Hajer Al Alawi’s life experiences on the SWY programme in 2018 resonates even today, in 2021.
“What is the difference between your soul and your heart and your mind?” That is a philosophical question that could be subject of an intellectual debate. And a reply would have to delineate these three distinct concepts. Throw some young leaders of the world together and you can expect such high-level discussions. And the question was just a sample of the thought-provoking queries posed by the young group on the Ship for World Youth (SWY) programme, which is a famed international youth exchange programme for young leaders of the world, sponsored by the cabinet office of the Japanese government.
Hajer’s SWY experiences
Hajer Saif Al Alawi, 27, who was on the 30th SWY batch in 2018, which lasted for 45 days, was recounting many of her experiences on board the SWY programme, when she made the above statement. An English language and literature graduate from Buraimi University College, Hajer who was born and raised in Buraimi, works in the student affairs department in a German university.
As for the SWY programme, it was not only refreshing, but also made one alive to the exciting possibilities that existed and the exposure brought about a new way of thinking for the participants, which is what Hajer experienced – a new world opened out for her.
Why do you wear a hijab?
“I came back from that experience with new thoughts on everything. The other girls from the delegation asked me why I wore a hijab and whether it was only for religious purpose and what I felt about it. That was the first time I really thought about those things. I thought about the hijab and my real feelings about it. I know about the cultural and religious aspects about it. I can take it off and that’s it, but no, I really love it. I consider it a part of me. There were a lot of those kinds of questions. There were questions about soul and what it meant to me — or in my religion,” Hajer recalled.
Discovered new way of thinking
“I genuinely thought about these things for the first time because of these questions. They wanted to discover the things around me, but actually, I learnt more about the things around me because of these questions. I had discovered a new way of thinking and new reasons for believing in these things,” she said candidly.
Which year did you participate in the SWY programme and what was its duration?
I participated in the 30th SWY batch, which lasted for 45 days.
Which were the countries? What was the daily agenda like?
Since it started, Oman has participated for the 10th time, as of the 30th SWY programme. The countries participating in 2018 (SWY30) were Japan, Oman, Australia, Spain, Poland, Peru, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Mexico and Mozambique. Japan always requests for 10 different countries (11 including itself), with 12 youth participants from each country. Japan in turn provides as many youth participants from its own country same as the total number of participants from all 10 countries combined (120 youth participants from 10 different countries + 120 Japanese youth participants — 240 in total). The programme started in Japan; all the countries fly out to Tokyo first, then we sailed from Yokohama to Singapore. From Singapore, we travelled to India, then Sri Lanka and then back to Japan.
How and why were you selected – what was the basis for the selection?
Each country has different ways to select their 12 youth participants. They represent the youth of their country in the programme and in Japan. We have an association in which the participants are nominated. They (participants) go through interviews, exams and other tests, until the final 12 are chosen by the association.
I was selected because I was very active in my community. I used to participate in the activities of the ministry of sports and was very active in other youth programmes as well. I was initially nominated to represent the youth of the country. After going through interviews and exams, I passed and was selected. Nowadays we have an association called the SWY Oman Association, which is in charge of selecting participants.
Was this the first time that you were selected?
Every country that participated has a national leader. The national leader has to be a former participant. Now, since I have participated in 2018, I come in that category. I can also participate in the coming programmes as a national leader, if Japan requests Oman to participate.
Was it challenging to be on the SWY ship – in the sense, was this the first time you were on a ship and did you have difficulties being on one?
Yes, it was very challenging. Oman was the only Arabic Islamic country that was participating. It was a huge and heavy responsibility for me as I was representing Omani/Arab Islamic women. It was challenging from that perspective. The programme had a heavy/full schedule. We had different activities, lectures, groups, etc. from morning till evening. It was a little tough; we had to be focussed, strong and disciplined throughout the whole programme to gain all the benefits it was designed to give us.
How was the experience – what have you learnt from the SWY programme? In the period you were with the SWY programme, did you learn the different values and cultural sensitivities through your interaction with fellow participants? Have you made lifelong friends from this trip?
I learnt a lot from this experience, like how to respect different cultures and nationalities. I got to see the youth, people who were my age, from 10 different countries and learnt about them, like how they act and think, what they were studying, how to deal with them, how to represent myself, how to not judge them for the things that they believe in, how they are suffering from different things in their own lives and so on. I got 10 different perspectives from all across the globe as a result of this programme. It is 2021 and I am still connected with everyone from the programme, as well as people from the previous batches; even the previous participants from countries other than the ones that participated when I was selected. We all have a strong connection with each other. I feel like I have a home in each different country of the world.
