Lilianne 'Layla' Donders

Lilianne was born on 22 July 1954 in Utrecht, the Netherlands. She was baptized Elizabeth Anna Donders as the name “Lilianne” had not yet found itself into the list of permitted Dutch names at the time. This early act of non-conformance was a clear portent of a most unusual life. Following her secondary schooling Lilianne trained to be a Registered Nurse and from 1976 onwards, for a number of years, earned her living caring for patients in various hospitals. In the evening hours she studied to become a fashion designer. She graduated as a Fashion Design Instructor in 1979. In the remaining hours of the day she had found the time to marry Robert and to produce her first-born son Jasper.

In 1980 Lilianne followed her husband, who was working for Shell, to the Sultanate of Oman. Upon arrival, only 10 minutes after having set her first footstep on Arabian soil, she was greeted by a, otherwise very grumpy, customs official with the words: “Welcome home! Your stay in Oman will be most remarkable indeed”. Never were truer words spoken. Those first footsteps on Middle Eastern soil were the start of a journey which by now covers 30 years, many Middle Eastern countries, and thousands of miles traveling on foot through some of the remotest parts of Arabia.

Lilianne lived for eight years in Oman and formed some of the most intense friendships with the Omani people, not in the least because of her adoption by the al Jenaibah tribe living in the interior of the Sultanate. In 1988 she moved to Syria and lived for a total of 7 years in that magical country; from 1988 to 1990 and once again from 1997 to 2000. In 2000 she moved once more. This time by foot, to Iran, where she lived for 4 years. In 2004 she walked once again, to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Finally, in June 2010, she moved a final time, back to her beloved Oman where she and her husband decided to retire.

From the first encounter with the Bedouin of Oman, Lilianne had an extra-ordinary bond with them. It was indeed a kind of home-coming and instant mutual attraction. Fascinated by their nomadic life style Lilianne became intrigued by their means of transport: the camel. A long-held wish to walk along the camel caravan routes of yore became reality in 1997 when, following a second posting to Syria, the means of transport were purchased: two mother and daughter pairs, Zenobia and Zahra, and Zubeida and Sheba. While it was originally the intention to use them to walk along the silk roads' tracks in Syria this soon became a somewhat larger enterprise.

While preparing for the first camel caravan Lilianne was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her radiation and chemo-therapy her husband was told that they would have to move to their next posting: Tehran. Rather than call the whole thing off, Lilianne decided on the spot to extend her walk starting in Damascus all the way to Tehran; the idea for the ‘Caravan for Cancer’ was born. The walk would be sponsored and the proceeds would go to establishing a clinic for the Bedouin women living in the desert around Palmyra (Tadmor) in Syria.

When the next move came up, this time from Tehran to Dubai, the itch to walk arose once more. This time the walk would go from Tehran to Muscat in Oman, and back again to Dubai. This voyage became the “Caravan of Hope” with sponsorship proceeds being dedicated to building a mother and child clinic for Palestinian refugees.

Once established in Dubai, a few years of relative stability were used to find her camels "a husband". With the exception of Zenobia, who at the age of 23 was deemed to old, each of her ladies spent some time at the stud farm of the late Sheikh Zayed al Nahyan. And each time, 13 months later, a new calf was born: Ghazal in 2007, Shaheen in 2008 and Najmah in 2009. Finally, in 2010, Lilianne was honoured by being given a Majaheem calf, Suleimah, a black beauty, daughter of a mother who, herself, was a champion at various camel beauty contest in the Middle East.

Throughout her 30 year involvement with the Middle East, Oman in particular, Lilianne put a lot of effort in supporting Bedouine ladies making traditional handicrafts. A skill that, due to changes in life-style, was threatened to die out. Through her involvement in camel breeding Lilianne has also made many friends in the close-knit community of camel farmers, traditionally an all-male society.


website by Jasper Weener
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