Renowned adventurer tells Arab News of his quest to discover Saudi wildlife

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Takacs, a leading toxicologist, joined other National Geographic scientists and adventurers on stage at the Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam to present his “Deadliest Lifesavers” show. (AN photo by Sadiq)
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Takacs, a leading toxicologist, joined other National Geographic scientists and adventurers on stage at the Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam to present his “Deadliest Lifesavers” show. (AN photo by Sadiq)
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Takacs, a leading toxicologist, joined other National Geographic scientists and adventurers on stage at the Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam to present his “Deadliest Lifesavers” show. (AN photo by Sadiq)
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Zoltan Takacs with sea snake.
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Zoltan Takacs in Amazon camp.
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Takacs catches a Gaboon viper in the Cameroon rain forest.
Updated 03 March 2018
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Renowned adventurer tells Arab News of his quest to discover Saudi wildlife

ALKHOBAR: A face-to-face encounter with an angry elephant, a near-fatal bite from a venomous snake — Dr. Zoltan Takacs’ love of the wild has given this Hungarian scientist more than his fair share of adventure.
Takacs, a leading toxicologist, joined other National Geographic scientists and adventurers on stage at the Abdulrahman Bin Faisal University in Dammam to present his “Deadliest Lifesavers” show, which outlined his work developing new medicines from the venom of some of the world’s most dangerous creatures.
In an exclusive interview with Arab News afterwards, the scientist described the dangers he has faced on his research trips. “When I came face-to-face with an elephant, I was not really far from getting myself killed,” he said.
“I thought to myself, well, Zoltan, maybe you pushed the limit too much this time.
“Then, when I was bitten by a snake and had a bad allergic reaction, I thought, am I going to die this time?”
Takacs said he sometimes regrets the risks he has taken — “but never the whole experience.”
The Hungarian scientist was brought to the Kingdom for the first time by the General Entertainment Authority and Time Entertainment.
Takacs told his audience he was excited to discover Saudi Arabia’s wildlife. “The venom of snakes, scorpions, spiders and many marine creatures remains unexplored by scientists. It is a huge untapped reserve that should be explored for the benefit of Arabia and global medical innovations,” he said.
Takacs praised the people of the Kingdom. “I love their enthusiasm and the professionalism. In my brief visit, I was fortunate enough to work with extremely professional, dedicated, and courteous people,” he said. “I hope I will come back for a joint research projects.”
The scientist said he was looking for Arabian partners, institutions or universities “so that we can discover these hidden gems.”
“For example, Tirofiban, a lifesaving drug used for heart patients, comes from an Arabian snake, Echis carinatus, or “efa.”
“Most of Arabia’s venomous creatures — snakes, scorpions, spiders and many marine creatures — remain unexplored by scientists. It is a huge untapped reserve that should be explored for the benefit of the Kingdom and global medicine.”
The sea anemone and venomous marine snails are also found in Saudi Arabian waters and are a source of drugs in clinical trials for autoimmune diseases.
Takacs was born and raised in Hungary, and gained his PhD in pharmacology from Columbia University, New York. He was a researcher at Yale University and Rockefeller University, then a faculty at the University of Chicago School of Medicine. He now runs a biotech lab to study the use of venoms in medical treatment, but his research often takes him out of the lab and into the wild.
Takacs said his fascination with snakes began when he was a child in Hungary. “I loved the mystery and the beauty of nature and I love animals. “So, this is what I followed — the mystery and beauty.”
As a National Geographic adventurer, Takacs needs to pack any number of gadgets and tools on his research trips. But asked about the one thing he would never leave home without, he said: “Number one is the driving force — passion. Some people would call it craziness, but to do exploration you have to be a little bit on the edge.”
The adventurer has a long-held interest in Middle Eastern and Arabic culture. “As a child in eastern Europe, my parents would tell me and my siblings tales from the ancient Middle Eastern culture every night.
“To me, the Middle East is the definition of beauty and mystery.”
Takacs first visited the Middle East about 20 years ago, and his visit to the Kingdom has reinforced his fascination. “Everything here is magical — the nature, food, spices, the people. I love it.”


Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

Updated 11 min 17 sec ago
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Saudi women’s social enterprise protects Syrian refugees from hunger, thirst and loneliness

  • “Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield”
  • Joined in compassion for the refugees, Al-Bassam and Aburas co-founded the Jonnah store
JEDDAH: “As you return home, to your home, think of others, do not forget the people of the camps,” said Mahmoud Darwish in one of his most well-known poems, “Think of Others.” Darwish was regarded as the Palestinian national poet and lived between 1941 and 2008.
Fatimah Al-Bassam, 26 (@FatimaAlBassam) and Nouf Aburas, 28 (@Noufaburas) are two young Saudi women who were on a voluntary trip to Al-Azraq camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan when they decided to start a social business to offer a sustainable solution to help the refugees.
“The idea began in October 2017. We were in the camp on a trip organized by Takatuf volunteering group and Care International,” Al-Bassam told Arab News.
It all began with a question. “The group’s guide from the camp asked us about the most significant problem the people suffered from at the camp. The volunteers gave several answers like hunger, poverty, lack of health care, but the true answer actually was idleness,” she added.
Al-Bassam said the refugees have been living in this situation for years. Their minimum needs, such as shelter, clothes, and food are usually met by relief organizations, but they have nothing to do but wait in their caravans or tents for time to pass.
The refugees are full of energy and enthusiasm but the opportunities are not there. “During the visit, I met a lady who told me that she graduated from a sewing course and has a certificate. She wants to practice her skill but she has nothing to do,” Al-Bassam said.
“I was thinking, they have people who are good at sewing. They have sewing factories, but they do not have the opportunities to work, and that’s what they need, a sustainable solution.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas joined in compassion for the refugees and co-founded the social development enterprise Jonnah store.
In addition to her full-time job, Al-Bassam is a member of a volunteering group that organizes trips, many of which focus on the refugee crisis. Aburas already has experience in a social enterprise to support women in Saudi Arabia.
They collaborated with Care International in Jordan (@CAREJor), one of the main humanitarian agencies in the camp.
Jonnah store (@jonnahstore) creates the right conditions to motivate the Syrian refugees to play an active role in alleviating the suffering of their society members, overcoming economic, social and cultural challenges, and enabling them to meet their primary needs of security, shelter, food, health and education.
This happens by giving refugees the opportunity to practice their skills. It is a store that sells minimal wear made by people at the camp and designed by fashion designers from Saudi Arabia.
“Jonnah” in Arabic means the shield. According to Al-Bassam, their store’s name is borrowed from a Hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in which he said “Fasting is a shield,” because it shields the believer from himself, from his wrongdoings, and from behaving foolishly and impudently.
“We want the Jonnah project to be the tool by which refugees protect themselves from hunger, thirst, and loneliness through the money they are making and the community that is being built,” said Al-Bassam.
“I have a social business in Saudi Arabia. I am interested in social issues, and poverty in particular,” Aburas told Arab News.
She is the founder of Kurt (@kurtstore), a social enterprise she founded in 2013 which supports local, disadvantaged women and teaches them tailoring so they can produce abayas as a sustainable means to fight poverty.
“We did not want to go back home without doing anything. When we returned to Saudi Arabia we recognized that I had experience in a sewing and clothing business and Fatimah had experience in volunteering work and she had the contacts, so we founded Jonnah.”
Al-Bassam and Aburas went to the camp in Jordan again in December 2017 to start the business.
They started with six refugees working in the factory, and the number later increased to eight. And they are willing to increase the number of benefitting refugees as they grow their business.
It took them three months to produce the first collection. They faced some obstacles at the beginning, one being communication with the organization at the camp, which has many other priorities.
“It’s hard sometimes, because they are a relief organization. They are not business oriented, so sending and receiving emails back takes some time,” said Al-Bassam.
