Exclusively for Enigma, society superstar and philanthropic powerhouse Ghada Sawiris talks to Managing Editor Amy Mowafi about her fundraising work for autism, her hopes for her children and how she balances being married to one of the Arab world’s most powerful men.
It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover when the façade is this fabulous. She’s the billionaire mogul’s wife. The girl with the high life, glitz and gorgeousness. Jet setting and trendsetting. A penthouse 30 stories above the Nile with bustling, chaotic, charming Cairo as a backdrop… the romance of a panoramic helicopter ride made permanent. Four beautiful children and a body made for high end fashion. It’s all just so ripe for envy-fuelled assumption. Just another high society wife. The high society wife. Naguib Sawiris’s wife. It would be easy to throw a dismissive barrage of polyester clichés her way, but to do so would be to miss the point.
Ghada Sawiris was there at the beginning, long before Naguib became a larger-than-life icon of wealth and business wisdom. Of course, he’s always had the privilege of Orascom – his father’s phenomenally successful engineering and construction business – to bolster his background, yet no one could have predicted the sprawling scope of his own future. No one could have guessed he’d go on to create one of the world’s biggest telecommunications empires. Or that his charisma and fearlessness would make him both media darling and scapegoat; that he’d become a business legend in his own time, with all the dazzle and drama that comes with it.
The point is Ghada never planned for this, never chased this, never particularly desired this. Damn it, she wasn’t even sure she liked him at first. He was just a confident guy who spotted her on the stairwell of his aunt’s apartment block, memorised her license plate number, tracked down her phone number and had the gall to call up her father and request a date. Her father was dismissive but Naguib persisted. Of course the chutzpah was irresistible. They met, they clicked and three months later, they wed. She was barely in her twenties.
As Ghada recalls, “His sense of humour sealed the deal. Naguib was different. He was very open minded and I liked that.” The rest was just fate. A fabulous fate, but an unplanned destiny nevertheless; which is probably what sets Ghada apart from the rest of her cohorts. On paper, she may have more right (and riches) to a life of laid-back luxury than her peers, but in reality she’s far more unassuming, unaffected and unpretentious. She may be the queen bee, but she’s too grounded to take liberties.
Indeed, for the first decade of her marriage she worked solidly – and through three pregnancies! She kicked off her career as a software engineer in American University in Cairo’s computer science department until Naguib convinced her to invest her skills in his company. “Working for my husband was very hard. I was never going to be friends with anyone because they kind of feared me. No matter what you do, your colleagues still think ‘she’s the boss’s wife; she must be spying on us’. But I stuck it out for a good few years until I had my third baby and felt it was time to leave.”
Never one to rest on her laurels, she set about starting her own business: Juke Box, one of the first dedicated music stores in Egypt. The concept proved so successful she quickly added two more branches, one in Heliopolis and the other in the Red Sea resort of El Gouna. “I was working very long hours. And then I discovered I was getting robbed by my own employees! We also had a lot of ridiculous red tape and censorship issues when it came to importing the CDs.” So three years ago, Ghada decided to liquidate her business and move on to more rewarding pastures. “My objective has never simply been to keep myself busy,” she says. “I want to do something useful. I have four kids, so rather than invest my time in just any project I’d rather concentrate on their upbringing and their education. They’re in the German school, which is tough, so they need me around.”
In a city of outlandishly priced private schools and elitist international institutions, the fact that Ghada has decided to send her brood to the much more affordable German school is telling. It’s all part of her determined effort to keep her kids’ heads out of the clouds, their feet firmly planted on the ground and their perspectives practical. They are, after all, four of the biggest heirs in the Arab world, and in an era of Paris Hiltons, if you’re not very careful, a big surname can mean big trouble. Yet as Ghada explains, “When it comes to kids, it’s not about one-off lessons. It’s about you the way deal with them every day. I never spoil them and I remind them every day that their material privileges do not make them special. They know that they don’t have an entitlement simply because they are the kids of whomever. I tell them ‘It’s what you make of yourself that counts. It’s how people perceive you and how they love you that’s most important.’ I never allow them to feel that they have a right to any sort of family legacy. What they do is up to them and they have to make their own successes. And while I’m sure Naguib would be very proud to work with his children, it is important they take responsibility for their lives and choose their own path. At the end of the day, money comes and goes, so you never know. Only the love and respect people have for you remain.”
