How This ‘Art Of Living’ Teacher Saved Hundreds Of Women From ISIS
Mawahib Al Shaibani, working for the Art of Living, has rescued numerous people trapped in the areas ravaged by ISIS. Not only that, she has also helped them in building a life afterwards. Here, Mawahib sits down for a conversation with Raina Paul
“I knew they were suffering. I would not ask them what happened, because I knew they were very ashamed to say that they were raped. Not to be a virgin is a big crime in those places. So I would just ask them what they need,” says Mawahib Al Shaibani, a UAE banker who crossed over to turn savior of traumatized women and children in ISIS-ravaged Iraq after meeting Sri Sri Ravishankar.
Sitting across Mawahib in the guestroom of the Art of Living’s international centre in Bangalore, talking to her, thoughts of two women fleetingly cross the mind – Joan of Arc, and Florence Nightingale though it gets clear during the course of the conversation that neither of those historical figures fit Mawahib.
The battlefield is common to all three, filled with death and violence, rape and ravage, but both Joan and Florence were doing their bit for battling armies, Joan with the sword and Florence with her lamp.
Mawahib on the other hand is battling the devastation left behind by war on the innocent, on helpless women and children. And she wields neither the sword, nor holds up a lamp but, nevertheless, she’s a savior, bringing hope to thousands with the computer and skills-training that she imparts to the forgotten men and women, that will once set thousands of them up for life.
She talks of the plight of the Yazidi women and girls. She first saw them in the February of 2015 in refugee camps in Iraq. She speaks of the vacant eyes, the hopeless faces. And she recalls that she herself was displaced once, torn from the land of her birth, Yemen, and transported to the newly independent nation of the UAE.
Born in 1967, Mawahib wants to help refugees everywhere. May be because she herself went through the same ordeal.
“We had to start all over again in the UAE. We left Yemen with just the clothes we wore. We were not allowed to take anything else,” she says. “All I can remember is being in a ship and it was dark and there were rats.”
Mawahib comes from a family of traders. In the United Arab Emirates, she studied in a private international school, and after finishing high school, moved to the United States, where she studied finance, and got a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Indiana, Pennsylvania.
Thereafter, after training in a private bank, she moved to Geneva, and became a broker, and started trading with the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
She, later, moved back to Abu Dhabi, where she got introduced to The Art of Living, and did her first programme in. “Things started to move in ‘fast forward mode’ after the course,” she recalls.
After 15 years of banking, Mawahib left it all to help transform people’s lives and has been teaching Art of Living courses for nine years in the Gulf.
She is the CEO, a board member, and a teacher with The Art of Living, for the Middle East. She teaches the Part 1, APEX, DSN, De-addiction, Prison Smart, Trauma Relief, Women’s Empowerment and Youth Empowerment programmes.
Today, spearheading Art of Living's operation to rescue and support the Yazidi trapped in Sinjar, she came to India for a short while along with 27 Iraqis from different faiths - Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Yazidis, to teach them techniques that will bring peace and free them from trauma in one of the most conflict-ridden and traumatised regions of the world.
"Thousands were trapped in the mountains with no food or water. 7000 Yazidi girls, aged between 9-35 years, were taken captive by the ISIS. We rescued and rehabilitated a 15-year-old girl victim of gang-rape along with other women who were trapped and were to be sold by ISIS for as little as $10, " she says.
Mawahib is also involved in a women empowerment project that trains Iraqi women in computers, and several income generation activities.
She talks of the woeful conditions she saw in the refugee camps of Khanke on Sinjar Mountain. She and her team were escorted to the camps by a contingent of the Iraqi special police. The inmates of the camps had lost everything, with only shacks and tents to call as homes. “We were in for a shock, the people were starving,” says Mawahib,
Three days before leaving for Sinjar, Mawahib and her team of two doctors and four trainers travelled from Erbil to Sinjar by road carrying trucks full of water. The three-hour journey was tedious. Many of the roads were blocked by ISIS.
“Wherever we could reach, we distributed water and tried to help. Many people were trapped. About 10,000 people could not climb down the mountain,” says Mawahib. “There was shortage of food. So, we collected 130 tonnes of food, medicine and tents and air dropped it to them.”
Sitting in the guestroom of the International Centre of the Art of Living, she talks of how her team went about rescuing and bringing succour to the Yazidi trapped in Sinjar.
Mawahib is a senior trainer of the Art of Living. She and her colleagues have held over 6000 training sessions in trauma relief and counselling for refugees and victims of the war in Iraq.
