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The School in the Middle of Nowhere


Qatari royalty visit a Catholic run school in the Islamic south

The children had almost no time to prepare.

Flying south on a UN plane out of Khartoum you pass over an hour or so of a featureless flat desert terrain which you would have thought would present a massive challenge for any human habitation at all, let alone a large sprawling academic campus. Yet here we were at a school run by three Catholic priests, a group of very dedicated nuns, teaching predominately Moslem pupils. Not only located in one of the poorest and harshest regions on the planet, but this place also stood as a bastion of religious tolerance in a broken country riven by endless civil war.

Arriving in a dusty cloud of armoured vehicles, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.  Wife of the head of the ruling family of Qatar, renowned for her philanthropic work, HH Sheikha through her charitable foundation has personally raised astonishing sums aimed at increasing possibilities for young Moslem girls in some of the most deprived and challenging parts of the world.

To welcome the VIPs, Qatari flags and T-shirts of Her Highness’s personal charity were hastily distributed for the lines of children and then followed a brief performance by the school choir in the punishing heat, finally topped off by a rambling speech from a government official over the squeaking Tannoy.

A tour of the school buildings began, with the royal party's very nervous personal photographer clearly less than delighted to see me. He hissed breathless instructions not to photograph Her Highness. My lens was to concentrate solely on the pupils.  As the party moved on, HH Sheikha's niece, Harvard student and a UN Youth Ambassador who as a teenager had addressed the UN assembly in New York, sat quietly out of the limelight reading in fluent Arabic to the delight of the local children under the shade of an awning.  It felt like a throwback to my life as a press photographer on The Times covering many of those glamorous royal tours with the Princess of Wales of the past, complete even with the same nervous security and those inevitable fawning officials all falling over themselves and conspiring to get in the way of a picture.

I was here of course for these children, whose beautiful trusting faces defied the barren desert world in which, somehow, against all the stacked odds of poverty, deprivation, religious intolerance and war, they were clearly thriving.