Video Duration 46 minutes 35 seconds
From: Al Jazeera World

Arabs Abroad: The Campaigner and the Stargazer

The Palestinian campaigner running a thriving UK charity and the Syrian astronomer who is a world leader in her field.

Filmmakers: Hani Bashir and Mohammad Amr

Over the decades, millions of people from the Arab world have emigrated – some driven by conflict and persecution, others for economic and family reasons. They have settled in Europe, Australia, the Americas and Africa.

But the stories most often told are those of refugees fleeing war and persecution, stories that can be incomplete.

Al Jazeera World meets people who have built successful lives away from their Arab homelands while remaining connected to their roots and giving back to their countries of origin.

The British-Palestinian campaigner

Dr Essam Mustafa Yousef, cofounder of British charity, the Palestine Relief and Development Fund, better known as Interpal [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

Essam Mustafa Yousef came to the United Kingdom in the 1980s as a student and now, more than three decades later, he is still there, working as an activist and campaigner. Driven by a commitment to his native Palestine, he established an aid organisation with the primary goal of helping Palestinian communities.

“I came to Britain primarily to study. I’d planned to stay for a couple of years but I ended up staying for 35,” Yousef tells Al Jazeera.

He explains that after he arrived in Britain, he began to raise funds for those in the Occupied Territories at the local mosque in Cricklewood, an area in northwest London. Eventually, he moved his relief work to an office nearby.

Yousef is now the co-founder of the British charity the Palestine Relief and Development Fund, better known as Interpal. For over 25 years, it has provided humanitarian and development aid to Palestinians in need, focusing on relief to orphans, people with disabilities, the sick and the poor.

In 2003, the US Treasury designated Interpal as a ‘terrorist entity,’ alleging it was using its charitable status to channel funds to Hamas, a charge that Interpal and its trustees vigorously denied.

Nonetheless, it continues to operate as a registered charity in the UK. The Charity Commission, the official regulator of charities in Britain, has investigated Interpal several times and has found no reason to alter its charitable status.

“We go through a long process to vet the aid organisations we work with and to ensure they operate within the law. Each centre supervises and ensures their allocated funds reach people in need in their areas. Since these centres know the situation [on the ground] very well they act on our behalf to deliver aid we send from Britain. They are the agencies on the ground while we are the fundraisers,” Yousef says. 

The Syrian astronomer and stargazer living in Hawaii

Dr. Sahdia Habbal
Dr Sahdia Habbal is an ‘eclipse chaser’ and faculty chair of solar physics at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy [Screengrab/Al Jazeera] 

As a child in Syria, Dr Sahdia Habbal looked to the skies with curiosity and wonder. Today she is one of the world’s leading astronomers.

Habbal was born in Damascus and developed a love for physics at school.

“Education was always important for my family,” Habbal tells Al Jazeera. “I was 12 when I read a biography of Marie Curie, the pioneer of radioactivity. I was very impressed by her and wanted to be just like her.”

Habbal later won a coveted place in a scientific doctorate programme at the University of Cincinnati, the only woman in an all-male department.

“I wasn’t just a woman but also a Syrian woman. They were surprised to see a woman from that part of the world with scientific ambitions”, Habbal says.

After gaining a prestigious spot at a research centre in Boulder, Colorado, Habbal developed expertise in ‘solar wind’. Before long, her work came to the attention of NASA.

Her career eventually led her to the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. Habbal is now an ‘eclipse chaser’, monitoring total solar eclipses in over 10 countries including India, Guadalupe, China and French Polynesia.