On her current visit to India, Mawahib brought along with her 27 of the Iraqis she rescued. She could bring only 27 as getting an Indian visa is difficult.
She remembers her time in Iraq in 2015. A young man she worked with told her of the Yazidi girls brutalized by ISIS fighters. “I helped them with medicines and counselling, and by teaching Sudarshana Kriya,” she says in her American accented English with an Arabic lilt.
“When some of the girls recovered to an extent, they brought in more and more to the training sessions. Every time I went to the camps, there were more people.”
She put the number of Yazidi women and girls ravaged and taken by ISIS at 7000. Many of the women killed themselves, several escaped and joined the war. “The German government took about 1000 women and children,” she says.
They narrated to her their pain and loss. They spoke in Arabic, and Kurdish. “They couldn’t smile, they had given up hope and did not want to live,” she says. “But once they underwent the training we gave them, they became strong again, they could understand life better.”
The 27 Iraqis who came with her to the AOL centre in Bangalore were further trained in computer and other skills to return to Iraq and train others.
Mawahib gives all the credit for her success to AOL founder Sri Sri Ravishankar without whom she would not have made it as a messenger of peace in the war zone that is Iraq; she could not have arranged the relief materials for the refugees.
Mawahib Al Shaibani, after her relocation to the UAE, lead a different life altogether. After further studies in the United States she became a banker. It was in October 2001, when she was a banker with Merrill Lynch that she first took up AOL training.
“I thought it was just a yoga or meditation class, but it was a class that changed my life. As I learned more, I discovered it was helping me a lot,” she says. “In Merrill Lynch, I remember, I was the only woman in an office of 90 men, and had to work for long hours.”
It was not normal to work such long hours for a woman, more so when there were no other women in office, she had to put in extra work.
“When you take care of people’s money, and you are a woman you have to work harder than men. I wanted to show I was capable of the portfolio, so I worked three times harder,” says Mawahib. “After learning Sudarshana Kriya, I realised I could do 12 hours’ work in five hours.”
The transformation left everyone around her shocked. That year she joined the government of Abu Dhabi to help it manage its portfolios. Soon, she was on a flight to India to meet Sri Sri Ravishankar.
She asked Sri Sri if she could be of any help. The response was “nothing, be in peace”. The AOLfounder advised her to let others know of the happiness and peace that she experienced.
“Being a banker, we deal with investments and returns, so it was weird for me to ask of something for him and to hear that he does not want anything in return,” says Mawahib.
In 2003, when news broke of chaos in Iraq, Mawahib felt bad for the children and women caught in the turmoil. She decided to do something.
“I asked guruji and he told me to go and help. He said that he will provide me with all the support.”
Within a couple of years, Mawahib and a few other AOL teachers left for Iraq. They carried food, clothes and medicines with them. They established trauma centres in the space allotted by the temporary Iraqi government of the time. Today, AOL has three trauma centres in Iraq.
“The bombings left people suffering from anxiety and asthma. They were on steroids. We reached Baghdad after a long 15-hour drive from Jordan. Our cars were stopped by American security. When I got out of the car, my laptop fell from my hand, making a huge noise. One of the soldiers kicked it hard thinking it might be an explosive,” she smiles in remembrance. “It was unexpected.”
Although Mawahib and her team would hear the sound of bombings nearby, they would keep walking.
“There was curfew in the afternoons. But when everybody would be indoors, we would be out on the streets. We believed we were doing something for the people and they would not attack us. We walked to train people and bring wounded people to be treated,” says Mawahib. “There was no government. No Iraqi army, only US forces. Local leaders were working on a constitution for Iraq.”
Mawahib believes the extended hand of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar helped her to wipe the tears of many. In the 13 years since 2003, Mawahib has taken the Art of Living to Egypt, Pakistan, UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Quwait, Qatar and Turkey.
The last two years, Mawahib has spent going on rescue missions to Syria and Iraq. The missions include empowering women to earn a livelihood. She says women are the backbone of any society, and she wants to forge good women leaders. Her empowerment programme includes teaching computer-skills, video editing, Photoshop and Corel draw.
“Now they have small workshops in their homes where they make calendars, watches, custom-made mugs, all of which they sell to earn a living,’ says the ex-banker and one-time refugee.
With her contacts in governments, Mawahib got some of the Iraqi and Yazidi women, who had little formal education, enrolled in a six-month training course for clerical jobs in the banking and finance sector, The 10 best trainees coming out of the programme were given a better position with a higher salary. About 500 women are now enrolled in the course.
Mawahib says there is no difference between her and the women in war zones. “For the past 13 years, all I have taught is to breathe and to smile. I have helped them to become simple human beings using the breathing technique. This has brought balance to their lives.”
