Goodbye Dubai, Hello Heathrow

As I type this I am smoothly soaring over the city of Bucharest in a comfy Emirates A380 thing-a-ma-jig. I don’t know much about planes, but ask me about this one and I’ll tell you it’s great (which it definitely is). This feels slightly similar to a situation yesterday at the hotel lunch buffet. The friendly waiter popped over to my table for a chat and said “oh, you like the biryani? That’s good.” I replied by saying “yes, it’s great!” (which it definitely was) I then looked down at my plate. It contained seven different local foods from the lunch buffet. I had no idea which one was the biryani. I made it my duty to carry out some SS style reconnaissance on the buffet to find out (for those interested biryani is a highly seasoned mutton and rice dish). My waiter later explained to me that biryani was a unique dish and one served at most occasions because it is enjoyed by both the local Arab and Indian population. I found this to be a nice example of how the cultures have blended together in this humid desert oasis.

It was really interesting to learn that only 22% (I think – don’t quote me exactly) of the population in the UAE are Emirates citizens. The rest of the population are from other countries, primarily Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, the Phillipines etc who have come across to earn work and build a better life for their families. These inhabitants seem to form the lifeblood of Dubai, making up much of the labour force. Many travel back home during the very hot summer months where temps can hit as high as 50 degrees. Others live in Dubai permanently.

The UAE was recently found to be the 14th happiest place on earth, up 4 places from last year’s survey. I’m curious to know whether the survey was conducted on UAE citizens only, or whether they included expats and immigrants as well. People in the UAE do seem very peaceful and happy and everyone we have come across in our troubles have been helpful and friendly. The only chaotic place seems to be the roads where everyone is a little too ‘beep’ happy…

Australia is 10th on the list of happiest countries, interestingly enough. One of my next major stops, Norway, comes in 2nd.  The poor old UK, where I’ll be doing a two-night stopover, is down at number 22 – you’d think they’d be happier after winning the Ashes again?

There is precisely two hours and forty-eight minutes of flight time left until we safely skid tyres on the tarmac at Heathrow. A perfect opportunity to stockpile some of the key findings from my wonderful experience in Dubai.

I really fell in love with Dubai and have many wonderful memories after the short time spent there. It as so hot that I had trouble taking photographs outdoors, as each time I took the lens cap off it would instantly fog over. We had a few giggles on the first day when we walked out of a beautifully air conditioned shopping mall into the desert heat. Mum’s glasses instantly fogged up, momentarily blinding her… She missed a step, then the next, gathering momentum as she tumbled forward. We caught her before she crash-landed and we all had a good belly laugh. In this whirlwind visit we’ve seen a lot of things that have wowed us and we’ve had the opportunity to get a good grasp of the local culture.

I can’t wait for the moment I get back to my English classes as now I have the most perfect example of irony to share with my students. Who comes to one of the hottest places on the planet and gets the Armageddon of all colds? I have sniffed, sneezed and spluttered my way around Dubai leaving a trail of slimy bio-hazardous tissues (heck, even toilet paper, serviettes, cleansing wipes – if it’s flat and paper-like I’ve blown my nose in it) from the top of the Burj Khalifa to the middle of the desert – I’ve left behind a little gift from my nasal cavity in every mall, every taxi and both schools who graciously welcomed me (and my germs) for a visit. My nose is raw and feels like it’s burning on the inside, but I’m on my way to England – so as my very logical theory goes, I’m heading to a colder climate, which definitely means I should catch some opposite nasal infection which will altogether cancel out the one I’ve got, rendering me back to perfect physical health.

It’s probably no wonder I got sick – after learning I received the scholarship, the next four weeks were a veritable cacophonous chaos of full time work, combined with HSC marking and then planning this trip – most of which happened between the hours of 10pm and 1am each night. It never would have come together without the support of my family and I’m humbly grateful to them. But cold or no cold, it’s been oh so totally worth it so far and it hasn’t stopped me from doing what I came here to do.

I spent two exciting days in two very unique international schools. Both schools had a very similar Pastoral Care set-up to the typical structure of schools in Australia – Senior and Junior School Coordinators, Year Coordinators, Form (Homeroom) teachers and the School Counsellor for extra student support.

