Breakfast in Ayn al-Tineh

Saturday afternoon – May 2013, I receive the latest report from my contact in the UN; Ayn al-Tineh has been taken over by radical religious militias who massacred the men of the town, dumping their bodies in a mass grave and took 300 young women and girls as slaves; that’s correct, not hostages, slaves!

IMG_1113I reached for my laptop and opened the photo album documenting my visit to Ain al-Tineh in 2011; the memories I had stored away of Ayn al-Tineh reclaimed my consciousness, I felt a sudden shortness of breath and tears that had not shed since the revolution started gushed.

IMG_1115Ayn al-Tineh is a magical place in northwestern Syria located east of Latakia. It is situated on a limestone spur in the northern an-Nusayriyah Mountains. It derives its name from a spring that flows under the nearby Citadel of Salah Ed-Din, also called the Citadel of Zion.

To get to Ayn al-Tineh we drove an hour from the mediterranean seaside town of Latakia up into the mountains and through valleys. We drove along orchards and farms lush green and aromatic. Towards the end of our drive, the scenery became breathtaking; distant views of the glistening mediterranean, green dense forests, clear streams and virtually no civilization.


The Citadel stood as a reminder of the amazing achievements past generations had in this rugged terrain. The only transportation medium consistently running since the time it was built are the resilient brown mountain donkeys that looked more fit and well nurtured than any other donkies I’d ever seen. Our guide, a Ayn al-Tineh native, said “contrary to the bad reputation donkeys have in the Middle East, ours are particularly smart. They are sent on errands to deliver goods to neighboring farms, which they perform efficiently and effectively.”


We stopped to greet our guide’s father, Abu Salem, an elderly man in his 80s who was sat up on a metal frame running wires for grape vines to wind through while his son was beseeching him to come down and let him do it. Abu Salem joked that if was going to get done right, he had to do it and asked his son to give him a hand to get him down. He greeted us and asked us to follow him up the street to have tea at his neighbor’s home.


We drove up behind the two men, stopped the car and met Abu Adnan who insisted on us having breakfast with him and his family. He directed us to a side street shed housing a clay oven “Tannour”, a preparation table and a wooden dinning table and chairs.


Within minutes of our arrival, Abu Adnan’s daughter appeared with her mom carrying platters of dough and sauces. His son Adnan brought a pot of hot tea and a plate of fresh mint and mayramieh collected from their front yard. Um Adnan proceeded to knead the dough, cover it with the pepper, cheese, thyme and meat sauces and place it on the Tannour. The aromas were divine, paralleled only by the scenery of orchards and blue mountain sky.


Abu Salem gave us an oral history of Ayn Al-Tineh as we feasted on the assortment of homemade “Manaesh bi zaatar, flefleh, jibneh and lahmeh” served with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. The lines on his face spoke volumes of his experience; the look in his eyes was probably as fierce as it had ever been. A decorated war veteran, who shielded Assad Sr. from three assassination attempts and survived the shrapnels of two bombs.


“God divides his fortunes evenly”, said Abu Salem as he drew on a cigarette he just rolled and lit. “We live in the most beautiful part of Syria, land we can farm, crisp fresh air we breath; but we are an economically poor community and have been for decades. When I was 16, I received a letter from the army inviting me to join for a stipend of 5 Syrian pounds per month. At that time, it was a fortune for me, so much so, that I literally kissed my mother’s hand, and ran out the door with the clothes on my back down to the nearest bus stop that would take me to Damascus. All the men in our community did the same given the opportunity.”


“Tell me about the Aloyat sect, how different or similar is it to Sunnis or Shias?” I asked, knowing full well that Ain Al-Tineh is in the heart of the Aloyat mountain range and wanting to hear an explanation of the sect from one of its own. Abu Salem inhaled and spoke in Quranic verses “We created you tribes and peoples to know one another and commune, the best among you in the eyes of God is the Taqi (one who guards his senses and actions from ill and harm to himself or others.”


He proceeded to say, “you probably heard this from your grandfather and others of his generation, we didn’t know the difference between muslim, christian and jew and certainly didn’t care. Some of us were preoccupied with getting basic life necessities, while others were rallied by the greater fight against colonial powers who invaded our lands and stole our resources. To stop and consider our religious practices as a dividing point would have been as absurd as me questioning your humanity. We prayed together, even if we didn’t understand the prayers, worked shoulder to shoulder and celebrated all holidays. We named each other’s kids after our prophets and saints and took oath under each other’s Gods. We intermarried, except when a family was known for its poor social conduct; no one wants to marry into a family of misers.”


