Teacher from Elphin involved in inspirational project
One should never underestimate the value of a child’s innocence or purity in a modern world; something which I witnessed first-hand this time last year in my school in Abu Dhabi as 400 eager Muslim kids embarked on the ‘Christmas Shoebox Appeal’, which was a resounding success.
I, along with about ten other Irish teachers in Middle School, first mooted the idea of launching the campaign in early November 2016, to form part of their new Personal, Social and Health Education classes which were being pioneered in the UAE. These valuable classes, which take place once a week, are used to educate the children about their social responsibility amongst other issues, so we felt that the ‘Christmas Shoebox Appeal’ would serve as a humbling and worthwhile experience for kids who never wanted for anything.
The only stumbling block was the campaign’s association with the word ‘Christmas,’ which has obvious connotations in a school with a Muslim ethos. After some delicate rewording of the project, administration at the school gave it the thumbs-up, and so we embarked on our campaign with a fervour and enthusiasm rarely witnessed in any ‘run of the mill’ English class.
The reservations about the Christmas connections were swept aside by the kids. What captured their imagination was the opportunity to put together a little shoebox of gifts for children less fortunate than them; the innocence and purity of it all!
Perhaps it was the fact they were getting a ‘free class’ in PSHE, or maybe the opportunity to glue silly stickers, glitter and wrapping paper all over the place –including the classroom – but they embraced the campaign with a Christmas spirit and will similar to that which would shine through in any classroom in Ireland.
However, I was stricken with anger whilst explaining the project to the kids at the beginning. Having told them the boxes were going to be sent to Africa and some parts of Eastern Europe, one kid chirped up and said: ‘We don’t really want to send them to Africa, sir!’ I was crestfallen when I heard these words, but moments later my faith in humanity (and children specifically) was restored when she added: ‘Why can’t we send them to Syria where my family and friends are instead?’
It was an oversight on our part not to have had the foresight to realise that these kids really don’t relate to African or European children; they relate to their Arab and Muslim counterparts in war-torn places like Syria. Some of the kids in the school even had to flee such turbulent areas in the past five years. Once they mentioned Syria, we re-routed the boxes.
This year we are in the middle of the campaign again, and the kids are even more excited second time around. Some of them go to great lengths and buy new gifts (which we never encourage) whilst others simply provide some old toys. These kids live in a world where iPads and Apple watches are the norm, so you can imagine the delight that African or Syrian children would have receiving Abu Dhabi’s kids’ ‘old toys’.
It has been a humbling experience for all concerned. We even showed the students the videos of kids receiving their gifts at Christmas time, which prompted many of them this year to write a little note explaining who they are, where they’re from, and a little quote wishing them all the best for the future.
There is a very famous quote from Nelson Mandela: “No one is born hating another person because of his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
In the case of the 400 Muslim children who continue to participate in the ‘Christmas Shoebox Appeal,’ love and compassion certainly came more naturally to them.