08 May 2015
In her visit to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Mouna Elhaimoud was supposed to report on the economic impact of the Syrian war – but found it impossible to ignore the human plight she witnessed.
The Moroccan journalist returned to Dubai to file a report for the news channel CNBC Arabia, where she then worked, but could not forget the people she met at the camp.
It was the young children of Zaatari – now estimated by the U.N. Refugee Agency to number more than 34,000 – that made the biggest impression on her.
“I was surrounded by kids – all of them very little – and I could see that they were living in very bad conditions,” she said. “But my job was to ask questions on numbers and the effect of that on the economy of Jordan… It was heartbreaking, because I was just a machine [asking] questions. I went back to Dubai, finished the report, and that was it. I felt really empty – how could I forget those kids?”
That was in April 2014. A year later, Elhaimoud has still not forgotten the children of Zaatari – but is now doing something positive about it.
The news presenter – who now works for MBC Group, of which Al Arabiya News is part – has started an initiative called Toys With Wings, which has one bold aim: To give a toy to every single needy Arab child in this region and beyond.
“I can’t provide them with food, water or education – the priority stuff that they need. But maybe I can make them smile sometimes,” Elhaimoud said.
The value of giving toys to vulnerable children was underlined during a visit by Elhaimoud to the Gaza Refugee Camp in Jerash, Jordan, in 2014.
“I realized that most of them do nothing all day, they are just sitting there. They don’t have toys, they don’t even have a playground. They’re just sitting there, the whole day,” she said.
“But I asked them what they want to be when they grow up and everybody had an answer… astronauts, doctors, lawyers, teachers. That was a sign for me that they are positive, they have this hope and sparkle in their eyes. They want to be somebody when they grow up, they’re not thinking about the hard life that they have.”
This experience, along with a visit to the Palestinian Territories and several orphanages and children’s hospitals, made it clear to Elhaimoud that there was a gap in the support available for Arab children.
“Children need to play,” said Elhaimoud – adding that this is especially the case for those who are ill, have witnessed the death of family members, experienced war, or live in refugee camps. “It helps a lot. And it doesn’t cost money – it’s just toys,” she said.
Toys With Wings only publicly launched last month, but has already seen about 5,000 toys collected from donors in countries including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and further afield.
Following social-media promotion by Elhaimoud, as many as 200 volunteers from across the world – including most Arab countries, the U.S. and parts of Europe – have signed up to help.
“The reaction was massive,” said Elhaimoud. “Everybody wanted to get involved. For the first two weeks, I couldn’t sleep: there was always something – an email, hashtag, tweet or Instagram comment, something like that.”
Last week saw the first Toys With Wings delivery, when Elhaimoud and volunteers distributed about 1,000 toys to Syrian children at the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. The kids – students at a school run by Lebanese NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh – were thrilled, she says.
“They have very good manners: They said ‘thank you ma’am’, they tried to speak French and English, trying to impress us. It was amazing,” Elhaimoud said.