The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
Equait is a community project founded by two young Kuwaitis, Faisal al-Fuhaid, and Leanah al-Awadhi. The two are on a mission to make Kuwait a more open and accepting environment for its diverse population. Leanah, who grew up in Kuwait and Colombia, studies Politics and International Relations in the United Kingdom, and Faisal holds a Computer Science degree from the Gulf University of Science and Technology and works in real estate. Faisal and Leanah started the project when they were 17 years old.
To promote social equality and encourage tolerance among people, Equait has organized a number of activities, including distributing lunch bags to construction workers and other laborers during Ramadan, an anti-bullying walkathon, and frequent discussion forums, called cross-cultural diwaniyyas, where anyone can join to express opinions and experiences related to a specific theme.
Click below to listen to a statement by Equait co-founder Faisal Al-Fuhaid.
AGSIW: How did the idea for Equait come about and what motivated you to start this project?
Faisal: Leanah and I were both Model United Nations (MUN) members and we are very passionate about solving world issues. Through MUN, I learned about human rights issues and groups like migrant workers and the bidoon.* My personal experience also drove me to start Equait: I was bullied while I was at school because my Arabic was very weak compared to my classmates. Going through that made me think that that my experience can benefit a cause—and that’s where Equait was born. It started out as a blog on human rights, and then I met Leanah.
Leanah: Kuwaiti society can be very materialistic and unappreciative… I think it’s because they haven’t seen poverty and are not aware of what is going on around them. When I went to Colombia, I met kids who were my age or younger who didn’t go to school and lived in tents. So when I met Faisal, I said to him, “A blog is a nice idea, but we need to be doing community service events. Even if we don’t have poverty in the same way as other countries, in Kuwait we have many less than fortunate people and if you can get other youth involved they can be made more aware of what’s going on.” The idea of Equait’s projects is to take youth to see what’s going on around them, for them to realize how good they have it and encourage them to give back.
AGSIW: Can you talk about social inequality in Kuwait and why you emphasize it in your activities?
Leanah: Race is a big issue in Kuwait, not only between different races; there is discrimination between Kuwaitis themselves, whether they are Shia or Sunni or Bedouins… people discriminate based on these factors in terms of marriage, work, and even in school.
Faisal: This is something I’ve learned more about over the last couple of years. Today I’m wearing a Gulf War shirt and back then, the Palestinians sided with Iraq. In many cases you can attribute discrimination to fear, often people are afraid that foreigners might turn on us again if another country invaded Kuwait. That fear and mistrust can be attributed to history. But nowadays, we are seeing a little less of this. When you go to Nuqat conferences, for example, you have a lot of people from different nationalities who attend on a regular basis. Kuwait is slowly but surely becoming more open-minded and understanding, but we have our lapses. After the 2015 mosque bombing, some of the people who were accused of being involved were bidoon, and as soon as that happened, people around me said, “This is exactly why we can’t trust the bidoon.”
AGSIW: What is the idea behind the cross-cultural diwaniyas?
Faisal: A few years ago, I was attending a family diwaniyya every week, and I was always fascinated by the experience because I got to meet and speak with interesting people. It’s such a great concept, but I always wondered, why is it for men only? Why was it only people from a specific family or group? So I thought, “Why not offer an alternative?” That’s were the idea came from. I hosted the first cross-cultural diwaniya in 2013 at my grandmother’s house and we had around 30 people attend; men, women, Kuwaitis, non-Kuwaitis, Muslims and non-Muslims.
Over the past couple of years we’ve held over 20 diwaniyyas. The topics for discussion have varied from migrant rights, to feminism, to the bidoon. We even held one where we talked about the bombings in Masjid Ja’afir al-Sadiq, five days after it happened, and we had our largest attendance ever. The point of these cross-cultural diwaniyyas is to meet new people and at the end of the day, if you learn something new, I’ve done my job.
AGSIW: Can you talk about some of the community service activities that Equait has hosted?
Faisal: Doing these activities was Leanah’s idea, and our first event was an antibullying pink walkathon. She had read about an issue that happened in Canada, where a boy wore pink to school one day and got bullied for it, so the principal made every last Friday of the month Pink Friday. Everybody except for the bullies wore pink as a way of showing solidarity. We emulated that into a walkathon in Kuwait. It was a bit of a risk because we didn’t know how people would react to wearing pink here. But alhamdulillah a lot of people showed up wearing pink shirts. It was a great way to make our debut while spreading a message. Our second event was a football tournament, and we made it so each team had to have at least four players from a different nationality so that people would choose team members based on how well they played, not who they usually associate themselves with. We had a lot of attendance from local clubs and schools and it was a very successful event.
Leanah: We also do an annual Ramadan food rally; so far we have done three. All of the food is donated, we start with a drive and advertise it on Instagram or we send a message out. Every year interest increases; last year we gave out over 2,000 meals. We get volunteers to go to where the street cleaners live and interact with them. It’s a gesture to the workers, and it makes the volunteers see and appreciate what they have and hopefully give more to the people who need it.
AGSIW: What is unique about Equait and its activities?
Faisal: What differentiates us from other charities is that we want it to be volunteer-based. We want people to be hands on, to go to the areas themselves and hand out food themselves so they can get a feeling of what it’s like to be needy. They get a first hand account of the conditions the people live in.
Leanah: We try to make our events as multi-national as possible in order for Kuwaitis to interact with people from other nationalities. This is a big issue in Kuwait. Many think they are better than others because they are in their own country; that attitude bothers me. Getting youth to work with non-nationals teaches them to respect others. Expats are guests in our country and we shouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable.
AGSIW: How do you see Equait’s work having an effect among Kuwaiti youth?
Leanah: I think it’s about opening people’s eyes to what’s happening. All of the issues we work on are geared toward bettering society, [and developing] a better understanding and sense of respect toward expats in our country.
Faisal: At the beginning it was all about, “Let’s do whatever we can in terms of activities so we can inspire others to do good as well.” We didn’t think of a larger goal at the time, but hoped our activities would serve as a catalyst for greater change and more understanding and action from the Kuwaiti people, that’s all that matters. It only takes one person or one group to start something. Whenever someone comes up to me and says thank you for this event, that always brings a smile to my face. I was on Instagram earlier today and saw that others are doing more inclusive diwaniyyas and I think it’s becoming a trend now.
*”Bidoon” refers to a large group of people who live in Kuwait without nationality. In their “stateless” position, they are often disenfranchised.
Equait’s upcoming events include a diwaniyya to discuss human rights and citizenship and another diwaniyya with psychologist Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa. Follow the group on Twitter @Equait and check out their website, equait.org.
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