Omar Samra talks about his plans for the future, going to space, skiing through the two poles and the greatest loss of his life
By Nadine El Sayed
This wasn’t our first interview with adventurer, motivational speaker, philanthropist and mountaineer Omar Samra. But Samra was different this time. He was a father, he was quieter and grieving a great loss; but mostly, he seemed more resilient and determined to keep moving forward than any of the times we met him.
Samra lost his wife of two years and the mother of his newborn daughter this past summer, and so we weren’t sure if he would be able to go through with the interview only a few months later. But in classic Samra fashion, he was punctual, professional, full of hopes and goals, and had already managed to channel his suffering into something positive and inspiring. He has selected for the final round of the Axe Apollo Space Contest in Orlando and is planning to ski across the North and South Poles for the Adventure Grand Slam after having climbed the seven summits. But the project closest to Samra’s heart and the one that has been taking up the lion’s share of his time lately is an initiative he launched in memory of his late wife, Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run.
Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run
Twenty years ago, Samra was a bony kid with severe asthma and you wouldn’t exactly peg him as the fit type, let alone adventure traveler. He went into investment banking and was destined to go places in the corporate world. Now, 10 years after he made a decision that changed his life, became the first Egyptian and youngest Arab to have climbed Mount Everest and the seven summits of the world, he has since set up his own adventure traveling company and oversees The Right to Climb initiative for children with special needs.
It isn’t new for Samra to turn a bump in the road into a success. He challenged his asthma and became a mountaineer then proceeded to take people from around the world on adventure travels. He saw his sisters suffering mental disabilities and dedicated his philanthropy toward special needs. But this time, it was more than a bump in the road: Samra had lost his life partner and mother of his daughter on the day his daughter was born. Three months later, Samra was working 10 hours a day on the Marwa Fayed Toy Run.
“The Toy Run is something [Fayed] started in 2010 […] and the idea was to collect new, used and unwanted toys to give to orphans,” he recounts. “She worked on that for over a year and then we met, got married and moved to Dubai so it sort of stopped.”
So when Fayed passed away, Samra decided to revive the Toy Run in her memory and started working on it the first day of Ramadan.
The initiative has grown massively with chapters in Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and London, and it has collected over 5,000 toys from countries across the world. “We have people collecting toys for us in Copenhagen and Amsterdam,” says Samra. “In terms of how far it spread, it is mind-blowing and we started off working with orphanages but realized we can expand our reach. So now we’re giving to children’s hospitals, displaced communities like refugees, street children and even the Dubai Jail.” Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run has also collected over 25,000 Emirati dirham (LE 46,900) in collaboration with Virgin Mega Stores to buy toys for underprivileged children.
The initiative is in the process of becoming a registered charity aiming to be the go-to place for toy donation. They have drop-off locations across Cairo and recruit volunteers to help sort and wrap the toys according to age, sex and needs. They are already being approached by other NGOs working in Upper Egypt to collect toys for children, but they’re hoping to expand beyond that.
Next they will branch out into schools to raise awareness and teach children about the joys of giving through something they can relate to. “When you try to relay the concept of giving money to kids they don’t get it because money doesn’t mean anything to them,” explains Samra. “So the idea is for parents to sit with the kids when they’re old enough and explain to them why they’re giving away these toys.”
Hence the branding of the Toy Run as a “bus stop” where toys get to go on a new journey to meet new friends. They’re trying to relay the idea to kids that “toys have feelings and get bored and upset when they’re left to collect dust and so when you donate them they go on a new journey and meet new friends.”
The Adventure Grand Slam
We watched as Samra raised an Egyptian flag on Everest, as he sent messages to Tahrir from mountaintops and as he supported the Tamarod initiative from the top of Mount Denali in Alaska. In just six years he achieved his goal of climbing all seven summits, the last of which was in 2013. But he wanted more.
The Adventure Grand Slam is the cherry on top of the seven summits: skiing across the North and the South poles. It involves lugging a 100-kilogram sled and swimming in ice-cold waters when the need arises. There are risks of frostbite, losing a massive amount of weight as the body burns a lot of calories to stay warm and possibly facing polar bears on his own.