When I asked him what he thought of the government today a sad look took over his face. “This is not what my generation fought for; the last time I set foot in Damascus, I visited the cronies in power and gave them a piece of my mind. I warned them that if they continue along the path they’re on, they are doomed, and sadly they will take many innocent lives with them.”  Abu Salem lost two of his six sons; a pharmacist  and a soldier defending civilians in the Golan Heights; both shot in the head. Abu Salem and his wife survived the Ain Al Tineh massacre, both are in deep mourning.


A Healthy Mind is in a Healthy Wallet – 10 Tips to Wellness Through Financial Sustainability

Dealing with stress, anxiety and other mental challenges is one thing. Doing it while under financial stress is a whole other ballgame! And that is the unfortunate position many women in the Arab world find themselves in.

In societies that uphold a women’s place in family and the home, women find themselves dependent on their spouse for financial support.  That’s well and good until their marital status changes, or a tragic event befalls the breadwinner.  A housewife finds herself under a mountain of emotional stress compounded by a financial burden.  And even if that doesn’t happen;  all an Arab housewife needs to do is look around at the 50%+ divorce rates across the Arab world. That alone warrants a lifetime prescription of Prozac, or, a plan to be financially sustainable.

Here are ten tips for financial sustainability that will have a direct impact on your mental well-being

  1. Discuss financial matters with your spouse, parent or guardian and address worse case scenarios
  2. Consult a financial adviser on a financial plan based on your current reality
  3. Put in place a savings plan and stick to it
  4. Educate yourself on financial sustainability using sites like and
  5. If you have the disposable income, join a women’s angel investment network to learn from others and co-invest to mitigate your risk
  6. Consider starting a home business, or taking on part-time work
  7. Learn the basics of balancing your accounts. Take an accounting course
  8. Educate yourself on the laws of the land regarding inheritance or divorce
  9. Acknowledge the challenges of financial stress and discuss them with a mental health professional, a support group or a trusted friend
  10. No matter how difficult your current financial circumstances are, you can always improve on them.  Reach out for support

If you have advice to offer others, please join the conversation and share your experience.

A Fine Line Between Social Etiquette and Telling Lies

Copyright – Nation of Change

You’re leaving a dinner party, and a friend needs a taxi ride. You offer to drop her off, but her house is in the opposite direction, and yet you insist on dropping her home. You do it in-spite of traffic, and that report waiting for you at home to finish. You end up arriving at home hours later and with frustration staying up to a crazy hour to finish your report. It throws off your entire week.  Why? because that’s what our culture teaches us!

We grow up as Arabs with the concept of putting others ahead. Whether or not it makes any sense. We insist on offering dinner guests food well beyond the point of reason.  In business we nod in agreement to terms we don’t intend to honor.  We go out of our way offering up support, advice, facilitating connections that we may not even have accessible to us.  It is so overdone and exaggerated by most that our intent for generosity and altruism begins to lose meaning.  And more so, takes a habitual form that cannot be maintained without it becoming disingenuous, and turns our lives into one big lie!

How often have you come across friends who complain about doing so much for others? They complain that they no longer have time for themselves or their families. Why? because they must “return” a dinner invitation, or they promised a neighbor to watch their children. They complain indirectly about the activities they volunteered to do. The favors they opted for.  And at times make unkind references to those they opted to serve. Yet if you question their logic for doing it, their answer is “It’s only proper!  It’s our culture! How can I not?”.

I was seated next to a colleague one afternoon when a mutual friend walked past.  We both greeted him; my colleague went out of his way to address him with warm terms of endearment and salutations.  As he moved away, my colleague exclaimed “oh my! he can be so annoying!”.   The look on my face showed my utter surprise to the insincerity of his actions; his response “Aren’t you Syrian?” So matter of fact, like I was to know this is rooted in our culture.  It is no wonder the Qur’an likened backbiting to the most vial actions. And yet everyone does it. Why? because we live in a social world where everyone overextends themselves to the point that it becomes unsustainable. That social etiquette overrides our genuine feelings and thoughts. And the only way to manage it, is by complaining about its impact on our overstretched lives or living a lie.

This behavior is so deeply engrained in our culture, that it would be difficult state to change. But there is hope. Hope that is found in the Muslim prophetic tradition, and in modern day self-help guides in bookstores worldwide.  “Say the truth or be silent”.  If you cannot be genuine and sincere, then its best not to speak, or act for that matter.

Some good news .. #gaza family a phone call away..

I just got off the phone with Abdulhadi & khalil.  Two brothers, one lost his eye, another his limbs in the 2009 attack.

“Hamdul Allah we are fine.. three days no water, electricity. Our neighborhood is a ghost town.  Everyone evacuated, two missiles hit two houses next to ours.  We are fine.. its difficult to see children go through this”..

