How one Filipino-Palestinian beauty queen is marking Eid

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Zahra Bianca Saldua, Miss Earth Philippines Air 2018, in Manila. (AN photo)
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Zahra Bianca Saldua, Miss Earth Philippines Air 2018, in Manila. (AN photo)
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Zahra Bianca Saldua, Miss Earth Philippines Air 2018, in Manila. (AN photo)
Updated 12 August 2019

How one Filipino-Palestinian beauty queen is marking Eid

  • Zahra Bianca Saldua, Miss Earth Philippines Air 2018, was born in Jordan to a Palestinian mother and a Filipino father
  • Saldua's Filipino-Palestinian heritage is similar to that of Gazini Christiana Jordi Ganados, this year's contestant for Miss Universe

MANILA: On the first day of Eid-Al-Adha every year, Zahra Bianca Saldua savors the best of Palestinian culture and tradition in the Philippines.

The beauty queen, who is half-Palestinian and half-Filipino, said the occasion helps her celebrate her Middle Eastern heritage.

"Eid in the Philippines isn't really celebrated unless you are living in Mindanao," Saldua, who was crowned Miss Earth Philippines Air in 2018, said in an exclusive interview with Arab News.

"But my mom cooks Palestinian dishes such as mansaf or muskhan. Then there's magloubeh, too. It's different every year."

When the twains do meet – that is her Palestinian side of the family and her relatives from the Phillippines – Saldua says Eid is like a riot.

"They really enjoy each other's company because both sides are so friendly. My mom's side is extra friendly and extra expressive, so they really share the love. And my Filipino side is not used to it, so they enjoy it more," Saldua said.

Saldua began modeling at the age of 14 and gained prominence when she beat several other contestants to win the title last year.


Her new-found celebrity status has helped Saldua draw attention to a lot of important issues in the Philippines – most importantly, clearing the misconceptions about Arabs and Islam.


"It allows people to ask me more about Arab culture because here they have a different type of stigma or an idea of what an Arab is. Being a Muslim, they also ask me about Islam. Some of them even converted because they were inspired by my words," she said.

Saldua's parents met in Kuwait. While her father hails from the Philippines, her mother is from Tulkarm, a Palestinian city in the West Bank. Together, they lived in Kuwait for a few years before moving to Jordan where Saldua was born.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Saldua family packed their bags once again to settle in the Philippines for good.

Saldua said the values instilled in her in those formative years continue to find voice even today, thanks to her mother, who urges her to rise above cultural differences.

"The values that I learned in Jordan have helped me a lot here in the Philippines because there are cultural differences here, too. My mother made sure that I did not lose that because it is a part of who I am."

"Now, I want to go back to Palestine," Saldua said, adding that part of her immediate plan is "to make sure that I go back to my homeland by next year."

"I want to build mosques in the Philippines because there are very few. The ones that are already open or functioning are not well maintained due to lack of funds."

Zahra Bianca Saldua

One way to do that, she said, is to work toward bridging the gap between Muslim and Christian communities in the Philippines.

"I want to build mosques in the Philippines because there are very few. The ones that are already open or functioning are not well maintained due to lack of funds. This brings the community together. We have a lot of events where we have Christians and Muslims ... where we feed the poor or malnourished. It's not just Muslims, but Muslims and Christians together," she said.

A short distance away in Manila, there's another half-Palestinian, half-Filipino beauty queen who is winning the heart of the nation one pageant at a time.

Born in Dapitan City, in the Philippines’ Zamboanga del Norte province, 24-year-old Gazini Christiana Jordi Ganados is the Philippines’ contestant for Miss Universe this year. (Arab News profiled. her last week.)

Unlike Saldua, who was born to a Palestinian mother, it's Ganados’ father who is from Palestine.

And while they both share a half-Arab heritage, there's another thing that is common to Saldua and Ganados: their love for Palestine and a longing to visit the country some day.

"I have always felt connected to Palestine. ... It seems this is not my only home in Philippines. There is a part of me that is really pushing me to go back to Palestine. I think it is a love that I have not known yet. Insha'Allah, I will get to have that opportunity soon," she said.

For Ganados, the reason is a bit more personal than Saldua. In a bid to learn more about her father, whom she's never met but shares a name with, Ganados said visiting Palestine could probably help her understand that part of her culture better.