We lived in a homestay with a Japanese family. Even today I feel like I have new parents from Japan. I call them my Japanese Mom and Father, and I always ask about their health and the new things they are doing in their life. I want to meet them again either here in Oman or in Tokyo.
What about the concept of the SWY programme did you enjoy the most? What concepts are most important and to be practiced on a daily basis?
The concept of the SWY programme is to gather youth from all over the world in a healthy space where they can discuss different cases in their countries, their personal problems, problems their countries face, etc. In this gathering, we give and learn new ideas, learn how to fix problems and how to read the situation around us. Everything in the programme was very important. Groups of three different nationalities were sleeping together. We all chat with each other before we sleep. We sit in groups of four different nationalities for breakfast. Then we attend a lecture about the world. Then we form another group and discuss another issue and learn new things. Then we form pre-selected groups to learn about new topics like human rights. I was in the innovation group. I learnt about money and how different countries deal with employment. I learnt so much.
What do you personally treasure the most from your SWY trip?
I really appreciate the other SWY Omani participants who were with me. I didn’t know of other Omanis who were that serious and responsible with global minds. We were so respectful and we were one of the best delegations on the ship. I appreciate every single moment in the programme; each and every one of those moments means a lot to me. I learnt new life lessons. I am benefiting from those experiences in 2018 in my real life, even in 2021.
How are you going to present the lessons you have learnt, in this enlightening trip, to your fellow Omanis?
I created an Instagram page to share my experience and the lessons I learnt from the programme in Arabic for my colleges and friends. I also answer questions about the programmes or lectures in it. I was also invited to explain and share my experience in my university. I invited my Japanese friends from the SWY programme to my work and we gathered the Omani youth and shared with them about the programme and Japanese culture. Even today, I am sharing my, and the previous participants,’ experience with Omanis online. The last time Oman participated was in 2020.
After being on this trip, do you think you have a better perspective on yourself and your relationship with others and with the world at large?
Yes, I came back from that experience with new thoughts on everything. The other girls from the delegation asked me about why I wear my hijab and whether it was only for religion and what I felt about it. That was the first time I really thought about those things. I thought about the hijab and my real feelings about it. I know about the cultural and religious aspects about it. I can take it off and that’s it, but no, I really love it. I consider it a part of me. There were a lot of those kinds of questions. There were questions about soul and what it meant to me or in Islam or in my religion. Questions like, “what is the difference between your soul and your heart and your brain?” I genuinely thought about these things for the first time because of these questions. They wanted to discover the things around me, but actually, I learnt more about the things around me because of these questions. I had discovered a new way of thinking and new reasons for believing in these things.
I went for the SWY programme in 2018 — I was 24. I had already graduated from university and was working as a teacher in a school in Buraimi. I left my students and I went to participate in this programme. It was such a good experience for me. While I missed the students a lot and they missed me too, it was worth the experience.
The SWY trip has been over since some time now, but you still have very fond memories of it. Are you planning to rekindle the friendship with your former SWY mates?
I am actually planning on visiting all the countries that I have friends in and I also welcome all the SWY participants from Oman to meet up with me, to sit and have a chat and remember the programme and all its stages together, to try and re-experience that feeling and have a global chat about the different cases in life.
Arabic for non-native speakers
Hajer Al Alawi also shared some additional details about the SWY programme and the preparations prior to embarking on the journey: “There are clubs in the SWY programme. Before we travel to Japan and represent our countries there, they ask us if we would like to organise a club. I organised a club called ‘Arabic for non-native speakers’ and taught the participants from different countries basic Arabic while on the ship. I used to take private lessons to teach Arabic to non-native speakers even before the programme. I organised that club and it was a very great experience to teach them, follow them and to give them Arabic basics. I taught the Arabic greetings and such and mentioned that Oman was the only Arabic speaking nation participating. I still keep in touch with some of them and give them Arabic lessons. One of them, a girl from South Africa, is in a good stage of understanding the language. She is writing in Arabic and she still keeps in contact with me. I am so glad to have gained this experience.
“Oman cares a lot about the details, so before we go and participate in Japan, after we were selected, we had five different camps with the 12 youth participants where we were prepped on all the details we needed to do there, like how to join the clubs and how to act and represent Oman in an appropriate way, how to make a presentation about Oman and who was going to present and other things as well.”
(*) The Ship for World Youth Leaders (SWY) programme, operated by the cabinet office, government of Japan, is a programme that involves youth from Japan and countries around the world. The participants study and discuss common issues from a global perspective and participate in various activities that involve multi-cultural and multi-national exchange opportunities to cultivate international awareness and leadership. The programme runs for over one month onshore and onboard the ship.