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Published: Sunday, April 30, 2017   English | العربية  



By Sana Panjwani

OL meets Mona Abusalim, a woman on a mission to support the Arab community with her free online counselling platform Hellooha

When it comes to publicly discussing interpersonal issues in Arab society, many topics, like those of a domestic nature, are considered taboo – with women and men often fearing societal backlash if they ever openly voice their concerns.

It was the lack of a secure, relaxed area to discuss these issues that pushed one Palestinian entrepreneur, Mona Yahya Abusalim, to launch Hellooha – a free online Arabic website set up to provide the everyday person with a platform to express their problems and share experiences. “Hellooha means solution in Arabic,” explained Abusalim. “It's an interactive platform consisting of a multitude of sections covering social, personal, psychological, medical, and marital topics, that any Arab faces regardless of their religion, ethnicity or personal politics.

“Users remain anonymous in fact, which helps create a safe space for them to comfortably express their problems without fear of any judgement or exposure,” added Abusalim.

ANONYMITY AND AUTHENTICITY

Hellooha offers free online professional counselling to its audience and guarantees complete anonymity.

Those seeking advice simply share their story and if it matches the site’s criteria, the article is then titled, categorised and published with no cuts, said Dubai-based Abusalim. She explained that the unedited versions reflect more emotion, truth and transparency.

The story, whether it be on domestic issues, educational, personal appearance, or even something as simple as dream interpretations, then usually receives countless comments – moderated to keep out negative or harsh remarks – from other users who share their thoughts and advice.

The site sees close to 150 questions being submitted daily to a team of sixteen experts in varied fields such as leadership, life skills, nutrition and legal. They assess the situation and respond accordingly for free.

Popular demand has also brought the option of one-onone counselling sessions with any of the experts. These are paid sessions but allow any user to engage in a video, audio or text chat with a counsellor of their choosing.

“GENERALLY, ARABIC SITES ATTRACT A 70/30 AUDIENCE OF FEMALE/ MALE, HOWEVER WE WERE SURPRISED TO FIND THAT WE HAD A SPLIT 50 PER CENT AUDIENCE”

They also host two to three live sessions every week on their Facebook page with select counsellors to answer live questions posted by users.

“Generally, Arabic sites attract a 70/30 audience of female/male, however we were surprised to find that we had a split 50 per cent audience,” said Abusalim. “Reading the stories of so many males with their own deeply personal issues made me more compassionate towards Arab men. We forget that our culture shuns emotional talk, especially from men who are often mocked as being ladylike if they ever truly express their emotions.

“The presence of such a platform is severely needed then to provide support, and I’m glad that the Internet can help us get as wide a reach as possible,” she added.

THE STORY BEHIND THE CAUSE

The drive behind setting up such a support community is simply the fact that Abusalim has always been interested in helping in any way she can. “Humans are the most important in this world,” she said, “so the question for me isn't why help, it's why not?”

She had the idea of launching this platform back in 2008 during her pursuit of a Masters of Communication but decided to put the idea on the back-burner as she juggled her family and work as a professional media trainer. Fast forward to 2014 and Abusalim was surprised to find that no one had yet established an exclusive platform catering to the mental and physical health needs of the Arab community.

“There are already several platforms out there which cater to the wider public, but nothing that is Arabic at the core, until Hellooha,” she said. She reached out to her media contacts throughout the Arab world and began collecting stories about problems of the everyday person on the street. She then brought together a panel of relevant experts, including those versed in gender studies, to come and discuss the day-to-day struggles faced by the large local population.

400 collected stories and solutions later, Abusalim launched Hellooha in October 2015. Since then, it has had over 100 million visits, hosted over 54 million sessions and sees around 13.5 million users. The site also boasts an impressive following of 1.1 million on Facebook, all accumulated over the span of a little over a year.

AWARDS AND FUTURE PLANS Along with looking to add English and French sections to the website, Hellooha was also recently nominated for the 2017 Business Facebook Award – used to recognise some of the best creative work on Facebook, Instagram and Audience Network, based on how the content makes people feel.

“Ultimately though, it's about highlighting humanity. I want to foster important social discussions amongst the Arab community and normalise open talk on such issues before moving on to empower people worldwide. “And most importantly, I want people to feel safe, it’s key, and have them know that there are people in similar situations out there, that they are not alone, and that we are here to help,” she said.
 
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