The UAE community hosted both brothers in 2010 for medical treatment.  Khalil became the first double amputee scuba diver in the Arab world. Abdulhadi an amazing human being, an artist, a confident outspoken young man who relentless asks me what he can do for others.  I pray that he and his family survive. 

I asked how I can help.. “Allah yebarek fiki.. pray for an end to this.”

Please pray for their safety and that of others around them.

Drawing by Abdulhadi in 2010

The gravity of the battle means nothing to those at peace

Last night, my 20 year old son came home in a solemn mood.  One of his dear school friends had passed in an operating room from complications.  We spoke of death, funerals and post funeral customs and how  people of different cultures observe it.  Ssome celebrate it and others morn for months on end.  I recalled the most consoling A’zaa (wake) I had been to was one celebrating the life of the deceased.  Death is the only certainty and hard as it maybe one must accept Gods’ will and the universal truth.

Tonight, we arrived at Ali’s A’zaa to see dozens of his young friends walking in, filling the hallways, on their faces a look of shock and sadness. For many of it is the first time they experience the passing of a loved one.  I fought back the tears at the sight of his sweet sister telling my son “he’s inchaAllah where he belongs, in heaven, we should celebrate his life, thank you for coming to remember him”.

I didn’t expect Ali’s parents to be the ones consoling their visitors.  Dressed in their everyday clothes, they greeted us warmly.  They stood, with a warm smile receiving hugs, telling guests “Allah chose him in a blessed month, pray for him”.  The walls covered with Ali’s photos and a quote he loved;  the TV displayed photos of Ali smiling, living life with his friends and family.  A table of his favorite chocolates and drinks held a sign inviting visitors to eat his favorite candy.  His friends took turns going up to his room.. a sign leading to it said “Take a souvenir to remember Ali”. Ali’s family graciously gave everyone permission to breath a sigh of relief and reflect on Ali’s spirited life.

Ali’s parents have always been role models; both spiritual and calm with a lighthearted outlook on life.  Today, they taught us all what resolve and unwavering faith in Allah’s judgement means.  “Pray for him, and ask everyone to do the same” was his father said with a smile.

I ask you all to pray for Ali and for our sons and daughters in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. May their souls rest in peace. May Allah continue to grant his family strength and mercy.

death - life - peace

A Christmas Gift from Maria

Maria’s smile was the best gift I received this Christmas.  Maria is seven years young.  She can’t wait to go the USA, so she can run and play with other kids like she used to.  Five months ago she was walking with her mom in their neighborhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria when a bullet entered her shoulder and lodged in her spine.



Her family sought refuge in Lebanon.  They live in an abandoned building. No electricity. The own two mattresses, three blankets and a wheelchair aside from the clothes on their back.


The family greeted us with smiles that warmed the freezing room.  Maria spoke as she shivered: “My mother tells me stories, I cannot go to school, they don’t have a place for me. I get bored, so my father takes me on the chair to watch other kids run. I know I will have a surgery and get better and run again. When am I going to America to get my bullet out?”

As we walked out of their home, Mohamad, her father says there’s another family who needs your help.  A young mother appears with her three children; Mohamad the eldest was at home when a shell hit their house, killing his grandfather and tearing through his hands.




“They are in good shape” says Mohamad, The PCRF Lebanon Missions Manager. “On your next visit, we will go to the Ba’kaa where a tent is the only shelter those families have”.

Every day I am reminded of how rich my life is with friends, loved ones, amazing work, and health.  Today, was a special reminder. On a day when people share gifts, feast and celebrate, I received a heart warming smile from a seven year old who has nothing. I felt touched by an angel.

If you would like to help provide medical treatment to Maria, Mohamad and other children like them please visit

If you would like to support families like Maria and Mohamad’s family, please visit

ذكر و أنثى

His and hers

His and hers

قال لها ألا تلاحظين أن الكـون ذكـر؟
فقالت له بلى لاحظت أن الكينونة أنثى

قال لها ألم تدركي بأن النـور ذكـر؟

!فقالت له بل أدركت أن الشمس أنثـى

قـال لهـا أوليـس الكـرم ذكــر؟
!فقالت له نعم ولكـن الكرامـة أنثـى

قال لها ألا يعجبـك أن الشِعـر ذكـر؟
!فقالت له وأعجبني أكثر أن المشاعر أنثى

قال لها هل تعلميـن أن العلـم ذكـر؟
فقالت له إنني أعرف أن المعرفة أنثـى

وبـعـد ذلك..

