Sport and education: Yasmin Helal’s tools for changing Egypt

By Brian Canever September 19, 2014

The pain was excruciating.

It was the finals of the Egyptian under-18 national basketball championships and Gezira SC needed its star post player, Yasmin Helal, to step up. So, after placing a small cast over her badly-broken finger and tying it with bandages, she walked onto the court.

An hour later, the team celebrated its first-ever gold medal in women’s competition, one of almost 50 titles that Helal has collected throughout her basketball career for club and country.

“My finger hasn’t healed until now,” says Helal, “but I’ve never regretted my decision.”

It is the willingness to fight for those around her that pushed Helal to walk away from a successful career as an engineer at one of Egypt’s largest telecommunications companies to start the Educate-Me Foundation, a non-profit group that provides self-directed learning programs for a number of the country’s underprivileged children.

The foundation, which launched in 2010, originated as a fundraising effort to help grade-school dropouts re-enroll in school.

“The work seemed pretty simple, yet it taught me more about myself than my whole 12 years of schooling,” says Helal. “Seeing the smiles on those kids’ and parents’ faces, not just because they were going to school, but also because they felt loved and cared about by some people was priceless.”

Helal started Educate-Me with the intention of balancing her work there with her position at Alcatel-Lucent and playing career for Gezira and the Egyptian national team. After two years, however, she committed full time to the foundation.

It was not easy for her to abandon a career she had strived so hard for in order to work in the non-profit world.

“I was an engineer with a high-paid job and a professional basketball player, which are two dreams most people spend decades to accomplish,” says Helal.

“But, while at my office, I asked myself what I would want to be doing if this was the last day of my life. And as much as I loved the company and my team, I felt that I’d rather be out there doing something for people I can see and feel, and certainly for those who need it most.”

It was a philosophy that Helal developed during an adventurous spell that saw her backpack through North India and visit places as far apart as Paris and Boston – two of her favorite cities.

During this period of her life, Helal blogged about her experiences and time developing Educate-Me. Despite the initial instability, she has watched the company grow to provide more than 700 educational scholarships and serve 150 children regularly through different school programs. Current students are pushed toward developing critical thinking, creativity and empathy through disciplines as wide-ranging as math, language and judo.

Her mother, who was slightly skeptical at first, assists with social media and fundraising for Educate-Me, while her brother, Aly, manages the human resources department.

“In our modern life, we are so caught up doing things without really asking ourselves why,” says Helal. “I hope that everyone, young and old, would allow themselves to define their own purpose and figure out what success really means to them.”

For Helal, that has meant making a paradigm shift. And just as triumph followed her on the basketball court, it appears certain to do the same on her current journey, regardless of the obstacles in her way.