouraging children to pick up the phone if anything happens – giving them an understanding of the practical action they can take – as well as educating them on what abuse really is, whether it’s emotional, physical, sexual, or anything else.

Younis believes there is a genuine and tangible improvement in the region, with different governments and groups tackling the issue in their own particular way.

She adds: “I believe the GCC is waking up a lot and doing a lot better in terms of campaigns.

“Each country is doing it in its own way, and the GCC, and Middle East in general, is much more aware than it was five years ago. But I still think that part of the culture is the denial, that ‘my child is safe’ when really what they call ‘safe’ is abusive.

“I’ve tried to give workshops to parents and children about child abuse, but while the expats are very interested, a lot of the Arab community give feedback like ‘who do you think you are, trying to tell us how to raise our children?’

“That said, even though it’s very hard for a strong culture like the Arabic culture to accept these kinds of things, there are changes taking place.”

The theme of acceptance is one which recurs during my discussion with Younis.

The field of psychology, for one, is gradually becoming more accepted in the region, she asserts, before adding that she would “love to see more people in the same field as me”.

Stressing that there is a large need for psychology services in the Middle East, she says: “Trauma happens every day in people’s lives. In a common case, people experience the trauma, go through the stress, end up falling into bad habits, and don’t know how to deal with it, and fall into depression.

“It affects families, lots of people’s lives, people’s work. Hopefully before you get to that, we can help.”

Returning to the idea of acceptance, Younis adds: “I would love to send the message to Arabic community that it’s alright to seek professional help. That’s something that, as Arabs, we don’t really do as much as we should. We are very in need of it.

“I do get a lot of local clients coming to the centre, and I’m so happy about that. It really motivates me. My local clients motivate me to come to work every day.”

Hailing from Saudi Arabi, it is understandable that the Kingdom is often at the forefront of Younis’s thoughts and aims.

Pursuing a less traditional path than many of her peers set her up for a lot of criticism, she confesses, but her belief in what she was doing was more than sufficient to carry her through.

“As a Saudi woman, what I’m doing is something new, and it’s a challenge for me to stand up in society and talk about it,” she says.

“It’s not something women do in everyday life. Not everybody supported me – still don’t support me – but what matters is to have passion and love for what you do.”

Always ready to counter the negative with something positive, Younis expresses her happiness that more and more people in education in Saudi Arabia are opening up to new ideas, understandings and career paths, though “not so much in my field,” she admits.

But what really brings a smile to her face is the continued support of her family, who give her the strength and conviction to fight for what she believes in.

She concludes: “My family has been incredible, especially my mother. That’s why I wanted to name the centre after her.

“She inspires me every day and was the person who always encouraged me to better myself.

“That’s what I want to take forward and give to other people – that support, encouragement and inspiration.”

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