قال لها سمعت أحدهم يقول أن الخيانة أنثى
فقالت له ورأيت أحدهم يكتب أن الغدر ذكر

قال لها ولكنهم يقولون أن الخديعـة أنثـى
فقالت له بل هن يقلـن أن الكـذب ذكـر

قال لها هناك من أكّد لـي أن الحماقـة أنثـى
فقالت له وهنا من أثبت لي أن الغباء ذكـر

قـال لهـا أنـا أظـن أن الجريمـة أنـثـى
فقالـت لـه وأنـا أجـزم أن الإثـم ذكر

قـال لهـا أنـا تعلمـت أن البشاعـة أنثـى
فقالـت لـه وأنـا أدركـت أن القبـح ذكر

قال لها يبدو أنك محقة فالطبيعة أنثـى

فقالت له وأنت قد أصبت فالجمال ذكـر

قـال لهـا لا بـل السـعـادة أنـثـى
فقالت له ربمـا ولـكن الحـب ذكـر

قال لها وأنا أعترف بأن التضحية أنثـى
فقالت له وأنا أقر بأن الصفـح ذكـر

قال لها ولكنني على ثقة بأن الدنيا أنثى
فقالت له وأنا على يقين بأن القلب ذكر

ولا زال الجـدل قائمـا وسيبقى الحوار مستمرا ً طــالــمــا أن  الـسـؤال ذكـــر والإجــــابة انـثى

 من أطرف ما قرأت. الشكر لوالدتي

From Debt to Prosperity

debt free

I believe in simplicity. No matter how complex a task may seem, you can break it down to small chunks and address it. [Financial Freedom]

Converting your current debt to equity may seem like a complex task. Break it down into manageable chunks and you’re half way to financial freedom!

So here it is, a step by step process:

  1. Get healthy! Yes, you read it right. Exercise! Your physical state affects your emotional state. Exercising pumps the right hormones which will help you maintain a cheerful optimistic outlook and clear your thoughts. When the going gets tough, the tough get healthy!
  2. Clean up your relationships – Debt is owing something to the world around you. It may mainfest itself as money owed, but you need to analyze your relationships and take stock of what you owe people in other ways. You may owe apologies, you have taken too much without giving. You may owe support. You may simply be with people who take too much and you need to learn to give yourself equally. Create balance in your relationships. The connection between debt and owing something in relationships may not be so obvious to you, but life is really that interconnected. Be open to seeing it and addressing these issues and you will see impact on your relationship with money.
  3. Articulate where you want to be – Write a statement declaring where you want to be and the time period you want to achieve your target (Ex. Become cash-flow positive having 5k surplus in the bank by Jan 2014).
  4. Write the financial challenge & seek advice – Write the problem and offer a solution. For example: (I owed the bank 10k AED, which I am paying back in full by December 2014). Seek the advice of people around you with good financial acumen, talk through the solution/s until you uncover all challenges / potential solutions.
  5. List challenges and solutions – List all issues associated with the debt problem and the solutions you can imagine. (Ex. Challenge – The bank is treating me with hostility and I’m worried. Solution – I can create a plan and present it to an understanding relationship manger). Avoid any “solution” that involves borrowing from other sources.
  6. Put the creditor first – You owe someone money, you cannot and should not avoid them. You need to treat them with priority and respect. Show them that respect, and they will show you leniency. Communicate regularly with your creditor, assure them of your commitment and respect those commitments through action.
  7. Downsize – This may be obvious, but sadly many ignore this and continue to live a lifestyle they cannot afford. Downsizing, and enjoying the simpler pleasures of life is critical at this stage. No car – take metro. Can’t dine out, picnic on the beach. Can’t take a trip, try trekking the Hajjar Mountains. You not only will enjoy the simpler pleasures in life, you’ll get fit doing it. Cut all credit cards, and live within your means. If you don’t have the cash for it in the bank, then you shouldn’t buy it.
  8. Think win-win – When dealing with your creditors, think win-win. How can you make the situation good for both? Negotiate terms that are in your favor, but keep their interest in mind. There’s always a way to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. This maybe the toughest negotiation you have done because it is riddled with emotion and feelings of anxiety, but it can be done.
  9. Honesty – Come clean with your loved ones and close friends. You don’t have to transfer your worry to them. Simply share your situation, and state you have a solutions that requires their emotional support and encouragement. Share progress with them and accept positive support. For those who aren’t able to handle pressure, simply assure them that you are on the right track regularly.
  10. Meditate – Again, a healthy, clear mind is the first step to sound judgement. Money is energy. It can harm or help you. You can attract the right type if you are in the right frame of mind. Through meditation, you train yourself to be resilient during a difficult period. You will learn discipline of the mind and emotions. You will feel stronger when negotiating. But most importantly, you will learn the balance needed to get out of debt and into prosperity.