Moreover, achieving the desired product quality does not happen immediately. Aburas said that raising a social enterprise has the same challenges as any other enterprise: Following regulations in the country, keeping a consistent production line, and maintaining quality. All of that needs continuous effort and faces some obstacles.
“You want a bigger impact, but to make the impact you have to go through everything,” she said.
However, there is an important difference between a social business and any other business.
“You make more profit, not in order to make more money, but you make more profit to help more people so you have a bigger impact. More money is just the tool,” Aburas said.
Sometimes people do not understand the concept of how social enterprises work. They may think that the refugee or the beneficiary receives 100 percent of the money they pay, but that is not how the business works. Everything has a cost and the company needs the money to keep going and benefit more people.
Jonnah Store goods are sold through Instagram, and they also participate in exhibitions. Al-Bassam and Aburas aspire to expand their project to reach more customers. They hope to launch their website, hire more refugees, collaborate with more designers, and cooperate with more companies in Saudi Arabia and in the world.
Jonnah sells female clothing in the meantime. In addition to Jonnah’s line of designs, it has expanded its business plan; Jonnah can be the interface between the designers and the factory at the camp.
“We would tell them: You are going to produce your collection anyway. Give us a sample and the material, and we will have your collection produced in Al-Azraq camp,” Aburas said.
“What really distinguishes Jonnah is that it has occupied refugees’ time and improved their social life as well. They gather in the factory every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., learn new things and get to know their neighbors. They feel that they have a goal in their lives,” Al-Bassam said.
“I remember when we came back to the camp the second time, I found some seamstresses wearing the clothes they worked on. They actually bought them from Jonnah.”
One of the seamstresses told them: “I have never been so proud of myself as I am now.”
Another one said: “Since I was in Syria I dreamed of sewing clothes for others. Now I see people wearing the clothes I made. I feel that my dream is coming true.”
For Al-Bassam, the issue is not only about having a sustainable income, but also about their psychology, in how what they do is reflected on their self-confidence and sense of hope.
“You only need to be human to have empathy and compassion for the refugees,” she said.
“When we went to the seamstresses and tailors, we thought we were going to help them, but we found that we were the ones who drew strength and energy from them,” said Aburas.
Moreover, Jonnah received good feedback from custumers. “We had custumers who bought the clothes because they liked them, and we had those who bought from us as an act of compassion and benevolence. For example, some men would buy from us for their sisters and mothers,” she said.
Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world, said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Syria crisis has accelerated more dramatically than any crisis on earth. Syrians continue to be the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, exceeding Afghanistan and Somalia by millions of people.
More than half of the prewar population has been internally displaced or forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. That’s more than 12 million people, including some 6.3 million people who have escaped across the borders.
According to the latest factsheet published in October by the refugee agency UNHCR, the Blue Camp (Azraq) in Jordan is home to 40,712 Syrian refugees, nearly 22 percent of whom are under five years old.
Opened on April 30, 2014, the camp stretches in a 14.7 square-kilometer area; 75 km away from Saudi Arabia’s national borders, and 90 km away from Syria.
The camp is managed in co-coordination with the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate and UNHCR.
Al-Bassam said that the refugee crisis is a combination of more than one problem. People in the camps not only lack basic needs of shelter and food, they have also lost their homes and experienced horrific events.
“I believe governments are not doing enough, and we as individuals are not doing enough. We can do a lot more. I always wanted to do something for them,” she said.
“As Jonnah, we go to the camp by ourselves to receive the goods, we meet with the staff and listen to their suggestions and complaints, and we pay them by ourselves,” she added.
“We do not want it to be just a business. Direct communication makes them feel our appreciation and attention, and that in itself makes us want to keep going.”
Mahmoud Darwish ended his poem with the following line: “As you think of others far away, think of yourself, say: ‘If only I were a candle in the dark’.”