Ghada meanwhile has been busy with her own personal growth. After years of focusing on her career and kids, she seems to have made peace with the idea that hers really is a position of great privilege; one that affords her the leverage to genuinely change people’s lives. For the last three years she’s been investing all her savvy and skill into raising funds and awareness for autistic children in Egypt. She’s also spearheading state of the art facilities for the thousands of Egyptian kids (1 in every 166) who suffer from autism or a communication and learning disorder on the autism spectrum. It’s a disorder that is little understood the world over, but the ignorance is particularly prevalent and all the more heartbreaking in the Middle East. On one side of the coin, uninformed poverty-stricken parents dismiss their children as valueless members of society, resulting in appalling abuse; on the other side there is a devastating dearth of facilities and resources with which to help their children. One of Ghada’s closest friends had long been suffering in such a situation with her son. The family had even contemplated selling their business and leaving their family and friends to move to Canada where their autistic child would be afforded the proper ‘treatment’. “They were in deep trouble,” recalls Ghada. “Although their son was not on the extreme end of the spectrum – he was at a private school and fairly integrated – it was reaching a point where the school was no longer capable of or willing to provide him with the care and education he needed. He had essentially been kicked out and the family were desperate. So I told her ‘Just give me one year and I will find a place for you’.” Ghada was true to her word and within a few months her friend’s son was happy and thriving at the Sunshine Unit, a facility at Ramses College for children with special needs.
The experience motivated Ghada to join ADVANCE (the Egyptian Society for Developing Skills of Children with Special Needs), a Maadi-based NGO that was established in 1999 by three Egyptian mothers who were friends since childhood, two of whom had given birth to autistic children. Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain. As a result, it impacts the development of a child’s social interaction and communication skills. Both children and adults with autism show difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and even play activities. Considered one of five disorders that falls under the umbrella of Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD), a category of neurological disorders characterised by severe and pervasive impairment in several areas of development, its enigmatic nature can make life extremely difficult for parents who have nowhere to turn. And the women behind ADVANCE had spent years suffering silently with little practical or emotional support.
Through ADVANCE’s multidisciplinary therapeutic programme, help is finally at hand. In the classroom children are taught through activities that promote cognitive development, language and motor skills as well as academic skills that enable them to become valuable members of society. Their approach is very family-focused with parents invited to observe and participate in therapy sessions so that they are aware of the strategies being used with their child and are able to use the same approach at home. “A lot of parents are in denial,” says Ghada, whose passion for the cause is tangible. “Having an autistic child creates unbelievable pressure and many families fall apart. ADVANCE is amazing because it provides just as much support for the families as it does for the children.”
Unfortunately the space and resources at the centre are limited and they’re only able to cater to up to 50 kids at a time. This is where Ghada’s influence comes in to play. ADVANCE is in the process of building a fully comprehensive centre in New Kattameya that can cater to up to 200 children daily. It’s set to feature a specialised sports centre for physiotherapy, a pool, a plethora of classroom faculties and even an overnight hostel that will allow parents from villages across the country to bring their children to the centre for diagnosis and much-needed help. As the head of ADVANCE’s fundraising committee, Ghada is determined to generate the funds necessary (about $10 million) to have the centre up and running by early 2010. And she’s almost halfway there. And for such a desperately worthy cause, she was happy, for the first time in her life, to throw her surname into the ring. “Of course as Naguib Sawiris’s wife it’s easier to get things done. People trust that I won’t take the money and run, which so often happens in Egypt. And that makes many people wary about donating to such causes. But in this case they know the money is going exactly where it is promised. I have never used my name to simply make my life easier. But for a great cause where I can truly make a difference, I am happy to do so.”
Using her ability to open doors, she invests a lot of time meeting with the relevant authorities, cutting through red tape and visiting autism centres across Europe to gather information and techniques. And of course, there’s also the occasional charity gala to organise. “As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t just about collecting money,” she says. “I want to really be involved with these children on a daily basis and I’m taking the courses and getting the education to be able to do so.”
Of course when one of the most high profile women in the region puts her name to one particular charity, the social implications can get complicated. “Some people I know got upset that I hadn’t become involved with their particular cause,” she says. “But this cause is very personal to me, and I’m devoting myself entirely to it. Of course people send me letters asking for help with this or that, and I do whatever I can, but that’s private. It’s not a public exercise for people to comment on. It was only with this charity that I decided to create some serious buzz, as we’re in desperate need of funds. I understand the media likes to watch what I do, and they might comment on where I go and what I wear or whatever, but that’s irrelevant to my life. The upside is, if I can inspire other women in my position to work at something similar, to rally their resources to benefit society, then that’s all I care about.”
In the meantime, no matter how much she might like to downplay it, there’s still this big business of being Naguib Sawiris’s wife to attend to. When asked if she considers herself a factor in his awe-inspiring success, her response is immediate. “I don’t really like to burden others with my problems, especially my husband,” she says. “I am not that kind of a woman who would call him every five minutes asking him to help me with something. I’ve always been very independent. I solve my own problems, and this has given Naguib more time to devote to his business.”
And you know what they say, behind every great man… And Ghada Sawiris, it seems, is that greater woman. In her own right.