To be a good citizen is an aspiration everywhere in the world, but its exact definition changes from country to country, depending on the nature of civil society.
Identifying what it might mean in the UAE, and how young people could better embrace the concept of being a good citizen, was the goal of a competition held by the Ministry of Presidential Affairs at Emirates National Schools, which ended this week.
The contest, conceived by the head of national curriculum and backed by Abu Dhabi Education Council and the Authority of Islamic Affairs, was organised in three parts. It was open to all pupils at the schools, which have a 90 per cent local intake.
First, those taking part were asked to memorise parts of the Quran and Hadiths from the Prophet Mohammed. Next, they were asked to show how the morals and ethics of Islam could be used in everyday life.
Finally, contestants were told to create a PowerPoint presentation or poster for a jury, which explained how anyone could become a better citizen.
From the youngest to oldest pupil, the concept of the good citizen was embraced with enthusiasm. One of the youngest was Hamad Al Dhaheri, a Grade 2 pupil who, like all the winners, was well spoken and confident as he explained his contribution.
“I was not afraid when I recited the phrases I memorised from Quran, and presented the poster I created for the competition,” he said.
Hamad took as his theme the need to be responsible and merciful to others, taking his inspiration from friends and the older generations, but also animals and plants.
“My mother told me that visiting a sick person is from Islam,” he said. “So I went with my father to visit my cousin. He was ill for a couple of days because of something in his stomach. I brought him a gift. The elderly, we should respect. I always pour gahwa and chai halib for my grandfather when he wants some. I hold the bags for him when we are out. I walk with him to the mosque.
I hold his hand to support him in walking. We should also remember not to forget to give him a stick to walk with when I am not there.”
“I am a Muslim, I memorise the Quran and the Prophet’s sayings, and I love my country. I will always protect it from anyone and anything.”
He turned serious with the advice he gave to his friends. “Everyone should keep their country clean.
“I advise everyone who sees anything that needs to be picked up from the ground to make it cleaner, to do it and throw it in the bin.”
Hamad, who likes to plant flowers, said anyone who found a sick animal should take it home and “take care of it, give it food”.
He said: “This is part of being merciful to others in our religion”.
One of the older winners was Mohammed Al Harmoudi, a Grade 9 pupil from Al Ain. During his interview, Mohammed asked to be excused so that he could pray with friends, explaining its importance to him.
Memorising the Quran, said Mohammed, had changed his life.
“People might think it would take from your time and would distract you from your studies,” he said. “It actually helped me be better in school. And my marks were better.”
Learning mercy and the need to be humble was one of the traits of the Prophet that had most deeply affected him, said Mohammed. “It is not only a good act, but a responsibility that religion states.
“I never ask the maid now to do things that I can do for myself. I am more concerned in talking to those who might be less fortunate.”
Outside the home, he has taken up shooting, horse riding and swimming. “The Prophet Mohammed and late Sheikh Zayed encouraged these hobbies and Sheikh Zayed loved hunting,” he said.
Mohammed’s advice to his friends is to think about how they could support themselves in future, work hard at their studies and make their own opportunities in life.
“Never rely on only your family to support you for everything. They teach us and are there when we are younger. Then we should take off,” he said.
Umm Fares is the mother of another winner. Born in Egypt, she has lived in the UAE since she was a child. Her son, who was born here, took first place in the kindergarten section.
Looking back at the experience, Umm Fares said she had discussed the concept of being a good citizen with her son, and that they had most enjoyed preparing the presentation to the judges.
“The experience in the minds of our children stays more than just what they learn in theory,” she said.Her son took his inspiration from the hadith of Abu Dharr Al Ghafair: “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity.
“I was surprised when my five-year-old removed a thorn from the streets one day while we were walking.” Her son explained that he was worried that someone would step on it, or that it might damage car tyres.
“Teaching our children these references, and then seeing them being able to use it in their everyday life, and him knowing that he would be rewarded for it by God, parents, and society is the greatest gift and accomplishment,” she said.
Umm Fares said that even the best schools were responsible for only half of a child’s upbringing, and that the behaviour of parents as responsible citizens and good Muslims was of equal importance
“To make a change in the whole of society, you should always start in the actions of yourself, as a parent and an individual,” she said. Putting children on the right path early in life will make them much less likely to make mistakes when they are older, she added.
Parents, Umm Fares said, could not watch over the children for their entire lives.
“The Prophet Mohammed taught this, to let them go after creating the seeds in them of goodness.”
Before the awards were handed out, a short film was shown, with English subtitles, showing clips of the children talking about the idea of the good citizen and how studying it had affected their lives, connecting them to the vision of Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Khalifa and building a generation whose studies are driven by the principles of society, faith and leadership.
Mohammed Ahmed Bil Hamar, the principal of the Emirates National School in Al Manaseer and a teacher for more than 30 years, explained why the contest was so vital.
“It’s very important to us that every graduate from our schools has two parts of their personality polished to face the world outside.
“One is their national spirit and devotion, and the other is that their principles and ethics from their role models in life will create a foundation for them and guide them forward.
“Last but not least,” he said, “we want them to be visionaries, for themselves, and for what they are going to be part of, and for them to know their abilities and how to use them in all different ways after they leave us.”
Dr Kenneth Vedra, the director general of Emirates National Schools, said he was proud of the winners and believed that the competition was a reflection of the interaction between education and culture.
“We can see that valuing the identity of the culture of the country and of its ideologies and beliefs builds good citizens and prepares future generations to live in a manner that allow us to preserve the history of a nation” he said.