She grew up appreciating her diverse heritage. Now she encourages others to do the same.

Maha AJ grew up proud of her Sudanese-Iraqi heritage. Her parents made sure of it.

From the time she was little, Maha Jaafar's (or Maha AJ as she’s known to her fans) family constantly wove her mixed cultural identity into her life. Her dad would show her maps of Sudan and teach her about her culture’s history and traditions, while her mom would show her how to make both Iraqi and Sudanese dishes.

"Mom always encouraged us to be proud of our Sudanese heritage without losing our Iraqi identity," she says in a YouTube video. “I never felt that I was lost between cultures. Instead, I always knew I belonged to both, but each in a different way.”


Photo via YouTube Creators for Change/YouTube

Growing up in the United Arab Emirates, Maha was exposed to many different cultures, which also helped mold her appreciation of diversity. “Living here, you have all types of nationalities all around you,” she says. “It’s very multicultural and there are people from all different countries, and everyone still holds onto their identity, so you can understand their culture.”

However, stereotypes and prejudices still persist there. Maha is on a mission to change that.

Despite growing up in a diverse country, she often felt judged by classmates who didn’t understand her mixed heritage. The question, “where are you from?” began to feel aggressive and limiting, because she felt people were trying to box her into a cultural stereotype.

So Maha set out to break through the misconceptions about her unique background by making videos that celebrate it.

YouTube Creators for Change/YouTube

She's is using her art and her platform to help "bridge the gap" between the cultures in her community. "Our diversity is what makes us richer, stronger, and more beautiful," she says, "and the world needs to see all that beauty."

It's also why Maha is one of YouTube's 47 Creators for Change Ambassadors— an initiative for YouTubers hoping to inspire awareness and empathy for diverse communities.

Launched in 2016, the YouTube Creators for Change program encourages and highlights creators who are tackling the social issues that impact them and their communities. The global initiative names Ambassadors from around the world who use their channels to promote inclusivity and diversity and drive social change. Each Ambassador receives grant money to put toward "social impact project" videos and to aid them in adding their voices to important initiatives and events around the globe.

Ambassadors also pay it forward by mentoring Fellows — up-and-coming creators who work with Ambassadors to help create a dialogue around social issues in their communities.

Maha's YouTube debut two years ago put her on Creators for Change's radar. Today, the 25-year-old dentist spends half her time fixing people’s teeth and half her time pursuing her passion for creating impactful videos.

Becoming a Creators for Change Ambassador has already had a big impact on Maha.

Thanks to the program, she's gotten to meet other YouTube creators who've inspired her, and has even become close friends with many of them.

“This has been one of the best experiences in my life,” she says, “because it’s made me feel ever supported and appreciated. It made me have a platform to reach more people and inspire more people, and it gave me a lot of motivation for myself to go forward with what I want.”

Maha says she wants to use her channel to share the positive things about her cultural heritage and to correct misconceptions and stereotypes, especially about Sudan. She also wants her videos to connect people and promote our shared humanity.

“My ultimate goal," she says,"is to make people understand that we’re all one, and there’s no need for hating on each other or not understanding each other, because at the end of the day we’re all humans.”

These global Ambassadors, like Maha, reach millions of people. Their messages have the potential to change the world.

As Maha says, anyone with a cell phone and/or internet can make connections with people and develop a platform for positive change.

As more and more young people find not just entertainment but heroes and idols in the YouTube space, it's heartening to know that there are awesome, real individuals doing conscious work to bring people together and promoting ideas and actions that will lead humanity to a better future for all.

More
True
YouTube Creators for Change

Comedy legend Carol Burnett once said, "Giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head." She wasn't joking.

Going through childbirth is widely acknowledged as one of the most grueling things a human can endure. Having birthed three babies myself, I can attest that Burnett's description is fairly accurate—if that seemingly impossible lip-stretching feat lasted for hours and involved a much more sensitive part of your body.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
via SNL / YouTube

Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors of his generation. He's been nominated for an Academy Award twice for best supporting actor, winning once for 1978's "The Deer Hunter" and receiving a nomination for 2002's "Catch Me if You Can."

He's played memorable roles in "Annie Hall," "Pulp Fiction," "Wedding Crashers," "Batman Returns," and countless other films. He's also starred in Shakespeare on the stage and began his career as a dancer.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

popular

Gerrymandering is a funny word, isn't it? Did you know that it's actually a mashup of the name "Gerry" and the word "salamander"? Apparently, in 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry had a new voting district drawn that seemed to favor his party. On a map, the district looked like a salamander, and a Boston paper published it with the title The GerryMander.

That tidbit of absurdity seems rather tame compared to an entire alphabet made from redrawn voting districts a century later, and yet here we are. God bless America.

Keep Reading Show less
popular