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Mohamed Ahmawey: “Do not generalize”

One story that springs to mind is that of Rayyan, a little girl whose life was turned upside down by the war in Syria. She lost her arm and the ability to walk after her family’s home was bombed at the end of 2016. We were able to get Rayyan to safety in Turkey, and […]

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One story that springs to mind is that of Rayyan, a little girl whose life was turned upside down by the war in Syria. She lost her arm and the ability to walk after her family’s home was bombed at the end of 2016. We were able to get Rayyan to safety in Turkey, and provide her with a state of the art prosthetic arm, and ongoing therapy for the trauma she suffered. Nearly two years after she was paralyzed, she took her first steps, and she is now a thriving young girl with a great future ahead of her. When people ask what good one charity can do, Rayyan is the answer.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohamed Ahmawey.

Dr Ashmawey is an ethical, results-driven visionary. He has been the CEO of Human Appeal, a British humanitarian faith-based charity, for 18 months. Prior to taking up this role, he was the CEO of Islamic Relief. He started his career in the corporate sector and worked there for decades, including a lengthy spell at General Motors where he was identified as having strong leadership skills. He studied Mechanical Engineering firstly in his country of birth, Egypt, and then as a PhD at the University of Maryland, US.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I worked in General Motors for 18 years. But during all this time, I always felt that there was something missing. I believe that God did not just create us to study, be successful, get married and have children for our own selves alone. I believe that every one of us has a responsibility to do something good for our fellow humans.

During my years at General Motors I developed an interest in leadership, and as I studied this I noticed that most of the charities in the world were started by volunteers — people who felt the responsibility to help mankind. Often, these individuals who started charities did not have the skills needed for leadership and management. They were well-intentioned, good people who called out poverty and hunger and collected money to help people. But they lacked the proper skills needed to grow a sustainable organisation and make a difference to people’s lives long-term. So I pursued leadership classes and at the same time I started volunteering with different charities to learn about the different leadership and management styles, as well as pass on my own knowledge. And the more time I spent within the charity sector the more exposed I became to the realities around the world that are hidden from us. I started to visit some projects in the field, I noticed that there’s so much misery around the world, there’s so much poverty, there’s so much hunger, so many orphans. And I started feeling my own responsibility towards helping these people.

The moment that one of these charities requested that I leave my career and come and help full time I did not hesitate. I took the job right away because I really felt that I could contribute and help make a difference in the lives of so many people.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Just before I joined Human Appeal I was at the border between Syria and Turkey. Right at the border, there is a receiving camp, which receives those who are fleeing the war inside Syria. And in this camp, there was a small tent that is used as a clinic. I went into this clinic to see who’s in there and there was a woman sitting on a mattress on the floor. Both her legs were burnt black. She was in complete shock. I went in and tried to speak with her but she could not answer — she just stared ahead as if she couldn’t see or hear me. I eventually found out that a bomb had fallen on her house and had killed her husband and six children. She had survived but her legs were really badly burnt and she had to have them amputated. When I found this out I was in shock myself. I cried. I did not know what to say. What can you tell somebody who has lost her home, her husband, her family and her legs? There are no condolences. And on that day, I promised myself that I’m not going to sleep at night until I do my utmost best to save as many lives as I can and to help as many of these people as I can not only in Syria, but anywhere there is agony and suffering. This experience still is etched into my brain and I am haunted by this poor woman every day. I’ve always thought God pushed me in the direction to this small tent to meet this woman so I can understand my calling in life.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One funny story springs to mind. It’s not my story but I was told it early on in my humanitarian career, and it taught me a lot. This charity went to Mali to build a well for the local nomadic people whose lives had been upturned by climate change. Now these people had lived their nomadic lifestyle for thousands of years. They knew their land, their seasons and they moved around often for water, animals, grazing etc. So as this charity was drilling the well they were being watched by a very, very old man with a wrinkled face. And for two weeks he just crouched on the on the desert watching them in a curious way and smiling. And at the end, he stood up and started hugging them. A translator revealed that he was thanking them for all of their hard work. And then he added “by the way, you know nobody will ever use this well” and the aid workers were confused and asked why and the elderly man said “We never live in one place. We leave next week and won’t be back here for a year.”

