By Tayiba Ahmed
While at American University of Sharjah (AUS), students constantly come across various opportunities beyond the classroom. Whether they choose to seize these opportunities and make them count towards their future, or whether they choose to let them go, is up to the students. Sheraa is one of these unique opportunities that can pave a way for students’ futures, and it is literally within reach of AUS students. Located in the library building, Sheraa, the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center, has recently expanded its space and operations on the campus of American University of Sharjah. The initiative is designed to transform and develop people's ideas into businesses and help Sharjah and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) become a leading hub of international entrepreneurship.
Ihsan AlHayek, an industrial engineering student at AUS, is one such student who chose to seize the opportunity and reap the benefits of Sheraa, in order to pursue his passion for having his own business one day. During his quest to develop a better business background along with pursuing his engineering degree, AlHayek came across Sheraa. After attending a Sheraa workshop and hearing an entrepreneur’s inspirational talk about his journey of starting his own business, AlHayek began going to Sheraa more often during his free time. He felt that it was a great escape for him because it offered him a place to share ideas, get feedback on his own ideas and speak freely. He realized that it was a great opportunity for him to come to Sheraa and share his ideas, get to know people, and that it was helping him enhance his communication skills as it encouraged him to speak, and to learn new things.
“It is a great change from a student’s normal everyday life since you get the opportunity of meeting new people with great energy, outside the classroom environment,” said AlHayek.
Sheraa offers a lot more than just an environment for sharing ideas, though. AlHayek experienced this when he had an internship with the center this summer. During the internship he got to work on developing technical courses for Sheraa—such as robotics, coding and web development—along with his colleagues. In a program called pre-accelerator,” he also got the opportunity to work with startups.
AlHayek’s enriching experience didn’t end with the conclusion of his internship. Sheraa then recommended him to a program by the MIT Media Lab being held in Dubai, sponsored by Community Jameel, and organized in collaboration with Wamda, a platform that aims to accelerate entrepreneurship throughout the MENA region. Three weeks after giving his Skype interview, AlHayek was accepted as one of the 30 engineers, architects and designers from all around the world to be part of the program.
As part of his work with MIT Media Lab, AlHayek and his fellow team members worked on a project for Al Zata'ari Refugee Camp, a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan run by The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The project aims to help Syrian children born in refugee camps and elsewhere to get a glimpse of their homeland, before the destruction of key areas in Syria. Since the camp’s opening in 2012, it is estimated that about 5,000 children have been born in Al Zataari Camp alone. These children, and many other Syrian children born elsewhere, would have no idea about what Syria looked like before the conflict. So the team came up with an idea of collecting and collating pictures and videos of Syria before the conflict. They then developed a prototype, after a painstaking two-day brainstorming process, which will enable people to see and experience various parts of Syria as it was when the country was still pristine. The prototype is a virtual reality application called Sphyria, which they created to work with Google’s cardboard virtual reality machine which costs only US$ 8, and so is affordable and easy to ship in large numbers to the campsite.
“When we handed the cardboards to the refugee students, we saw them transported around the world—to Yosemite, under the sea, even to the moon—but the one place they couldn’t go was home”, said AlHayek’s team member, Saja Al Muzaini, during the opening for their presentation at Wamda.
The application that AlHayek and his fellow team members created provides a solution for this issue, and allows the user to explore different locations in Syria by inserting their mobile phone into the cardboard machine. The application opens with a 2D map of Syria, which has spheres made up of the 360ᵒ images hovering over some of the locations that can then be accessed by the users. It also allows Syrians to record memories inside those spheres, so that users can listen to individual memories. Some of the places captured in the application have now been destroyed due to the conflict, so not only is the application a great way of documenting the beauty of Syria before the war, but it will also motivate the children at Al Zataari Camp to learn and will hopefully prevent them from completely losing touch with their identities.
AlHayek and his team, which consists of members from different parts of the world, now aims to bring this product to the market. They are currently at the re-engineering process, and are adding multiple features to it, keeping in mind that this app will be used by people from all over Syria who are now away from their homes.
What first began as a curiosity about what Sheraa was about, turned into an enriching experience and journey for AlHayek.
“You have nothing to lose from coming here, exploring and sharing your ideas, until one day you make it into another success story. The opportunity is within your reach. It’s on campus, you don’t have to worry about transportation; it’s just a matter of willingness to take the first step and join this community,” said AlHayek, asking AUS students to make the best of Sheraa.
Tayiba Ahmed is a student at American University of Sharjah.
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