MBC presenter’s mission to bring toys to needy Arab kids
Mouna Elhaimoud’s ‘Toys With Wings’ initiative hopes to bring smiles to children across the world, including Palestinian and Syrian refugees
When news presenter Mouna Elhaimoud visited Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, she 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.
Unlike on her earlier trip, Elhaimoud was not working and no cameras were following her around the camp. So she had the chance to speak to many of the hundreds of young Palestinian children living there.
“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.
Elhaimoud makes contact with NGOs to try to gauge the need for the toys – so they bring the right number suited to the right age groups – as well as liaising with U.N. refugee agencies.
She has also won the support of the American University of Beirut, which put a stand on campus for the collection of toys. Elhaimoud also transported about 200 toys in her luggage from her home in Dubai, saying that it is not practical to transport larger quantities by courier.
She is now calling on more people to get in touch to donate toys, as she plans to return to the Gaza camp to distribute them. Elhaimoud says it benefits the donors as well, by helping them get rid of unwanted toys, as well as teaching their own children about the importance of giving.
And despite more and more donations flooding in, Elhaimoud still has the same emotional reaction when she sees the toys collected by people around the world. “Every time I receive a picture of toys, I cry – every time. Because I know it will reach the right people,” she says.
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