« An opportunity only comes once in a lifetime », Touch of Hope was hers.
Lamya Al Darmaki is the President of Touch of Hope, a charity set up to grant wishes to sick children. This young lady –in her 20’s- is symptomatic of the spirit of the girls of her generation : highly educated, ambitious, and willing to make a difference. Maybe « not save the world » but contribute to her country’s unique growth and more importantly, give back. INTERVIEW.
We met in Lamya’s parents’ house in Al Ain. She invited me to spend the day with her and meet her family, giving me a glimpse of Emiratis’ inner sense of hospitality and generosity. I entered a massive and luxurious house –which had once been a very simple one before the country exploited oil- with a touch of French Empire style: stucco and ceiling moldings, gildings, baroque furniture, a night blue and gold velvet sofa, heavy velvet curtains with trimmings and silk carpets. We sat in the women’s milas (the Emirati version of majlis, the reception room) in a deep and cosy sofa and before she started telling me about Touch of Hope, I was offered a sour Arabic coffee followed by a sweet made of date and flour, a fresh juice, and tea with milk. Then came a platter of margouga (a dish made of chickplant, eggplant and bread), khamirs (little buns) with date jam, balalit (sweet noodles), danjo (chick pees) and chebab (little pancakes served with cream cheese). I look at Lamya and I see a very soft and caring young lady. Ladylike, she got herself ready for our interview. She’s pampered and has strong make up: traditional khol, thick powder and a mandarine colored lipstick. Her sheila is loose and her abaya colorfoul.
How did you come up with Touch of Hope ?
Touch of Hope has been part of my life since 2009. I have my own job as a system engineer in aerospace. Touch of Hope is the other part of my life. It started as a student association at Univesity. I always say that an opportunity comes once in a lifetime, and you have to grab it. My dream was always to have an organization so this was my opportunity. I shared the dream with 32 students and it became 32 dreams. We have different ideas but we mainly decided to go for chronic diseased children (diabetes, cancer, dawn syndrome, autism…)
What makes Touch of Hope different ?
People had attention on different areas but none of the organizations focused on just children. We started collecting wishes among children. A little bit like Make a Wish Foundation. We had to pass by the parents so they would agree on putting the wishes on line. But when we collect the wishes we try not to have the child with the parents, they affect them with their own wishes. Most of them are bikes, Ipads, Ipods… Little stuff. We post their wishes on line, people log to the website, choose a wish, contact us and get to meet the child and give the gift directly. It is addictive really ! We have people who come again and again ! Some fulfilled ten wishes in a month. That was amazing to see !
Tell us about the children ?
The children are real warriors. They are much stronger than we are. We get so miserable and depressed by little stuff. They go through a lot but they are still smiling. They have that strength in them.
How did Touch of Hope evolve ?
After 2009, we started to change a little our path. We decided not only to do wishes but get into the society and promote volunteer work. Anyone wiuth a talent, journalist, photographer, artist, can contact us. We decide on a theme, on a case, on an hospital. We go and organize an event there. The first one was a photographer who organized a photoshoot. We set up the hospital with photoshoot items. The children were so happy. Just seeing the process of being special. A baker contacted us for Mother day. They made cupcakes. The children wanted to give something for their mothers but they don’t have a chance to go out. They wanted to do something with their own hands. There was also a clown volunteer.
Are there a lot of sick children ?
We spoke to one of the doctors there and I was very shocked. Cancer is becoming like the flue. From one day to the other, all the children are different.
You are also trying to foster volunteer spirit among youngsters ?
Yes. We started student associations in all the schools and universities because this generation has to learn how to give and most of them have a lot of talents but they don’t know how to give them out as a volunteers. The first student association started at HCT (High College of Technology) in Sharjah. They already granted a lot of wishes to the kids. We give them the chance to operate as they like. It gives them the ability to experience the whole vlunteer world. I don’t give them any limits. They go to the hospice as well in Dubai, to visit old people and children in Sharjah.
Do you feel it is important to promote such values in a very very materialistic society?
A child with extra time should try to make it valuable, build something. I am trying to grow that seed in them. When they are young it will grow with them.
Is it part of your culture and religion to be charitable ?
This is how we grew here. That’ why we like our Sheikhs because they believed in the young people of the UAE. We were just a student association, no one knew about ut. A famous company owner – I don’t want to mention his name- heard about Touch of Hope. He knew other Sheikhs. As soon as they heard about what we were doing, they contacted us. They believe in the simplest stuff. They believe in giving. That’s enough for us to give more, move on. It’s worth it.
Tell us about your team ?
We started the events a year ago. We have five members. Touch of Hope is not Lamya’s, that would be unfair. Without them this would not happen. This is ours. This is what I try to teach the younger generation. We also have young very young volunteers as young as 7 years old.
Why did you come up with this idea ?
It was a dream. My first two inspirations are my Mum and Dad. My Mum is a giver. Even if we have lunch or diner, half of the food is divided and given to the poor. I sit for hours with my father and he gives a lot even to people we don’t know about. If this strong man can do it, why can’t we ? We have everything. Why can’t we give back to the people ? We believe that every thing you give out just comes back to you.
Tell us about your familiy values ?
When I feel sad, I go to the hospital and it gives me something priceless. A lot of parents contact us and tell us they don’t want anything but they just need to be listened at. It means a lot to me. I am not a psychologist and I tell them I will not be able to help. But they just need someone to hear, to care. Sometimes children have passed away, but the parents still contact us. Maybe because we do things for the love of the child.
