At the age of 21, her curriculum vitae is much thicker than most of ours was when we were that old. She became a UN Delegate at the Youth Assembly and United Nations Global Poverty Ambassador at 17. She co-founded Step Up Dubai– a social enterprise platform, the UAE’s first fully-governed (CDA licensed) Youth Organisation at the age of 18. That’s not all; a brand ambassador of Protect Your Mom Campaign; Prestigious Diana Award holder (for Champion Volunteer), a writer and volunteer at Children of Peace International, a community leader at Girl Up, regional volunteer coordinator at  Nirbhaya Jyoti Trust, advocate at International Youth Leadership Network and an active member in more than 75 organizations. Phew!! Saima Khan definitely is a paradigm shifter.

Saima Khan

Today she’s more popularly known as a responsible citizen of the world. You’ve guessed it right; this is the story of a 14-year-old who found her purpose in life when her mum, Shaher Bano, decided to show her the cane! It all started in the Summer of 2012. Her mum had had it raising a carefree, reckless teenager. As part of parenting, she wanted to make sure that her daughter could be “productive” with herself. She pulled off her online plug unless she proved otherwise.

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Saima, googled on how one could be “productive” and found herself with articles on ‘volunteering’. She signed up with the first event that showed on the search –an event with people of determination. She attended it and fell in love with ‘it’. ‘It’ being ‘volunteering’. She returned home and signed up with as many events as she could find for the entire month, with somedays doing three events in a day. She was addicted.

This is the story of a 14-year-old who found her purpose in life when her mum, Shaher Bano, decided to show her the cane!

From a carefree eighth grader to the Captain of Social Service in Grade 12, Saima continued to build her portfolio with the sole intention of being there for others to make the community better. Right after her first volunteering experience Saima had realized that by being at these events she had become consciously appreciative of the blessings she had. “I was my parents’ 14-year-old who thanked them for nothing, instead kept asking for more. And still not be happy.”

Saima has volunteered at Dubai Autism Centre, Feline Friends, Dubai Cares and Sound breast cancer charity

Saima had found her calling. She baked cup-cakes, cleaned the beach, painted walls of special needs schools, helped out at Sharjah Cats and Dogs Shelter, Dubai Autism Centre, Feline Friends, Dubai Cares, the Safe and Sound breast cancer charity and launched the Thirst Relief project by PennyAppeal in the United Kingdom to build wells in countries including Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. She estimated that she must have put in some 3,000 plus hours with these diverse groups. Nonetheless, she doesn’t forget all the help and assistance her father, Feroz Khan, had lent when driving her and her friends to the various volunteering venues.

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She was not just enjoying herself in this space but began inspiring other teenagers. Saima became the first-ever Dubai girl among the selected 120 young leaders, from Commonwealth countries, out of 4,000 candidates for the Queen Elizabeth II Young Leader Award. The programme has formed a unique community of 240 influential change-makers, who represent 53 Commonwealth countries. Under the programme, Saima received training and online mentoring to launch more social initiatives and execute new initiatives.

In time, Saima and her senior at school, Manaal Mulla, together set up Step Up Dubai to build a world filled with inspired youth constantly seeking to find solutions to the world’s problem’s and volunteering their time to make a positive difference. They formed a core team with Noorain, Saif, Samitha, Vishal, Ashita and Shashank. The youth organisation rapidly grew and today has over 4,000 volunteers, 37 schools and 10 universities registered with them.

Saima became the first-ever Dubai girl among the selected 120 young leaders, from Commonwealth countries, out of 4,000 candidates for the Queen Elizabeth II Young Leader Award.

Her young age has been a deterrent for Saima always, even when she wanted to register Step Up to encourage confidence from potential sponsors. While the Dubai Community Development Authority made an exception by registering a company founded by a 17-year-old (Her mum was assigned as the company’s signing authority), Saima felt she had to prove herself. “If I ever made any mistake, I was only confirming their doubts.” So this get-goer worked hard: Built her company, studied hard to keep up with the grades at the university and kept up with internships to fund her organization.

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It has been eight years and she is more focused and encouraged than ever before. She now has her eyes set on hosting unique events, reviving the organisation’s core values, studying how and where they can help the local communities the best. And by end of August, Step Up is preparing to launch, Step Up Campus Ambassador Programme (SCAP). Learning from experience, Saima doesn’t want other school-going students to be deprived of opportunities at their school.

Saima Khan with her mother Shaher Bano and her grandfather

So, the main idea of the programme is to encourage students to lead a sustainable or social initiative which contributes to the local community or abides by United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The training programme designed by the Step Up team, along with other experienced and recognized youth models, will be to train and give a hands-on experience to the students.

Students from various registered schools in the UAE can apply, however, only six ambassadors will be selected. The programme is scheduled to commence in September and will run till the end of the semester. The graduation criteria of the finalists will be to host one event in their school or for their school with a minimum of 30 students contributing to the UNSDGs. Step Up will provide all required training and necessary legal permits and also arrange experienced mentors to help the students get a real insight into corporate CSR.

It’s no debate then, that voluntary activities are not just a means of giving back to one’s community but also allows youth to develop self-confidence, along with a robust professional network that can assist in their future career choices.

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Listening to people, Yasmeen Maqbool acquaints herself to their life’s feature. What inspires and encourages, she’s always on the lookout for ‘passionistas’ and weaves their stories to bring to you the movers and shakers of today! Her only other true indulgence is spending quality time with her green fingers while listening to Jagjit Singh ‘ghazals’.

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