Rashid Al Merri knew a volunteering trip to Bangladesh would be an experience. He didn’t know it would change his life.
Through Qatar Foundation’s (QF) youth-based programs, young people have launched startups, conducted groundbreaking research, and led debates. They’ve won awards, and represented Qatar – and QF – on the world stage. And in the process, they’ve become role models for a new generation.
But it isn’t just those who’ve created a tech innovation, fashioned a compelling argument, or claimed an international accolade who are giving their peers something to aspire to, and be inspired by. Many QF students are responsible for actions and achievements that, while less tangible, have made just as big an impact, only in a different way - through triggering a cycle of change in their own lives, and the lives of those around them.
And Rashid Al Merri is one of them.
A second-year Juris Doctor student at QF member Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s (HBKU) College of Law, Al Merri had just joined the course last year when he heard, through the university, of a volunteering trip that presented an opportunity to make a difference. It was to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, home to the largest refugee camp for the displaced Rohingya community.
When he signed up for this trip, what Al Merri was sure about was that it would be interesting. What he wasn’t prepared for was the way it would change him forever.
“I was keen to take part in the trip as it would give me first-hand experience of a humanitarian crisis,” says Al Merri. “At that point, what I didn’t know was the extent to which the trip would affect me – that it would bring about a fundamental change in my attitude towards people and circumstances.”
The team reached Cox’s Bazar in January 2018. Although he had been on a volunteering trip before – and had been briefed by organizers in Doha – the scale of the Rohingya crisis was more than Al Merri had ever imagined.
Unfazed by what he saw, and determined to make the most of the time he would spend there, he threw himself into as many activities as possible – from teaching young refugees and helping organize events for them, to hauling cartons of relief supplies and handing out food packets.
A year might have passed since he was there, but Al Merri’s memories of Cox’s Bazar have photographic clarity: his chat with a man who had had his whole cheek blown off from a gunshot wound, leaving him unable to eat, drink, talk and even breathe properly, and his visit to a ramshackle hut – the makeshift dwelling of a grandmother and her two granddaughters who had escaped through the back door of their home in Burma, as the rest of their family were killed by gunmen.
He talks about his conversations with men and women who had travelled by foot to the refugee camps, carrying old or sick family members on their backs; and of people who arrived at the border between Bangladesh and Burma hallucinating, and in shock, having fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they wore.
“What I didn’t know was the extent to which the trip would affect me – that it would bring about a fundamental change in my attitude towards people and circumstances.”
Al Merri says that in the midst of these “fights for survival”, spontaneous acts of generosity shone through. “They taught me the meaning of the word ‘humanity’,” he explains.
“Adults would stand for hours in queues of 3,000-4,000 people to receive a packet of food, only to eat a mouthful and then share it with others. It was the same with kids – I saw groups of children as young as four cheerfully share a single piece of candy among themselves.”
What made the most lasting imprint on Al Merri, however, was the sheer fortitude of the Rohingya women. He remembers the day when, as part of his voluntary work, he had to hand out firewood to a queue of refugees made up of men and women. When it came to distributing bundles to the women in the queue, Al Merri hesitated.
Though physically fit himself, he found it difficult to heave each 20kg bundle off the floor. Most of the women were young mothers with children on their hips, and he naturally questioned whether they could carry the load home. His question was quickly answered.
“Each young mother, cradling a child in one arm, would pick up a bundle in the other, and begin the long trek home,” he says. “I will never forget the expression on each woman’s face – it was an expression born of desperation to feed her hungry family.
“That single experience made me realize that women, and especially mothers, are physically and emotionally tougher than they are perceived to be.”
One year on from Cox’s Bazar, Al Merri continues to pass on the lessons he learned there to his family and friends, every day. Since that trip - and the experiences it presented - his perspective on life has never been the same.
“I wake up each morning grateful that I am alive; that I have a roof over my head; that I have parents and siblings to love and be loved by,” he says.
“I constantly remind my family and friends to avoid wasting food; to make an effort to relate to people from other cultures by understanding their problems and sharing their happiness. And I have had friends approach me to tell me that they, too, would like to participate in similar trips.”
And the law student is quick to point out how being a QF student has helped him to see the world through a different lens.
“Through this trip, Qatar Foundation has taught me the power of kindness,” Al Merri says quietly. “It has given me a heightened sense of appreciation for the blessings in my life.
“I am thankful just to have a cup of coffee in my hand, because I know that over 4,000km away there are men, women and children who are searching for a mouthful of clean water to drink.
“It is this realization that will stay with me all my life.”