x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Antarctica visit opens students' eyes

The International Antarctic Expedition (IEA) was led by the environmentalist Robert Swan, the first person to reach both the South and North Pole on foot.

The all-female UAE contingent with the man behind the initiative, environmentalist Robert Swan.
The all-female UAE contingent with the man behind the initiative, environmentalist Robert Swan.

It took 16 days for Reem Bani Hashem to reach Antarctica from the UAE, but only moments for her to realise the importance of the trip.

The International Antarctic Expedition (IEA) was led by the environmentalist Robert Swan, the first person to reach both the South and North Pole on foot.

IEA is an initiative of Mr Swan's company 2041, named in hope of achievements in educating people by the 50th anniversary of the 1991 Environmental Protocol, which banned drilling and mining in the Antarctic peninsula but is due for review in 2041.

Reem, 23, a graduate of the American University in Dubai, had applied online to take part with her older sister Aldana.

The two flew from Dubai to Ushuaia, Argentina, the most southern city in the world, for two days of workshops before setting sail.

"Before going, I can say that I was interested in environmental issues but it's not like I ever took the time to read about them or involve myself more," said Reem.

"I thought experts would take care of everything. I thought, 'Who am I? What can I do? I'll recycle a few bottles but who cares?'"

The feeling was shared by Aldana, 24, who boarded the Sea Spirit for the trip to Antarctica.

"I had no idea about sustainability, being green or what I could do to help, so it was a step I took to educate myself," she said.

Houda Dafir, a 33-year-old Frenchwoman who resides in Dubai, joined the team after she was selected by Mr Swan on a visit to her office, where she works as an environmental compliance manager.

"He said I had to be on the boat and I made it," Houda said. "We have to lead by example. This is not something that comes overnight but if people see your actions, they will follow."

For Reem, learning the effects people's lifestyles have on the planet was an eye-opener.

"We were taught about consumption," she said. "The first thing you realise is that we are constantly buying things we don't need.

"Another thing is taking longer showers than necessary."

Alia Al Khafajy, 25, from Dubai, said the weather in Antarctica provided a sobering lesson.

"The eye-opener for me was actually seeing the effects right in front of our eyes," said Alia, an associate banker with Global Private Banking. "It rained twice while we were there, and it's not meant to rain."

Several times on the trip, the women saw ice shelves shatter into the ocean. Their route was altered after an area of ice at which the ship was due to stop fell into the sea.

"We're in a bubble thinking each country does its own thing and that it can't be that bad, but it is," Alia said.

Having returned to the UAE last week, the women are planning to spread Mr Swan's message.

"We live such a fast life that often we don't take time to live or breathe … we just need to consume, consume, consume," Houda said. "We should appreciate things are happening around us and we need to act."

zalhassani@thenational.ae

 

This article has been amended since it was first published. Mr Robert Swan's company is called 2041, not 2014.