I saw Maryam Aljooan in Kuwait Science Club, holding a presentation for an enthusiastic group of young Kuwaitis, for the first time back in 2008. The club was located out in the desert, far away from residency areas and shopping malls. A bleak building from the outside, colorful posters describing the earth and models of the planetary system decorated the inside. Small, claustrophobic stairs led to the roof where a telescope offered opportunities to watch the stars at night. The place was a refuge for young, smart people who wanted to do something else but shopping or eating. In weekends the members went on star watching trips to the desert and gathered to watch space related movies.
Maryam was the supervisor. Her main interests were space, earth and environment; she had studied engineering in US, one year in Russia at St Petersburg Polytechnical University; and was dedicated to share her knowledge.
“In Kuwait I met many young people that say ‘it’s not possible here’ about anything. There’s a lack of believe in themselves” she says.
Kuwait is a wealthy country where oil, expats and American-style malls have put the country on the map for many. But Maryam’s own childhood was characterized by the Gulf War, when the quiet little country suddenly was invaded and subject to horrible abuse by Iraqi troops. She retells how the society changed afterwards into a hopeless place. Many had lost family members; with the Iraqi army targeting the young boys, almost every family lost at least one of their sons.
“Before the invasion we had a little farm in our school, we did music and learned about arts. After the war everything was put aside.”
According to Maryam, materialism replaced curiosity and involvement in the community. The influence of American culture brought fast food chains and malls popped up with food courts and imported designer clothes, adding to the growing consumer culture. In a few years obesity had become a general health problem (today Kuwait ranks number 1 in obesity internationally). Many young people had lost hope and saw no importance in accomplishing. Everyone’s goal seemed to be to finish school and getting married. In her own family, there was no history of education: own father had only finished high school and her mother had dropped out when she was 12.
“My grandmother didn’t really care about my mom’s education; she wanted my mom to help out with her younger sisters and brothers at home.”
Her grandmother had herself no schooling at all and had been married off in her early teens.
It might not have been likely that Maryam would continue at university; she also went to a public school, not one of the high-ranking American or British private schools. She retells how her family, although being kind and even accepting her marrying a European man, never encouraged her, and she didn’t tell them her dreams about being an astronaut – she nurtured the dream since receiving a small telescope and books about space when being a small girl. In school she was shy and didn’t know how to do things on her own, and until the last year of high school she didn’t know that there was something called university or scholarships to apply for. When her class went on a tour to the university she was surprised: “Oh, there’s something more”, she remembers thinking to herself.
Now she started to wonder if it possible for her to pursue her studies in the space field. A scholarship made it possible for her to move to US to study her bachelors degree, and a NASA conference in 2003 made her decide what she wanted to work with.
“Space, earth and environment are all connected,” she explains to me with enthusiasm on Skype from Belgium, where she lives with her husband Alex, whom she met on a space conference in Japan. “I want to contribute to science and do something for climate change.”
For long she wanted to be the first female Arab astronaut in space and kept an acclaimed blog about it. But her involvement in the Kuwaiti community took a lot of time; she became the supervisor of the Department of Astronomy and Space Sciences at Kuwait Science Club and dedicated her free time to help the young members, at the same time she was travelling a lot and starting up her own NGO Lazurd (Arabic word for Azure, a hue of blue representing earth). She also put her efforts in to being the first Kuwaiti woman to go to Antarctica, and succeeded. Photos of Maryam with penguins; Maryam triumphantly holding up the Kuwaiti flag on an ice berg; Maryam in a small boat on her way over the chilling sea, fills up her Facebook page “The Antartic Expedition of Maryam Aljoaan”.
I ask her why she is so dedicated to the young people in Kuwait now that she has a career of her own and is living outside of the country.
“I was in this situation myself that I see many of the young people in today. If I wouldn’t do anything for the young people in Kuwait I would feel like I would disappear. I know I can set my own example for the kids.”
If she would be able to help another woman to be the first Arab woman in space, she would now appreciate this as much as being the first one herself. I ask her what her parents think about her, the shy girl from a public school who became a celebrity in Kuwait; the supervisor of Kuwait Science Club; and the first Kuwaiti woman on Antarctica.
“My mom is proud” she says. “And as for my dad, well he don’t talk much, but when I was in Russia he made a point out of calling me when he was in the Diwaniya” (gathering at someone’s house). “‘I’m speaking to my daughter, she’s in Russia! She’s studying space engineering!’ he would tell his friends. That’s how I know he’s proud of me too.”
Photo credit: Maryam Aljooan