Tell us about your family ?
We come from Al Ain. My grandfather, Mbarak bin Fader Al Mazroui, used to work with Sheikh Zayed. He was like his second hand. My father was a very strong, stubborn man. At the time, there were not many possibilities. My father was a trader, a fisherman. He did a lot of different jobs. He is 80 years old. Thirty years ago, there was not much in the UAE. It was a very tough life. But the families were stronger, close together. We had to help each other if you wanted to survive. The climate is too hard. My father and grandfather spoke their mind. They have strong characters. My Mum met him very young, she has ten children.
You all inherited this strong will ?
My brother who works at the Embassy in London is a shoe designer. Darmaki is his company. If we have the passion, they will support us in everything. This comes from Sheikh Zayed. He had that thing in him. When he wanted to build the UAE, no one believed in him. This is desert but he said I will build it. He used to plant even with the workers because he had that belief, this vision.
Does your father tells you about the life at that time ?
He always says that it was hard. But every period in life has its own beauty. Everything was hard. This (showing her house) was nothing, just a small house. My Mum used to get the water from the well with a big jar on top of her head. She used to cook and raised six children in the heat. There were tough days.
Is it difficult to imagine ?
Yes because so much has changed since then. Before the girls were not allowed to study. Sheikh Zayed insisted for them to study…
What did you study ?
Computer system engineering at the UAE University in Al Ain, the first one here. I did high school in Chouifat, a mixed one. This was something big you know ! My Mum insisted because she said that education comes first. They were public schools for girls only, but she wanted me to be in the best one. It was full time studying. She fought for our education. I would like to do a Masters and a Phd in social work but it is an online course. It is not recognized in the UAE. So if I do, it twill only be for myself. I need it to improve my skills for Touch of Hope. Because I see my future there. This is where I see myself 20-30 years from now. I need a degree. Inch Allah.
You also are an engineer in aerospace ?
I am currently working in Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems as a system engineer. My career has added a lot to Touch of Hope. Everything in life gives you a lesson.
What do you do in your job ?
Autonomous systems, we cannot give details. We are building engineering capabilities : the aim is to build UAE capabilities.
Is there a lot of women in that field ?
Yes ! At least 70% of the employees are national women. There are a lot of women in all areas in the UAE. My Dad actually insisted on all of us to work. You have to learn your lesson, to be independent. Each one of us had to work part of her life, giving back to someone who believes in us. We are 6 sisters. I am the youngest. All are working except one who has 4 children.
You live in your parents house of course ?
Of course ! Until I get married.
You want to get professional with Touch of Hope ?
Not yet. Sheikh Mohammed once said that our nation should not stop when they reach the top of the hill. There will be a next step. We are still climbing one step at a time and we are not at the top of the hill yet. Maybe my whole life will be about it.
What do you wish for your future ?
Every lady wishes to see her children. If I had a baby I would like him to continue Touch of Hope. I am not trying to save the world but to make a difference. A criticism even pushes me further.
Your husband will be chosen for you ? How does it work ?
In some families, the guy speaks to his parents about the fact the wants to get married. If he has a girl in mind, the parents will go to the ladie’s family, propose and they can get married. In other families, if the guy has no one in mind, it will be a traditional wedding. The parents of the guy choose.
And in your case ?
We don’t know yet. We wait and see (she laughs).
Could you say « I’d like to marry this guy » ?
Maybe. If this is a good guy. Together. But we always say that if the guy is good enough, he will come. He starts the talk with the family and they deal with it. I cannot just go to my parenst and say I am gonna choose that guy. If does not come through the door and ask for me, then no. I have to wait for the guy to take that step. In Western society, you wait until the guy gives you the ring. Here we wait until he comes to the house. And if we don’t go further we say : « God did not want us to be together », « It was not the will of God » or « It is still not the time ».
The final decision is yours?
Yes. They never force you to marry anyone you don’t want in our family. They never do that. If you agree, you get to see the guy, chaperonned. Then if you feel to marry, it will proceed. In certain families, the bride and the broom only see each other on the wedding day. Maybe the girl has seen him on picture. But this is very very traditional.
Does it still happen ?
Yes. Not only in rural areas. Very well known families do that. It is part of the culture. It has nothing to do with religion.
The girl accepts to marry someone she never saw ?
Yes. She gets to see him on the wedding day.
What a challenge !
Yes. But you know everything has its pros and cons. If this was wrong, I don’t think a lot of families would have survived from now. Because they are very linked.
What are your views on ladies’ rights ?
Since the Prophet days, men had to take care of women because they are vulnerable. We get a lot of comments that ladies’ rights are lost here just because we have the veil. It’s not just about the veil. This is just something the ladies want to wear. It is a religious thing but it is up to the lady to choose whether she wants to wear it or not. Women are half of the society. A man would not be that strong if his mother did not raise him.
How were you raised ? What did your father and your mother taught you ? What were their role ?
They were strong believers of education. My Mum does not read or write but she is a very smart lady. She knows a lot of stuff. The ladies of that generation knew maybe even more than the new generation. She taught us the discipline, to act in life. The best lesson from my mother was forgiveness. My father taught us patience.
Touch of Hope stopped collecting wishes since 2011. They are building their website and trying to collaborate with Make a Wish.