On the surface, this maybe a simplistic approach, but it works. Try it!

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break the fundraising bottleneck – How Middle East Charities can raise money


CrowdfundingI come across charities regularly that are struggling with fundraising. Crowd-funding offers a good, and relatively easy way to get money online. You share your stories and needs with the world online and the crowd responds by sending you money to your account.  There are some basic steps to follow:

  1. Locate an online crowd-funding platform that is suitable for you. I recommend Just Giving because they’re in the region and their site is easy to use. They need your registration paper, a bank statement and an application form. The folks are very easy to work with and responsive.
  2. Recruit a student from a local university who understands social media market.
  3. Get your volunteers to take good photos or a short video (1 min or less).
  4. Write a script describing your cause, your beneficiaries, the way you will use funds and share photos/videos.
  5. Post your script and photos on and / or your site. (They have great how-to videos)
  6. Your intern can help you share your campaign content on social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, Pinterest, Instagram).

Here are a few sample campaigns that I think are cool:

Stop Bullying

#GiveWater #GiveHealth

Cycling for Gaza

Let me know if you require more support. @rchakaki (on twitter)

Other resources:

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Refugees don’t need money, they need engagement!

Burj El Barajneh - Beirut - Refugee Camp

Thanks to Salma El-Yassir the director of Welfare Association Lebanon Branch (WA-LB), I visited Burj El Barajneh Refugee Camp in Beirut. I visited to support the launch of a Youth Employment Service (YES) Program. To promote the project among camp residences, WA-LB commissioned Graffiti artist Yazan to work with camp residences to create an attraction for youth.

YES will have a profound impact on youth in the camp, and I’ll dedicate a post to it at a later date.  What I’m sharing is what struck me as a desperate need by youth in the camps to connect with those of us outside. I’m sharing a story and calling for action for those outside the camp who can inspire, mentor, uplift, to support. We only conserve what we love. We only love what we know… here’s what I saw and heard:

As we walked through increasingly narrow alley ways lined with trash I wondered how it was possible to dream of another reality.  Not a single street was paved.  I glimpsed a person in a wheelchair at his front door and wondered how he moved around in the camp. Alleys  are too narrow for a wheelchair,  have steep inclines, sharp turns.  But what is most striking is the exposed and extremely dangerous electrical and water pipes.

Mohamad our guide explained “if one wire gets cut, the entire neighborehood goes dark.  neighbores go out with candles and torches to find their wires and reactivate them. At times we have week long blackouts.  Students are forced to study on candlelight. When there’s a surge of water in the pipes, they burst. located next to the wire mesh, you get an electric shower. these allies become inaccessible.  In 2012 14 young men had died by electrocution.  The last one was a person the entire camp loved.  He was a good man who rallied residence to volunteer and better their community. During his funeral, his friends and loved ones took an oath to prevent such tragic deaths.  Me and a few other young volunteers erected homemade troughs around areas of the camp.  The project is still ongoing, we only finished a few areas of the camp.”

We are all influenced by our surroundings. We see beauty and it reflects within.  Nature heals. When we gaze at the horizon, look out at a green mountain, a blue ocean, even a tall beautiful building or an urban garden, we get our inspirations. In Burj Al Barajneh, there are areas where you cannot see sunlight.

Mohamad’s dedication to keep his environment safe, but like all of us, he gets discouraged by the mounting obstacles.  He adds,many of us don’t have jobs, we spend our days pounding the pavement looking for work, we come home to an electric shower in the ally, by the time we fix this, or clear that, it is 11pm. our frustrations, added to that of our families who live in this confine leaves us all in a hopeless state.  Yet we wake up the next morning, and push forward. It is what we must do to survive and give our children better lives.”

In life we all need support.  We have our internal drive, and need external support to keep us motivated, feeling appreciated, remind us that we are doing well and should persevere.  The visiting team offers Mohamad words of encouragement, appreciation, respect, admiration for his courage and determination.   Appreciation reminds him of what an amazing job he’s doing. The Welfare Association does its part.  They offer through programs like YES job opportunities.

More is needed.  It isn’t finance. It is human connections that compels youth to imagine a different reality. Mohamad and other young men/women in refugee camps need acknowledgement appreciation and encouragement .  Young men and women, businessman/woman must visit and offer moral support, encouragement, ideas for making camps a better reality.  If every individual took a half a day to engage with young men like Mohamad can you imagine how encouraging that would be? how much impact that would have on his life?  Connect. Engage. Inspire.

“Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them.” – Mother Teresa


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