“Everest has been climbed by 3,500 people in history, the seven summits by 350 people and the Grand Slam [completed] by 38,” says Samra. “So this is the trend for me; to equip myself to do things that fewer people have done with the ambition of a first; doing something that nobody has done before.
“Antarctica is the highest continent on earth, the average altitude is between 3,000 and 4,000 meters,” he continues. “The entire continent is on a high altitude so there’s a lot less oxygen and it’s much colder.”
This requires a high level of physical fitness to be able to drag the sled that carries his food and supplies for 10 to 12 hours a day each day throughout the weeks spent skiing across the country. He trains for 90 minutes a day on High Intensity Interval Training to keep his heart rate up and stay in the fittest shape possible.
The adventure of the South Pole takes from two to six weeks, depending on the route chosen. The North Pole is flat but dangerous as it’s a frozen ocean. With global warming, there are more and more gaps where the ice has melted. “So you put on a double wetsuit and jump in the freezing cold water to swim to the other side where you take your sled out and continue skiing.”
Although Samra was an experienced climber when he took on the Everest challenge, he is treading new waters as he has yet to learn how to ski.
“It’s like going into a new field and trying to do one of the hardest things in that field,” he explains. “Of course a lot of skills are transferable, but I am not a polar traveling expert.”
To prepare, Samra will train in the desert where he can drag tires across sand dunes to simulate the sled. He will then travel to northern Norway to experience polar conditions and learn how to survive on ice in different scenarios. But his biggest challenge is getting the funding. “Funding has always been one of our biggest challenges,” says Samra. If the adventurer can raise enough, he is planning to ski through the North Pole in April 2014 and the South Pole in December 2014.
The Space Competition
When Virgin announced their plan to launch the first commercial spacecraft, Samra’s hopes to travel in space soared — only to crash back down when they announced it would cost $200,000 (LE 1.4 million). So when he heard that the AXE Apollo Space Academy was launching a competition that would allow 13 winners to travel to space, he immediately applied.
“It’s an opportunity to embark on a journey and see things that very few people get to see, like the chance to look out of the window and see Earth; it’s pretty damn cool,” says Samra.
For the first stage of the competition he had to get the highest votes and was one of three Egyptians, including globetrotter Ahmed Haggagovic and lawyer Ahmed Khaled Saeed, invited to Orlando for the final round this month. The last stage, starting December 2, consists of a series of mental and physical tests to ensure the 13 chosen are fit to travel and will make the best use of their journey. Samra is competing alongside 111 other competitors who have qualified for the final round, and he hopes that his physical fitness and mental strength and endurance will help him compete successfully. “The more [the challenges simulate] what real astronauts on Apollo missions have to go through, the more that is going to play in my favor,” says Samra. “That’s because all I have been doing for the last 15 to 20 years is going on expeditions in very hostile environments where you need a lot of patience, mental toughness and a huge amount of perseverance to deal with a lot of discomforts and handle your fears.”
If he passes the final round and makes it to space, Samra plans to tour Egypt to share his experience. “This is a privilege given to someone so that person [needs to] relay that journey and share that experience with as many people as possible,” he says. “If I do go to space I would tour universities and schools and other places around the country to spread awareness of the notion of having dreams and doing things that are larger than yourself.”
When asked how he is managing to prepare and achieve all of this in one of the most difficult periods of his life, Samra says quietly, “It’s not easy, the last three months are the hardest I have ever been through.”
But Samra believes he wouldn’t have been able to get back to his work and his charities if he wasn’t doing things he feels very strongly about and that are of service to others. “I have this huge grief and I am dealing with a lot of stuff, but at the same time I am able to operate as well, and this can only happen if I am doing [things] that I really believe in.
“In life we find ourselves in situations where we are lost, don’t know what to do or what the right step is. To me, the worst thing is to do nothing. You just have to keep moving forward, and if you can’t see too far ahead into the future or don’t have the vision to do it then you make very small, incremental steps until you’re ready to make bigger ones,” he concludes. “I continue to move forward, even if not in big strides, but very small steps.” et
For more on Marwa Fayed’s Toy Run or to check the nearest drop-off location, visit their Facebook group at: www.Facebook.com/groups/MarwaFayedsToyRun