Laura Mikhael

The Egyptian Soprano selected as part of Community Jameel’s promotion of culture across the globe

So many young talents around the world, especially in the Middle East, yearn to get their breakout moments to shine and prove themselves. So it’s a breath of fresh air to find an international organisation like Community Jameel, dedicated to giving these young people the chance to hone their talents and to embark on successful careers. Set up by the prominent Jameel family in Saudi Arabia, Community Jameel offers full scholarships to young singers and sopranos from all over the world in conjunction with the Andrea Boccelli Foundation at the Royal College of Music in London. This year, Egyptian soprano Laura Mekhail is a recipient of the Bocelli-Jameel Scholarship that will allow her to further her music studies at the prestigious college in London. To find out more about Community Jameel and its mission, eniGma’s Ezz Al-Turkey sat down for a chat with its director, George Richards.

Can you tell us a bit about Community Jameel and your work there?
Community Jameel was founded by the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia, who are celebrating 75 years of philanthropy this year and sits alongside Art Jameel, which is actually doing work in Fustat in Egypt through a school called the Jameel House of Traditional Arts in Cairo and Bab Rizq Jameel, which is also very active in Egypt and is focused on employment. Then there is Community Jameel, that’s where I am the director. Our focus is on supporting science and technology to tackle major global challenges in climate, health and education.

What are some projects that Community Jameel has worked on in Egypt?
One of our earliest programs in Egypt was the establishment of the Jameel Management Centre in the Tahrir Campus of the American University in Cairo (AUC). That was in the early 90s. Just last year we launched with AUC the MENA office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Property Action Lab (J-PAL), a research centre headquartered at MIT in the United States. J-PAL conducts randomised trials of interventions to tackle poverty to see what works in practice. J-PAL has done a lot of work in Egypt, including with the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development and the Egyptian government. The founders of J-PAL, Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019. J-PAL has worked a lot on expanding in Egypt and across the region. While our scope is global, we focus particularly on the Arab world, considering our origins.

How does the Andrea Bocelli Foundation come into play?
Well, we actually also do support music. We have a strong commitment in the Arab world to supporting up-and-coming musicians from the region. To do that, we partnered with the Royal College of Music in London to give a scholarship with the Andrea Bocelli Foundation. We’re thrilled that the second Bocelli-Jameel Scholar is an Egyptian and that’s Laura Mekhail. The first was a French soprano called Clara Barbier Serrano. This scholarship is open to all people from all over the world. In Community Jameel, we really want to especially promote Arab talents and promote the classical musical talents in the region. We created another fund at the College in 2020 to support music students in general, not just singers, facing financial challenges arising from COVID-19; it’s called the Community Jameel Hardship Fund. The first recipient was Algerian; his name is Bacem Anas Romdhani.

What’s it like for you to be a part of a philanthropic organisation like Community Jameel?
It’s an extremely rewarding but challenging job. We have such great support from the Jameel family themselves and we try to work really hard on improving conditions for breakthroughs in science and technology, especially in the global south. It’s a great honour to be working with Community Jameel and to have the opportunity to be working towards a big change in the world.

What are some of these challenges and how do you overcome them?
One of the things that we’ve worked on recently is to try to support scientific endeavours in the Arab world and the global south. We’re also committed to trying to foster and nurture an environment for scientific researchers in the global north to work hand-in-hand with scientific researchers from the global south. With this in mind, we just launched the Jameel Fund, a major fund focusing on coronaviruses, not just COVID-19. This fund is split between Imperial College London in the UK and King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia. Research capacity in the global south is lower and we as an institution have this commitment to try to address that. Another challenge has to do with how hard it is to get auditions for musical talents in the Middle East and the Arab World. We’re trying to change that as best we can.

Who selects the talents and what is the process like?
The auditions and selection of candidates and the award of the scholarship, are decisions made by the Royal College of Music. They basically take into consideration two factors. The first is “excellence,” which means that the candidate is exemplary in the field of opera singing. The second factor is “need,” which focuses on the financial hurdles which wouldn’t be overcome without the support of the scholarship. We’re delighted that Laura is the winner this year and that she is a singer from the Arab world – from Egypt! We can’t wait to hear her sing in the future as she develops with her scholarship. It’s also very inspiring to us to have the partnership of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation and the personal involvement that the legendary singer has in nurturing the next wave of opera singers. Laura is ready to take the next step in her career and she’s ready to go to the Royal College of Music and venture into this dream of hers. We couldn’t be happier to be a part of this.

What’s your overall philanthropic goal for Community Jameel?
Outside the arts, our goal is to help people adapt to the rapidly changing world. There is, of course, a particular challenge in the Arab world because of the climatic conditions here and the pressures of climate change. In this field, we are supporting scientific research to influence policy-makers in their decision-making and a culture of evidence-based policymaking. That’s what we will continue to do in the future!