This story for me typifies a big problem with humanitarian work. We so rarely ask people what they want and the lesson I learned from that is to make sure needs assessments are proper and thorough, which I’m proud to say is the case at Human Appeal. Western charities have been guilty in the past of behaving with arrogance, assuming we know best. These people didn’t want or need a well. Perhaps they needed a tent that is lighter to carry. They should have been asked what they needed. This funny story taught me the importance of having respect for our beneficiaries. We need to recognise that they know much better that us what they need for a better life.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I believe that God has created the world with enough sustenance for us all. I believe that the poverty of the poor is because of the greed of the rich. I believe that charitable work tries to mend deep rooted social problems. It tries to mend gaps in the fabric of society by getting the rich to think more about the poor, by sharing their stories with them, by not allowing them to turn a blind eye. That is our role at Human Appeal.

We are an international humanitarian and development charity that is inspired by the Islamic faith and values, but we deliver help to anyone in need, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Our vision is to become a global agent of change for a just, caring and sustainable world. We are active in 17 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East and are highly respected for working in some of the most dangerous and hostile places in the world, from Yemen, to Syria to Somalia — ensuring we are active where the need and suffering is the greatest. We save lives, alleviate poverty, transform and empower local communities. I would like to call out two different projects which demonstrate the different ways that Human Appeal is saving lives and building sustainable livelihoods.

Human Appeal has been active in Syria since 2011, at the start of the conflict. One of our flagship programmes there has been the building and running of the Al Imaan Hospital. Last year in Aleppo Al Imaan provided lifesaving and life-sustaining treatment to over 100,000 vulnerable people and delivered 1,752 babies. It was the only facility of its kind in an area inhabited by around 200,000 people. But our vital hospital was forced to relocate operations from Aleppo to Idlib at the end of 2019 due to being targeted by aerial rockets three times between 2016 and 2019. Imagine how terrifying it would be for the medical staff and patients to be on the operating table with the sound of shells flying around you? We reluctantly had to move the hospital’s location. The new hospital in Idlib now provides critical care to vulnerable people who have fled the violence, and we’re also running a mobile clinic, helping some of the most at-risk and isolated people to access doctors, nurses and midwives, so that we can save the lives of those who can’t travel to hospital. We treat around 4,400 people every single month, so that’s the social impact we have. I’m immensely proud of the Al Imaan hospital and the team that works there. It is a beacon of hope in an otherwise tragic environment.

Human Appeal is also lifting entire communities out of poverty for good by giving them the tools to overcome all of the different obstacles that they as a result of climate change and cyclical droughts. We have transformed an entire village suffering from years of water scarcity in the Thar Desert in Pakistan by bringing a sustainable, clean water sources, innovative farming tools and training to a whole community, providing all the tools they need to thrive. We’re installing solar-powered water pumps, storage tanks and water supply systems that can provide clean water supplies even throughout droughts. Alongside these facilities we also provide tools and training to enhance their farming — from goats, to training on water efficiency and drought-resistant farming techniques. This is an example of a major integrated development project that is having huge impact and transforming communities.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

