The great British writer and poet Rudyard Kippling wrote a book in 1901 titled “Kim.” In it, Kim, the young orphan of Irish parents, who has grown up among Indian playmates in old Lehore, is called “Friend of All the World” by an old Muslim horse trader who uses Kim to run errands.
The modern-day Friend of All the World is my friend, Khalid Almashikhi. He’s the reason I’m sitting in a two-star hotel room in Al Khoud, Oman, writing this; the reason 14 students are here with me; the reason Elaine and I came here in the first place nearly four years ago.
Khalid grew up in the mountains of Dhofar, the southernmost governorate of Oman on the Yemen border. His single mother and his grandmother raised Khalid and his three siblings in the Dhofar mountains, rugged and remote, between the Arabian Sea to the south and east and the desert of the Empty Quarter to the north and west. He spoke Jebali, an unwritten mountain language (jebel is Arabic for mountain), and didn’t learn Arabic until he went to school. He also started learning English at the same time, and now speaks both flawlessly.
Khalid graduated from Sultan Qaboos University with a degree in education. He came to the U.S., to Omaha, on a Fulbright grant to teach Arabic at UNO. That’s where I met him. He spoke so passionately and so deeply about his country that I was convinced that’s where I should spend my Fulbright year. And so I did.
Khalid returned to Oman, then came back to UNO for his master’s degree. After another year back in Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, where he taught at Dhofar University, he came back to Omaha once again and graduated last year with his doctorate in educational leadership.
That’s an understatement.
Khalid is one of the people in Oman who are undertaking projects to address the needs of the sultanate’s young people in a way that the country is not. He heads up a youth leadership program in Salalah that takes 30 high school kids and teaches them skills to use beyond the classroom.
He and his volunteer group of five put the kids through an intensive learning program in late summer, a boot camp of sorts. They then have to go out into their community and develop some sort of community project, enlist the help of their families or peers and carry it out. The students are all 10th- or 11th-year students because Khalid monitors them and encourages them during their final years in high school, and mentors them into college.
One girl last year decided for her project to do something nice for people who are often overlooked. She cooked meals and delivered them to street cleaners, all of whom are expatriate workers trying to save enough money to send home to their families in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. One day, she and her family took some of them shopping and paid for the whole thing. Other projects have recognized teachers or nurses.
The first year, Khalid had to beat the bushes for people to apply for the program. This year, he had 130 applicants and had parents calling him and pleading to let their student in. But Khalid is adamant. Students must meet the established standards to get in. There is no favoritism. The son of his boss at Dhofar University applied and was denied.
He has no budget. It is all volunteer.
Khalid’s 20-minute presentation to my students before a long Q-and-A session was jaw dropping in its honesty. He said the three things that Omani students were threatened by a feeling of entitlement and extremism. Omani youth today expect the government to find them a job or give them one. They get free education and health care, and he said while it’s mostly all good, it creates a sense that they don’t have to work for anything themselves.
The extremism isn’t only from terrorist threats, he said, because Oman is very stable right now, but tribal extremism can be a problem. Before His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said took over in 1970, most Omanis identified themselves by their tribe rather than their nationality. That’s all changed, and while the tribe is still vital in Omani society, it can lead to problems they call wasta. We would call it the “good ol’ boy’s network.” Favortism.
Khalid’s love for his country doesn’t let him whitewash these potential problems. He is passionate about Oman, deeply proud of and in love with the sultanate. He is out to make sure the youth of Salalah cultivate that same passion.
At the other end of the country, in Muscat, Sabah al Bahlani works every day to find enough money to keep the Association of Early Intervention for Children with Special Needs open. Oman has places for special needs kids in its education system. But Sabah and others realized that waiting until a child is 5 or 6 is too long. Her program takes kids from age 3 and works with them to develop skills, coping mechanisms, talents and abilities that just can’t wait.
She has a dedicated staff of teachers and a donated house that is adequately equipped, but the money to pay the staff has to be raised. For nearly 20 years, that’s been her mission, to give the special needs kids any chance she can to succeed.
It’s so expensive that Muscat is the only place the program can be maintained. There are special-needs kids all over the country. Some families move to Muscat specifically to get their child the help he or she needs from the association. But children in cities like Sohar, Buraimi, Nizwa, Sur and Salalah — and all the rural areas of Oman — whose families can’t move will never have that opportunity.
There are other programs. Oman Oil has a leadership program to help 60 kids, and at the end gives so funded scholarships. But as the price of oil has dropped, so has Oman Oil’s support of the program.
Khalid and Sabah are two individuals who love their country, who believe deeply in the children and who recognize that the state is not meeting all their needs.
My students got to see first hand how truly dedicated people can deal with challenges that are so different, but so vital to Oman.