The first was Dubai Gem Private School. Here I had the pleasure of meeting with Elizabeth George, the school counsellor. Delightfully, Elizabeth cooly welcomed me into her air-conditioned office. This was much better than being warmly welcomed after crossing a bustling playground of students in 40 degree heat! Elizabeth generously shared with me her experiences as an ex-pat from Bombay (Mumbai) who has been living and teaching in Dubai for the past 20 years. Interestingly, the tide of issues and concerns that lap onto Elizabeth’s caseload share some interesting correlations to those which wash into the Pastoral Office at John Therry each and every day. Students often pop into her office to speak of worries about friendship concerns, exam anxiety and bullying.

The population of students at Dubai Gem is primarily made up of young people from Indian/Pakistani/Sri Lankan sub continental background. Elizabeth explained to me that the majority of these students came from a very strong home, where the connectedness of the family was valued much more significantly than career or money. She said that the students here faced few issues to do with depression and anxiety because they were given careful attention by their parents who were involved in all aspects of their lives. I explained that this wasn’t the typical situation for many of our young people back in Australia and I explained the many diverse family structures that they experience. The other interesting thing about this, however, is that culturally these students tend to be very quiet about their family issues, meaning that there are many things that students simply wouldn’t come to school and discuss.

The second school I visited was Al Diyafah High School, located outside Dubai in the Al Nahda region. This school goes from prep (classes with students as young as 3 – and wow, were they cute) right up to Year 13 (the equivalent of our HSC year). At this school I had the absolute pleasure of meeting with Mrs Kritika Ghosh, the very passionate and vivacious school counsellor. We had a long conversation about all aspects of her role and experiences. The biggest issue of concern for Kritika was in the area of cyberbullying. She spoke to me about the fact that according to survey results 90% of students using the internet are being bullied online, but that 99% of the teachers don’t actually know what cyberbullying is or understand it. She said that most teachers don’t actually see it as a form of bullying and this is a big problem for the students over there. She is doing what she can to raise awareness within her school among the teachers. I also had the privilege of spending some time with Ms Shetty, the Vice Principal of Al Diyafah, another very passionate and dedicated educator and we spent some quality time discussing concerns related to the management of students, parents and staff in a dynamic school environment. It is interesting how similar our concerns and experiences are even though are schools are thousands of kilometers apart. A big highlight of the day was the opportunity to attend the school’s High Achiever’s Ceremony, where students across all year groups from the previous school year were acknowledged in front of their parents for their hard work and wonderful achievements. It is clear that Al Diyafah are producing some very strong academic achievers. The two year 10 students who chaired the assembly spoke passionately about the philosophy of ‘winning’ and the qualities of perseverance and dedication that sets a ‘winner’ apart. It called me to reflect on the importance of resilience in young people and how significant this quality is for success, whatever a young person determines ‘success’ to be. My time at Al Diyafah finished with a great conversation with the Principal, Mr Winder and two representatives from the University of Wollonong Dubai, who had been invited along as special guests for the High Achievers Ceremony. We chatted about the importance of good pedagogy and creating a positive learning environment where students were challenged to be independent learners.

I asked both schools about the overall awareness about youth mental health issues within the UAE and if the government was doing to raise awareness about these concerns. It seems that the UAE is so far advanced in many ways, but so far behind in terms of the way they are looking after the wellbeing of their citizens. There are few services set up and they rarely reach out to schools. I spoke of the many services that exist in Australia and the ways that the government here have been trying to break down the stigma and taboo associated with mental health. These conversations haven’t yet begun in the UAE. Both schools stated that youth suicide seemed to be a bigger concern with the Emirates Citizens, rather than among those who have settled in the UAE from other countries, something I found very intriguing.

Both schools were very interested to hear about the range of courses and professional development opportunities that were available to teachers here in Australia in the area of Pastoral Care. This isn’t the case in the UAE, where money allocated for professional development is directed towards academic improvement rather than professional wellbeing. Both Elizabeth and Kritika have designed and delivered professional development sessions for their staff to try and raise awareness of different issues.

The time spent in both schools was fabulous and a wonderful opportunity for me to broaden my perspective on youth mental health and schools in general. I’m really enjoying this trip of a lifetime and feeling very blessed

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