The story of Hoda Elwalili

Author: Latifa Daud


Hoda Elwalili, with her commitment to childhood education, has made her mark in the East Auckland Muslim community. Founder of Marhaba Learning Centre, Hoda’s vision was to create a fun and welcoming space for young Muslims to learn about their faith and become proud Kiwi Muslims. This is her story.
Architect, mother, grandmother, and educator, Hoda Elwalili has space in her heart for the entire world. Hoda was born into a family of one brother and six sisters in Cairo, Egypt. “My father was a teacher, and he was wishing one of his daughters would become a teacher, which didn’t happen at that time”. After completing her studies, she moved to Dubai to be with her family, where she married and had three children. Hoda’s youngest daughter was born with Down Syndrome. While this was initially a shock, this experience would pave the road for Hoda’s calling as an educator.
Hoda with her daughter Walla
Pic: Hoda with her daughter Walla
Hoda decided to leave her job to focus on caring for her daughter, concentrating on learning about Down Syndrome, and the impact it has on learning and development. Education was at the forefront of her mind, so she was particularly interested in understanding alternative ways of teaching. “I came to the conclusion that learning will come with play and fun. It’s not a waste of time”. Hoda’s dream was to start a support group for families that had children with disabilities in Dubai. Unfortunately, stigma around disability made it hard to connect with families, but the dream lived on.  
In early 1997, Hoda’s eldest daughter was finishing high school and considering her options for university study. Because of the competition for spaces in tertiary institutions in Dubai, she had wanted to study in a Western country. The family uprooted themselves and moved to New Zealand, with no decision made at that stage to settle here permanently. Hoda’s daughter joined medical school at the University of Auckland, and the family fell in love with New Zealand. “We love New Zealand. We love the quietness, and it is nice and clean … Everything in New Zealand is nice. Very lovely people”.
Upon arriving in New Zealand, Hoda found she had plenty of time for herself. True to her passion, she began volunteering at a special needs school, where she stayed for five years. With her experience and heart to help others, her dream of working with families with children with disabilities was always front of mind. “I had the dream to help people with disabilities. I have the love, ambition and passion to help these people”. During this time, the Muslim community of Pakuranga, who had been using a warehouse up until this point, were fundraising for a purpose-built mosque. Hoda ran holiday programmes for the children of her community to make arts and crafts to fundraise for their new mosque. 
Marhaba learning group
Pic: Marhaba learning group
It was then that she discovered that Islamic education in New Zealand was very formal. “It was hard for the kids and hard for the parents to go to learn, but it is very important to know their Deen, or religion … There was a need to educate these kids with a different way”. Hoda’s experience in educating her daughter gave her the experience, knowledge and empathy needed to fill this gap within the Auckland Muslim community at that time.
Her experience at the mosque made her think about where she can refocus her energy to help children grow and learn. She shifted her focus from working with children with special needs, to working in the Muslim community with the same ethos of ‘learning through playing’. Hoda approached families to ask if they felt there was a need for an Islamic play centre in the community, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. With Arabic being her mother tongue, she was well placed to establish such a place, where children can learn Quran and their faith in a relaxed and informal environment.
Hoda teaching
Pic: Hoda teaching at Marhaba Learning Centre
In 2005, Hoda established Marhaba Learning Centre, starting at three hours a week with 10 children from four different ethnic groups. Marhaba means welcome in Arabic, and this is the very environment Hoda and her volunteers created in their centre. “You won’t believe how effective it is when you use different techniques and ways of teaching”. For example, to learn about a Surah, or chapter from the Quran, the student can either learn through the traditional method of reciting and repeating after the teacher, or they can learn through a colouring page which depicts the meaning of that specific chapter.  
In 2008, Marhaba Learning Centre became fully registered with the Ministry of Education, which means they follow the New Zealand curriculum for early childhood education. Today in 2020, Marhaba has developed a great reputation, with migrants to Auckland even wanting to live in Pakuranga to be close to the centre. There are currently 35 children on board, and an ever-increasing waitlist. With the help of the Ministry of Education providing free training and workshops, and Anchorage Park Community Centre charging low rates, Hoda and her team have been able to sustain their learning centre with limited resources. 
In the 15 years that Marhaba has been in operation, they have had students from 25 different ethnic groups. They are taught to apply their best behaviour in every situation based on the example of Prophet Mohammed, such as being nice to your parents, neighbours, and the environment. “When they behave well, it will come back to New Zealand society. They will be good citizens.” The students love Marhaba so much, some of them have even returned later in life as volunteers. The centre is fully run by volunteers who have the same vision of developing strong and confident New Zealand Muslim citizens.  
Marhaba's Annual Graduation Party
Pic: Marhaba's Annual Graduation Party
In reflection, Hoda says her path led her closer to God. “We came to this dunya (world) to help each other ... Whatever He gives me, I do it for His sake … this makes me happy and satisfied”. Her only wish is that she started Marhaba sooner. Therein lies her advice to the next generation. Based on the hadith or saying of Prophet Mohammed – “Take benefit of five before five. Your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your free time before you are preoccupied, and your life before your death”.