One story that springs to mind is that of Rayyan, a little girl whose life was turned upside down by the war in Syria. She lost her arm and the ability to walk after her family’s home was bombed at the end of 2016. We were able to get Rayyan to safety in Turkey, and provide her with a state of the art prosthetic arm, and ongoing therapy for the trauma she suffered. Nearly two years after she was paralyzed, she took her first steps, and she is now a thriving young girl with a great future ahead of her. When people ask what good one charity can do, Rayyan is the answer.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Do not generalize. Just because one charity turns out to be spending money in a bad way, or had employed some bad people, it doesn’t mean that all charities are the same. Do not give up hope. There are good people and bad people in the world. We should not hold all responsible for the mistakes of some. It’s unfair and it harms the work of the good. Especially in the Muslim charity sector there is a sense that when one organisation puts a foot wrong, all others are immediately assumed to be doing the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
  2. Understand the reality of the world that we live in. I remember years ago we were working at the Syria Turkey border handing out food parcels to people who had nothing, and they depended upon these handouts for their life. Others there were asking me to get this huge crowd of desperate beneficiaries to stand in an orderly line, show me their ID and sign for a food parcel. Around us bombs are going off, and every military faction has spies on the ground. Most of these people cannot write. They fear for their lives. They feel exposed. That request was absurd.
  3. I would like to see more University research time and investment put towards helping the lives of the poor. Currently so much of their time and money seems to be spent on improving the lives of the rich. They could develop those lighter tents for nomads that I mentioned earlier, or a better way to manage waste in displacement camps. Let’s use their collective brainpower, time and investment to do some good.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership, as far as I’m concerned, is the is the person out front that everyone is following. He or she is leading. Leading means they are at the beginning of the road earlier than everyone else. They need bravery and courage to go where no one has ever gone before. And not only that, but it’s a real skill to convince others to follow you.

Leaders spot change is coming before anyone else even noticed. I always tell my teams it is not great to wait until a problem happens before you think about solutions. That’s what a Manager would do. A good leader predicts that there may be a problem in the future and prepare solutions before the problem even happens.

Leadership is also solving these problems and choosing to do so in an ethical way, even though it may be the harder way.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Change is inevitable. It’s actually one of the three inevitable facts of life, the others being taxes and death. Instead of resisting it, embrace it. Accept change and see how you can benefit from it. Make it a blessing in disguise. Don’t get left behind.
  2. Understand that even in the charity sector, you’re not always hiring angels. People can naively think that because the cause is good, the charity sector won’t attract bad eggs. Earlier in my humanitarian career, I certainly encountered staff who did not appear to be there to truly make a difference. I wish I recognised this earlier in my career so I could be more careful around checks and balances and recruitment policies in the field.
  3. Invest more time and money into training staff. You can’t get by on people’s caring nature alone, however strong it may be. People’s sense of fulfilment for doing charitable good isn’t satisfied the moment they put pen to paper on their contract. You need to be prepared to invest and remind staff of the cause, and to help them develop personally and professionally. I want everyone that works for Human Appeal to treat every child we help as if it is their own.
  4. You can be victims of your own success. As your organisation grows and you make more money and gain influence, certain people will watch and pass judgements that your organisation must be corrupt. It’s sad to say that this is a particular problem that Muslim charities face. It can be very hard to clear our name when false accusations are made against us.
  5. I wish I knew earlier in my career to invest in public relations and legal counsel to protect my reputation and that of my organisation. I remember when I led Islamic Relief and I doubled our income from £92 million to £182 million over three years. An Israeli Minister immediately came out and accused us of being terrorists! There was no evidence or proof, but this Minister gave a word in the ear to an influential journalist and overnight our reputation was damaged. I wish I had known at the time how to deal with this.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would give tax relief to every millionaire who helps someone that is not related to him to become a millionaire. We need to close the gap between the rich and poor. I want people who do not struggle to know about the struggles in this world, and for people who only know struggle to know what is possible.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Nobody’s perfect, and no leadership class or seminar can teach you to how to deal with specific circumstances where a colleague falls short of what is expected. If people that I work with make mistakes I will hold them accountable but I will also teach them, I will be patient.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

My wife. I live in Manchester UK and my wife is back in the States with my children and Grandchildren. I miss her every day.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @HumanAppeal

Instagram: @humanappeal

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mohamed-ashmawey-phd-7640989/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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