Speaking in Public: how to structure that talk

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

This talk went down so well that throughout the rest of the conference I was approached with people quoting from my talk, and saying that they felt they the story that I used help them picture what it was like in a Camp.

“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, its 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. it 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 realize that in severe weather conditions its 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,  4 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 tis 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 and its impossible not to be when you work in war zones or basically crazy places. So: find clever people who can do things for you.  Who can write that strategy that your donor wants.  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 incase 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, sport4development is increasingly part of an academic, professionalized 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 professionalization to  include talented trainers, coaches who have x-factor powers to galvanise communities, through the incredible physical and emotional power of sport.

Sexual harassment in the Middle East

I was in a museum in Dubai when it happened. The security guard jumped me, wrapped himself around me, a hand around my neck and face, pulling me to him. So, there are a number of ways that story could have gone. I’m 5:3, small and Asian. It could have been a litle bit of molestation, a full-on rape, the end of my business trips to Dubai and therapy for the next 30 years. It could have been that somebody came in and discovered me, him, and it would have been tears, a bad incident, and therapy for six months.

What actually happened was that I elbowed him, right punch followed by left hook and front kick. He backed out of the room, into the corridor with me following quickly behind. He slammed the door in my face which I kicked down, followed him in, missing out the details, I beat the shit out of him and left him crying on the floor. It meant therapy for three months. But only becuase of my utter anger that I couldn’t get him arrested. The British Emabssy told me that I was lucky as most cases were severe rape, and they heard them all the time. They advised I should leave the country as I’d be the one in the dock for inciting him and my passport would be withheld whilst the case was underway. I knew who it was, I was pretty certain he had done something like this before, and I knew he could do it again.

I did learn from that incident. I’d take up kickboxing because I wanted and needed to be phsycially confident to help me with the big bad things in the world I had to deal with everyday. I wanted the mental confidence of knowing that I at least controlled my body, which meant I could extend that control to other areas of my life: such as walking into meetings where I was the only female in the room. Or being the only one of my colleages to be pulled out of a queue at the airport to get my bag checked and identified on the basis of my colour. Or the fact that I wanted to keep travelling, and working abroad, and sexual harrassment is a daily part of life in the Middle East.   I learnt that I did have the confidence to react to protect myself, I was never going to freezse.

I am and continue to be a big supporter of being fit. Its not about being a kickboxer, or even the type of sport we do; its simply about having the phsyical confidence in one’s own body as a girl and as a woman. So that we can extend that fantstic self-esteem to all other areas of our lives – rather than bemoaning the fact of blubber as we gorge on that chocolate cake. There are so many messages telling us that we have to be thin, that we need a layer of make-up or a nose job to fill some cultural ideal of feminine. To counter that message at an indiviudal level, we need to begin with ourselves.

Getting start-up funding in cold Damascus

Fun, sacrifice and a certain obsessiveness got me going but, of course, starting a start-up needs money. I worked, saved and invested my money back into the Charity.  I had the help of a friend who managed to get us a donation of just over £4,000. But initially, it really was about the volunteer spirit, and what I was willing to give. (I don’t come from a wealthy background, so nope, I’m not one of those rich kids with money).

Friends and family are a great source of support. Lynch them unashamedly.

Party! – do it. Syria was a small community of internationals, and everyone had connections or something to offer. It was worth investing in those late nights. Trawl those parties and network like crazy.

Produce – I happily created professional looking documents seated on the floor of an old Damascus house. What I didn’t know, I improvised.

Ask for help – I asked for help form everyone, I knew I didn’t know things and it didn’t bother me. My cause was greater than my own ego. I asked Google, I asked friends, I asked friends of friends I asked and I ended up with some great answers as well as practical support

Dropping my own assumptions: Observe what is happening around you and see how you can work with what is in front of you.  Not having an NGO background made me more creative, I didn’t have any assumptions about how things should be and that freed me.

The five things I wish I’d known when I founded a Charity in the Middle East

I founded a Charity in 2010. My aim at the time was to ‘give something back’,

  1. I wish I’d know that ‘making a difference’ is not about the northern hemisphere simply handing over technologies/or systems/or ideas to those in the Southern hemisphere . To create ownership and localise how something works can take years. Handing over a system does not work . Think what India did with British colonial administration – it created a dysfunctional behemoth. Cultures marry – it isn’t I give and you take.
  2. I wish I’d been a bit less enamoured by bright young volunteers with intense gazes who really want to make a difference. Practical skills, and the ability to comprehend local cultural mores is not necessarily a part of the bright young thing package.
  3. I wish I’d know that finance skills are integral to success. Yes. My claim to idiocy. I should have invested in some basic finance skills before I even wrote the business plan…..
  4. I wish I’d known that I had more time then I knew what to do with. Running a start-up makes you busier than you can ever believe. Passion acts as a 24/7 driving force. I then became a mother. Becoming a mum made me realise what ‘busy’ really means
  5. I wish I’d understood that burn out can happen and that its okay to stop now and again.

So, this blog is about how it didn’t matter that I didn’t know these things, because I still managed to make it work. Its also a little bit about the Middle East, a lot about how the NGO sector works (or doesn’t work), and reflections on how to get stuff done. My perspectives are grounded in Bengali, Muslim working class London (I was in Islington before Islington became Islington!), a love of reading, being a working mother, the advice of good friends.