"I’ve heard a lot of good stories about the Middle East: They have a lot of good food. I’ve researched about Palestine on Google. There’s a lot of architecture which is beautiful. I love exploring new cultures and I’m hoping that, maybe some day, I’ll visit,” she said.

It's a sentiment echoed by Saldua, who had these parting words for Ganados: "Good luck to my fellow half-Filipina and half-Palestinian sister. I hope we can bond and learn more about our Palestinian heritage together. But for now, go get the crown!"

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

Updated 19 August 2019

Two engineers help fight Lebanese farming foe

  • Early-warning system lets farmers know when to protect their crops from fruit flies
  • Mobile app tells them the best time to spray pesticides to halt their advance

DUBAI: An award-winning startup led by two female Lebanese engineers has created an automated early-warning system that allows Middle East farmers to protect their crops against the Mediterranean fruit fly, one of the world’s most destructive pests.

Fruit flies can devastate entire harvests and have infested over 300 types of vegetables, fruits and nuts globally, causing financial ruin to countless farmers in the Arab world.

However, an ingenious system designed by Nisrine El Turky, a computer engineer and university professor, and Christina Chaccour, an electrical engineer, will tell farmers via text messages and mobile app of the best time to spray pesticides to halt the pests’ advance.

“Many Lebanese farmers weren’t able to export apples because the quality of their produce wasn’t good enough,” said El Turky, co-founder of IO Tree.

“So many I met were desperate to sell a crate of apples for $2 (SR7.50), which is nothing. I wanted to help the sector by better integrating technology.”

Farmers were found spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies. (Shutterstock)

She began by investigating the difficulties that farmers faced, attending workshops and seminars, and visiting farms. She found the main problem was that farmers were spraying too much pesticide to try to kill fruit flies.

“I found a way that could reduce the use of pesticides and increase production.”

El Turky began working on the IO Tree concept in February 2018 and swiftly built a working prototype, which she showed to Chaccour, who promptly joined the company as a co-founder.

IO Tree’s technology is being tested on farms in Lebanon and the Netherlands. There are two prototype machines — one for indoor use and another for outdoor. The machines can be placed in an orchard, field or greenhouse.

“We need to ensure that the prototype functions in all conditions. Outdoors, there is sun, dust, rain and other weather factors that could disrupt its operation,” said El Turky, who still works up to 10 hours a week as a lecturer at Lebanon’s Notre Dame University.

Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machine’s sensors monitor indicators such as temperature and moisture, as well as studying plant stress.

The system can detect and identify pests, providing data on the likely scale of an imminent pest invasion and the best action the farmer should take to combat it. Information is conveyed to the farmer via IO Tree’s app.

“If you’re using pesticides, our app will tell you the best pesticide to use to tackle that problem, the quantity you need and when to spray.”

IO Tree’s sensors use machine learning to measure plant stress. (Supplied photo)

EL Turky said her technology had shown over 90 percent accuracy in identifying medflies.

“Machine learning means that every day the system becomes more accurate,” she said.

“We’re also working on identifying other pests, but medfly is our main target. Once medflies arrive at a farm, they will eat everything.”

IO Tree will enable farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing environmental damage, while produce will be in better condition and can command a higher sales price.

“By using fewer pesticides, farmers will be better able to preserve biodiversity: Spraying kills a lot more insects than just pests,” she said. IO Tree has initially targeted all types of fruit trees, plus tomatoes and cucumbers, and the product will be launched commercially in September.

“We’re aiming at farmers directly,” said El Turky.

IO Tree’s services will be sold via subscription. After a farmer signs up for one year initially, the company will install its machines at the farm. The number of machines required per acre depends on crop type, crop yield, land topography and other factors.

The company’s initial target market is the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, though it also plans to expand to Europe and eventually worldwide.

The product’s potential has helped IO Tree win a string of startup competitions. It was selected to represent Lebanon GSVC 2019 (Global Social Venture Competition) at the University of California, Berkeley.

IO Tree also joined Lebanon’s Agrytech accelerator, which provided $44,000 in funding, and schooled the fledgling entrepreneurs in how to create and manage a startup.


• The Middle East Exchange is one of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Global Initiatives that was launched to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai in the field of humanitarian and global development, to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. The initiative offers the press a series of articles on issues affecting Arab societies.