Speaking in public: telling a memorable story
Ummul Choudhury is the CEO/co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid and tech start-up Frontline Aid.
ummul choudhury, development consultant, middle east specialist, sports charity consultant, charities consultant, start-up consultant, united nonsense book, Capoeira4Refugees, capoeira charity, Frontline Aid, NGO specialist
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Ummul during a speaking engagement

Speaking in public: telling a memorable story

The following is the script of a talk I gave at a conference a few years ago. I was briefed to speak for no more than 10-15 minutes, talk about the practical challenge and reality of living in a refugee camp, and present a challenge at the end.

This talk went down so well that throughout the rest of the conference I was approached by people quoting from my talk.

“I had an issue with a fan. I needed a fan. I work in Azraq Refugee Camp, built for over 100,000 Syrian refugees, living in structures called containers. The camp is located in a desert plain, barbed wire fences keep people in, visitors out.

An ID card is required to enter. Soldiers, man security gates. They have guns. The camp is eerily homogenous, row upon row upon row of UN emblazoned branding on white rectangles, a few boys wheel a barrow with what looks like ballast inside, a woman with nikaa is at a water pump holding a small boy by the hand, it’s too hot to move.

I had an issue with a fan. We’d bought in a desert fan, a massive thing that blew out water to cool all those around so that it would be possible to actually run, jump, play, to break a sweat without passing out from the heat.

We had left it in the Camp when we were not running classes there. Joha, the administrator for the community Centre, 27, had reached out to turn off the fan – the shock was so strong he flew. Tt was sitting now in my offices – huge, imposing and what was I to do with it?

Running a capoeira project in a refugee camp is full of unknowns. The fan a fantastic example of the dissonance between a Western idealism – and practical reality. When you think of a sports programme – how many of us realise that in severe weather conditions it’s not possible to do sport in an outside space? Or that Arab teenage girls hate getting dirty, and the idea of putting their hands on the ground is a hurdle? How do we get around the fact that sport is all about building communities, and a relationship with your trainer, or coach, BUT in a refugee camp you are escorted to your place of practice, and then you must immediately leave; escorted by your security detail?

These are all issues that we face working in Syria, Palestine and Jordan.

Crossing the divide of international vs local, an idea and practical reality,  is actually one of the most significant challenge that we face in our programmes.

So,  four things that are essential when you want to think about crossing those divides.

  1. Language
    Working in the field – I face a lot of language. NGO, the field, local vs ex pat international, M&E, WASH, GBV, MEAL, IDP, restricted budget lines, overheads, in this sea of language it’s easy to see that that there is a divide between those who run development leadership and those who implement. Learn the language of power so that you can play with it.
  1. Find clever people who are better than you
    This gets you so far. Never EVER assume someone does NOT have the potential or ability to help you. A 24 year-old Palestinian kid travelling through Amman, who ate all the food in my fridge, is now an inspirational trainer on one of my projects with Syrians in Jordan.
  1. Be nice and remain professional at all times
    I get crazy, crisis ridden, upsetting emails every day. In this world of increasingly academic and professionalized attitudes towards charity work we have to build bridges all the time.  We were going through budget lines with one of my donors. We had snacks for the kids listed – “what are these snacks?”, I was asked? I explained they were biscuits and water because the kids were a lot of the time hungry – and need to drink during class. They don’t eat until later and with food shortages… She asked about the sugar content of the biscuit. She sits in New York. My project is in a small community in Syria where I can’t identify the staff or that we work there in case somebody gets killed. And I’m being asked about the sugar content of a biscuit. Just. Be. Nice.
  1. Accept that many locals don’t have the Western skills sets that you expect – and that Western people many times are clueless about local culture and then MOVE ON.

Capoeira is uniquely non competitive, combing live music, sport and play. The sport and artform of capoeira has been changing lives since 16th-century slaves created it as a way of having hope and dignity in situation of extreme oppression

Today, though, sport for development is increasingly part of an academic, professionalised world –development degrees are increasingly popular,  paradoxically that means more Western professionals entering the sector…

I think much of our challenge in the world of sport in the international aid sector rests on how we can put a Western idea of sport into not only the context of the Middle East and its wars – but cross the divide between a mindset and language of professionalisation to include talented trainers, coaches who have x-factor powers to galvanise communities, through the incredible physical and emotional power of sport.”

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