Picturing change in Qatar: NYUAD junior’s story

When junior Sara Al Shamlan set foot in Abu Hamour, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in her hometown of Doha, Qatar for the first time, she ...

Nov 2, 2013

When junior Sara Al Shamlan set foot in Abu Hamour, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in her hometown of Doha, Qatar for the first time, she didn’t know what to expect.
Houses were decrepit and accommodated families up to ten in size, some with a sheet of cloth as a door and some with no door at all. Rubbish and shards of broken glass littered the floor where kids played soccer and steered each other in wheelbarrows. They were children of immigrant workers from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, some whose parents worked in the military and received passports from the government, others whose parents worked in construction. But it was a set of hazel eyes and a tug on her abaya from a seven-year old girl named Yusra that Al Shamlan would never forget.
Clad in a beige and pink embroidered jalabiya and drawing on the used pages of her coloring book, the girl explained to Al Shamlan that her family had no money to send her to school. All of my books are finished, she told her. Al Shamlan, who was visiting Abu Hamour to pass out food to neighborhood families, took a picture of the girl with the hazel eyes.
She was walking back to her car when she felt the tug. I want to be just like you when I grow up, the girl told her, clinging to Al Shamlan's abaya.
“I knew at that moment — the [expression] that I saw in this girl’s eyes, the fact that she wanted to be like me — I was like, no, I have to do something,” Al Shamlan said.
For six months in 2009, Al Shamlan visited Abu Hamour, distributing leftover food, clothes and old toys from her parent’s attic while taking photographs of children she met along the way. It wasn’t a secret; Abu Hamour was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Doha, a part of town that housed a large population of Qatar's migrant workers. For many of Doha's residents, the neighborhood remained out of the public eye.
After meeting children like Yusra, Al Shamlan decided she wanted to help. She turned the portraits of children she took into postcards, sold the images in Doha at a price of 10 riyal and — with the help of Qatar Charity — used the profits to assist families and enroll underprivileged children in school.
“[People] would forget the people behind the scenes, the people really behind all the glamour and all this wealth,” Al Shamlan said. “It’s the people that are leaving their hometowns, leaving their families for ten years, not having the greatest rooms to live in and not even having the greatest respect from individuals from the local society …  that’s something that I really wanted to raise awareness about.”
In the fall of 2009, Al Shamlan founded Behind the Glamour, an initiative that raises awareness of impoverished communities and helps provide schooling for underprivileged children. Two weeks ago, on Oct. 22, Al Shamlan received the Young Talent award at the 2013 Qatar Arab Woman Awards in Doha for her humanitarian efforts and her role as a young leader.
“Because of [her work], Sara was nominated [and] she managed, through a certain type of art, to deliver the message she wanted and made it effective, which led to the help and benefit of these people by putting them under the limelights," said Amel Al Aathem, a judge on this year’s selection committee and a prominent Qatari artist.
shamlan_Yana Fleming
Courtesy of Yana Fleming
Al Shamlan’s photography helped enroll approximately 200 children from Abu Hamour in school. But Al Shamlan wanted Behind the Glamour to touch the lives of others beyond the Gulf. After receiving the 2009 Unsung Hero Award from the 21st Century Leaders Foundation, she took a two-week trip in 2010 with classmate Aisha Shaikh to the Quirimbas National Park region in Northern Mozambique.
The Quirimbas area is one of the poorest Islamic communities in the world. Women in the region tend to marry at age 12, Al Shamlan said, which hinders their access to education.
Working alongside local charities, the duo photographed women and children in local villages. Approximately 400 to 450 AED puts a girl in Mozambique in school for one year with uniforms, food, books, supplies and transportation, Al Shamlan said.
When she returned home, she partnered with the local charity Whatever It Takes to sell her images in and around Doha. As a result, roughly 500 girls in the Quirimbas region have attended school, and some are now at the university level.
“[Sara had] a very respectful eye,” said Yana Fleming, a documentary photographer working with the 21st Century Leaders Foundation, which accompanied Al Shamlan to Mozambique. “It’s one of those things you can't really teach ... if you have respect for the people you’re photographing — whether or not it’s a child in torn clothes or an older person that you can clearly see is less fortunate and impoverished — the [photographs] come out with respect and not with this pitying look that maybe a Western eye might equate to, ‘Oh, feel sorry for these people.'"
Last semester, Behind the Glamour was reinvigorated by a trip to Sri Lanka with Professor Joanne Savio's Introduction to Visual Culture class. Al Shamlan is currently selling her photographs from the trip and sending the profits back to a Sri Lankan family that is dispersing the funds to families throughout their village.
As a confident and articulate speaker, Al Shamlan doesn’t shy away from community interaction. Savio said Al Shamlan was a proactive student and a role model for others in approaching people with respect.
It wasn't easy; she was met with quite a bit of backlash from the Doha community. Some approached her father, accusing his daughter of exposing the bad side of Doha. They were also critical of an Arab woman, dressed in her sheila and abaya, having such a strong presence in the media.
“A lot of people [said] it’s eib — it’s frowned upon. Don’t be in the media, don’t be in the camera, don't do this, don’t do that,” said Al Shamlan, who credits her experience on the debate team in high school with giving her the courage to approach strangers. “Honestly, you really need to fight some of these norms and you really need to stand up and fight for what you believe in, regardless of what some individuals may think.”
Known back home as the girl who always put her Eid money in charity boxes, Al Shamlan has always had a soft spot for giving back. Throughout high school, she volunteered at animal shelters and hospitals with kids who had leukemia and Down syndrome.
Her love for being behind the camera was also sparked at a young age. She remembers moments as a little girl, taking self-portraits and posing with her father's camera. For her, photography is more than an artistic tool.
“With photography I can show people like, ‘look, this is the reality of what’s happening,’” Al Shamlan said. “That’s why I don’t like editing much of my pictures, because I think that you can’t edit life."
While she travels between Doha and Abu Dhabi this semester to officially launch Behind the Glamour in the coming months — and encourage others her age to give back — she's also planning her next project. Her work may take her to Ghana with the NYU Abu Dhabi athletics department next spring to distribute soccer balls to children in poor communities.
And regardless of where she may end up after graduation, whether working in law, advocacy or as her father likes to say, becoming a prominent leader in the GCC, every initiative will involve one thing: making people smile.
“When people ask me, ‘OK Sara, what makes your day?’ it's that if I can paint a smile on another person’s face, my day is complete," Al Shamlan said. "If I’m the reason behind someone's smile and someone’s happiness, then I’m really happy for the rest of the day.”
Kristina Bogos is managing editor. Email her at
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