That she is a bold human being, full of courage, is without question. She has never held herself back from venturing into war zones, saving a life is more important to her than anything else.
“When the Sinjar Mountain was liberated from the ISIS, the roads were still blocked. We had to take to the dirt roads to go up the hill, because there were people trapped up there. I saw ISIS fighters some five kilometres from me, but I was not scared,” says the 49-year-old.
Words like Katyusha and Bazooka slip easily from her lips. “I step over booby traps without a thought. The red marks help me navigate them. It helps us that people accept us,” she says. “ISIS are not Muslim, they are terrorists. They deserve punishment but every culprit has a victim inside him. If somebody had taught them to be good and balanced, they would not have been what they are.”
When teaching AOL in a prison, she asked a prisoner why he killed. She remembers him saying, “I did not kill him because he had done something, I killed him because I was in a rage, and I wanted to take it out on someone.”
Mawahib says people who work for ISIS are brainwashed. “Wherever there is fundamentalism, we have to work to show that everybody has rights. People should have an open mind,” she says. “When you believe all are equal, that this land is for everyone, then there will be no more fights, when you lack spiritual knowledge and lack peace from within, then trouble will come.”
She quotes Sri Sri Ravishankar, and says Iraq needs India’s spirituality. Economically unstable, war has ravaged the country for 35 years, thousands of Iraqi youth have no jobs to keep them engaged. Violence is an everyday risk. The people have no inner peace. She believes it is her duty to make them experience it through the meditation techniques she has learnt from Sri Sri Ravishankar.
Speaking of India, Mawahib says she feels at home in India. “It is here where my guru is,” she says simply. And she wanted to bring the Yazidi to “guruji’s” ashram so that they could meet Sri Sri. “I wanted to take them away from their sad situation,” she says, adding that India was where the concept of ‘Ahimsa’ took root and then caught the imagination of the world.
Mawahib says it’s her mission to spread the message of peace propagated by Sri Sri, reiterating that the power of Sri Sri Ravishankar can transform lives.
“It is the first time for all of them to be here, they had never left Iraq before,” she says of the 27 with another smile. “There is not one among them who does not want to go back to their home country and help people. If I do not go back and help them, then who will?”
Although at times stressed, Mawahib says Art of Living has given her peace of mind, and patience. She, now, does not see the obstacles that can hold her down, but the solutions with which she can dive through to reach the afflicted. She holds tight to the meditation techniques her guru has taught her and does not fail to impart them throughout the world to others.
“I always feel that when you are helping people, God is always protecting you. I am not scared even when I see so many people needing help. I am not thinking of myself,” she says.
Mawahib wants to keep focused on helping the traumatized with the meditation and other techniques she has learnt from Sri Sri. The training sessions also involves training others to become trainers. She intends to keep on training Iraqis and Syrians in the Art of Living. “If they are good we will bring them here and make them trainers,” she says.
While praising the training techniques to be of utmost importance to the traumatised, she remembers a trainer who recovered tremendously from cancer after she underwent an AOLcourse on meditation techniques.
She believes that the group of 27 , who left for their country on November 22 after 20 days’ training, went with reverence in their hearts for the Guru, telling her that India is a land of peace.
Mawahib’s one wish is to see an end to terrorism. Insisting that the international community should unite to fight terrorism, she says terrorism has no borders.
Mawahib quit her job in Mashreq Bank of UAE in the early 2000s to utilise all her time to serving those who needed help. Over the years since then, she has not only served victims of terrorism and wars, but also imparted training in AOL to parliamentarians, doctors and lawyers.
Today, even as the Iraqi forces aligned with US special Forces and Kurds have mounted an attack on ISIS in Mosul, Mawahib looks forward with zeal and vigour to travel to Syria to help and assist the beleaguered people of Syria. She speaks of the violence on the streets of Syria and Mosul and the need for food, shelter and medicine for the people; thousands of who are refugees stranded in Jordan and Lebanon.
“There are about 250,000 refugees in the camps there,” she says, adding that she also plans to liberate women in Mosul and her team has volunteered to build a better Iraq by training youth in skills that will help them earn a livelihood.
As she rises to her feet from the chair in the guestroom in the ashram, she once again mentions Sri Sri. “It is so easy to connect to him.
It is so palatable for you to accept him,” she says in her unique accent. “Though there will be hundreds standing in front of him, he makes you feel that you are the only one who is important to him.”
With that, she leaves the room, secure in the belief that “Guruji’s” powers will help her in places where there is no peace.
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