What can the ocean teach us about connecting, diversity, and relationships? How can the high seas help everyone better understand the world, as well as human beings’ stewardship of Planet Earth?
Six Qatari students, including three from Qatar Academy (QA), now have some of the answers thanks to the Ocean for Life program, the lead sponsor of which is Qatar Foundation International.
This summer the group traveled to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in California, United States, to study ocean science and how it can help cultural understanding.
The program is a partnership between NOAA and the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment, known as GLOBE. It aims to bring together Middle Eastern and US high school students of diverse cultures and backgrounds to study ocean science, break down stereotypes, and strengthen global relationships.
This year 30 students from a range of countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, and Pakistan were selected to take part. The trio of QA students on the trip consisted of Ali Hajji, Khalifa Falamarzi, and Lana Mahmoud, with fellow Qataris Mohammad Al Muhannadi, Reem Eisa, and Haneen Hejazy also taking part.
Sixteen-year-old Hajji describes the two-week trip as life changing. Initially, he had not been interested in studying the marine environment, but became spellbound during the program.
“Ocean for Life meant nothing to me when I first heard about it, but now it signifies two of the greatest weeks of my life,” says Hajji. "I was told it was an environmentalist program, and at first glance the subject did not intrigue me. However, the environmentalist in me encouraged me to sign up, and a few weeks later I was traveling across the world.”
Ocean for Life is designed around three main themes: a sense of place, interconnectedness, and ocean conservation and stewardship. Activities focus on ocean science and exploration, cultural exchanges, stewardship activities, such as beach clean-ups, and the development of youth media projects.
The enormity of the trip and its aims struck Hajji as he waited to meet his student peers for the first time.
“I realized one thing in the blink of an eye: no matter where we came from, how old we were, or how we stood financially in the world, at this moment we were a family. Together we would set aside stereotypes and raise cultural awareness.
“We formed lifelong bonds that were only based on the idea of the ocean being our resource of life and global connector. Due to our affiliation with one another, it became easier to learn about ocean science and its significance. We were all introduced to the idea that there are no boundaries to the ocean, and it is one body that serves everyone.”
As well as building bridges between different nations and cultures, a key aspect of the program is to learn about ecological issues. Hajji details the main aspects taught to the students.
“We learned about environmental issues that are harming marine life and oceanic ecosystems such as ocean acidification and marine debris,” he says.
“Ocean acidification is the excessive intake of carbon dioxide through carbon emissions in the air that lower the pH levels of water, thus harming marine life. Marine debris is the idea that any garbage that is not thrown away into a disposable garbage will eventually find its way into the ocean, and therefore pollute ocean waters and kill marine life.”
The students also learned about California natives by spending a day at a Chumash village, meeting French explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, snorkeling in the Channel Islands of California, and helping to create a video.
“We connected with the Chumash people through stories of our past, song and dance, and the ocean,” adds Hajji. “Jean Michel Cousteau broadened our knowledge of the ocean to a great extent. I was one of the four students on that trip and it was a privilege to be interviewed by an ocean luminary. It increased my love and understanding of marine life.
“One of the main goals of the program was to create a video that raised ocean awareness and cultural understanding. This opportunity allowed us to learn about the significance of film and its power to make a change for the better.
“Last but not least, we were given the opportunity to spend four days in the Channel Islands, where we learned about their history and environmental significance. We snorkeled in ocean waters to get a closer look at marine life.”
It seems the sea is capable of a great deal when it comes to breaking barriers. Just ask Hajji and the other students.