Selim Ali (left) and Emad Mostafa speaking to Ahram Online. (photos by Sherif Sonbol)
Today Moustafa Emad leaves Cairo on his way back to his now hometown, Kiev.
Emad was one of several participants in a conference held this week by the Arab League for the leaders of Arab expatriate communities.
The objective of the three-day conference was to better connect Arab expatriate communities with their countries of origin, to serve the purposes of continued cultural connectivity and those of cultural dialogue. That was a first-of-a-kind meeting that brought together representative of Arab governments, Arab civil society with visiting expat leaders.
"It was good that this conference took place and it was good that attention was addressed to Arab expats in countries other than North America and Western Europe; it is a late move but it is good to have it happen at last," said Emad.
Born to a displaced Palestinian family in Jordan, Emad has been living and working in the republics of the former Soviet Union for two decades. He has been working for Islamic charities that are actively involved in promoting the Islamic creed and practices among the Muslim communities of these countries. And for close to eight years now he has been making a home in Kiev where he is planning to settle down.
Emad and his wife and three children are five out of around 30,000 Arab expats who live and work in Kiev. They are mostly of Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Iraqi origin — Iraqis have increased considerably in the wake of the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.
"In Kiev, there are three generations of Arab expats and the youngest generation, children in their early years of life, have hardly any knowledge of Arab culture and countries," Emad said as he spoke to Ahram Online at the end of the Arab League conference.
Connecting these generations and the many generations of Arab-origin Ukrainians to their Arabic language, Islamic and Christian traditions as practiced in the Arab world, and to the main issues of the Arab world was the issue Emad keenly discussed in the Arab League conference.
"In Ukraine, the Arab community is based in three cities and is well-connected, but in the next few years it will expand and it needs to have some links to the countries of origin," he argued.
In the Cairo conference, Emad secured support for the few Arabic teaching centres and schools extant in Ukraine, and for nascent Arab expat organisations. He also secured the commitment of the Arab League to establish an official and permanent presence in Kiev. And he promoted the need for more frequent flights between Kiev and Arab capitals — especially those with large communities in Ukraine.
Emad is proud of the commitment expressed by the Arab League to ensure that attention to Arab expats is no longer confined to major Arab blocs in North America and Western Europe.
Selim Ali, a representative of Arab expats in Russia, is equally pleased with the commitments embraced at the conference, in particular to help economically unprivileged expats who are mostly in the former Eastern European bloc and the former states of the Soviet Union.
"They are mostly people who came to the countries to study and get graduate degrees and who decided to stay on, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to follow their luck. With some help and guidance they can make a better future for themselves in their new countries of choice," said Selim.
For Selim and Emad, the Arab League conference was also an opportunity to exchange views and experiences among expats on addressing the problems expats face: falling short on money; feeling obliged to go the extra mile with religious commitment; failing to learn the language of the new hometown; and communication cuts with the community of origin.
The cultural issue was also a keen issue for most participants — especially so for Selim who despite having a successful business decided to establish a printing house dedicated to the translation of top Arab literary titles, both classics and modern, into Russian.
"I thought it was a good cultural bridge to build, and this is not just for Russians but also for the children of Arab expats who are growing up in Russia and who stand the risk of losing their Arabic in a generation or two," Selim said.
Selim argued that his translation of Nizar Kabbani's poetry and the texts of Kalila and Demnah had left a good impression on Russians regarding the true cultural diversity of the 40,000 plus Arab expats there. "Those Russians who used to think that Arab culture is introvert, rigid and conservative must have changed their minds after reading Nizar (Kabbani)," he said.
Selim is also leaving Cairo to Moscow today. He exchanged business cards with Emad and other representatives of Arab expats in Eastern Europe and former Soviet states, as well as with those from North America and Western Europe. Their objective is to keep their communities in touch, not just in each country but also across countries where expat communities are living and expanding.