Do-gooders in Dubai
Tracking everyday folks around town who volunteer their time and resources for nothing more than the love of humanity
People have wonderful stories. Not as in tales, but in terms of life experiences. While there are many notable folks making a difference (and more power to them), it's heartening to come across the ones who work without the accolades too - the regular Joes and Janes, who you'd never guess are doing things alongside their day jobs to light up some part of the world. With Ramadan right around the corner and the country's collective consciousness also gearing up towards a more charitable mood, we profile some of the city's good Samaritans, who reflect on how they got involved in changing the world, where those experiences have taken them - from the highest mountains in the world to remote rural areas - and the invaluable insights they gained in the process.
Dr Samara Khatib
Not everyone knows what they want to be when they grow up - not with the kind of certainty Syrian-born Samara Khatib had when she was 10 years old. It took a favourite neighbour breaking her hip for the youngster to realise that she wanted to dedicate her life - and career - to the medical field. That was over three decades ago, and while it took her a while to get to medical school - she was almost 30 by that time - she is, today, Dr Samara Khatib, an internal medicine consultant for a private hospital in Dubai.
It hasn't been enough to sate her desire to be a humanitarian though. Which is why the now-43-year-old, who grew up in the US, takes on multiple opportunities to volunteer her services to non-profit organisations and other causes. From being a part-time rape crisis and domestic violence counsellor during her student days, to heading off to Greece on her own steam a few years ago to help fleeing Syrian refugees, and helping keep an orphanage in Turkey open last year, Samara believes volunteering an obligation for all.
Her outlook is simple. "If you can, why wouldn't you?" Experience has taught her there is much to gain from taking time to make a difference. For one, she says, it's incredibly rewarding. "When you do things for free - especially for people who cannot repay you - it's far more fulfilling. But it also helps put life into perspective. You realise the humanity of people - how we all have the same pain, needs, goals - and it changes you, because you then start asking why people who have so little can smile, while people who have everything do not."
While she's had some difficult experiences, including dealing with rape victims as young as 13, Samara believes the most emotionally taxing one may have been when she went to help out during the Syrian refugee crisis in 2016. "I still remember the first time I saw a boat come in," she recalls. "Seeing people make such risky journeys was emotionally difficult." Perhaps, more difficult was when she helped one such refugee off a boat, only to find out he was her grandfather's neighbour in Aleppo. "It brought me to tears, knowing my granddad had chosen not to flee at the time," she remembers.
But together with other volunteers, she spent the next 10 days working to get the asylum-seekers warm clothes and medical assistance, using her Arabic-speaking skills to translate where required, and organising their transport to alternate locations. Today, she remembers with deep admiration the "incredibly humble people" they met during those days, including one elderly gentleman, who "clearly had a medical condition" but insisted that the women and children be attended to first.
Despite being exposed to a lot of suffering and negativity, Samara has learnt to develop a coping mechanism that allows her to continue giving back without getting caught up in despair herself. "You learn to bring whatever joy you can to a hopeless situation, without internalising it - else, it can really weigh you down," shares the petite doc who hopes to open her own orphanage some day.
The Dubai expat encourages people to travel and "see the other side" if they can - because it enables one to understand things in a way that reading books or consuming media on the subject cannot. And if you cannot travel, she suggests families take a day out of the week to make themselves a "little uncomfortable" - even if it means taking the stairs instead of the elevator. "It's easy to get comfortable in Dubai and forget that there are people who live in conditions completely opposite to our own," she says. "But, if nothing else, doing something like this will help us raise a more compassionate future generation."
From Bhutan to Nepal to Dubai, then to Beirut and on to Peru. Sounds like a year's worth of travel? For Dubai-based adventurer Rami Rasamny, it's all in a fortnight's work. The 32-year-old used to be a lawyer but swapped out his courtroom garb for hiking boots a few years ago when he founded global outdoors community Life Happens Outdoors. Today, Rami leads about 16 different expeditions every year: if he's not climbing Mt Everest or exploring the Inca Trail in Machu Picchu, he's kayaking above the Arctic Circle or kitesurfing in Zanzibar. And that's not counting all the personal expeditions he pursues on the side.
Every year, Rami says he does one or two big climbs - the proceeds for which he donates to charities, specifically to those championing the cause of underprivileged children. So far, thanks to crowd-funding, he's been able to raise over US$60,000 over the last 4-5 years. His last feat alone saw him not only successfully summit the 6,812m Himalayan mountain of Ama Dablam in Nepal - but also raise US$15,000 for a Lebanese charity that runs afterschool programmes for kids in order to keep them off the streets.
But none of these milestones is about conquering summits or setting records for the entrepreneur. "Mountains are my happy place," says the explorer, recalling how his parents put him on skis before he was three years old. "But I recognised, early on, that it was a rather selfish sport - in that you'd be off doing what you love, while your loved ones worried about you." It was a desire to involve the larger community - and give back to them - that put him on the path to climbing for charity.
Rami firmly believes there's no such thing as not having the time or resources to give back in some way. "Giving back doesn't always have to be a financial commitment," he points out. "Every day, we influence people in so many ways - the choice is ours, whether to do so positively or negatively."
It's a philosophy that stems from a time in his own life when he admits he went woefully off track in making poor life choices. A heavy drinker and smoker (he used to go through two packs of cigarettes a day), he tells of how, at one point, he weighed 110kg. "Everything came to a head in 2007, when I felt I'd really lost my way. But I finally realised I either had the choice to continue as I was and feel like a victim for the rest of my life - or I could choose something different." Rami chose 'different'.
Unsurprisingly, it's a lesson that the great outdoors has been teaching him too. "When you're in the outdoors, there's one lesson you absolutely must learn, if you don't want to be in for a tough time: you have to get on with it," he says. "Whatever happens on the mountains, there is no point at which you can sit on your behind and bemoan that the world has conspired against you - you will die." Bringing that lesson back into the real world changed everything for him. And it's why he subscribes so strongly to the school of thought that we are "not products of circumstance, but of choice".
Though there is a tendency for the Holy Month to see a spike in the number of contributions to charities and the like, Rami notes that seeking to leave a positive imprint in the world should be a "lifelong" commitment. "Ramadan is not about zakat [alms], because God does not have a bank account. It is not a box to be ticked. So, although there is a collective responsibility that the month brings, it's important to recognise that that responsibility does not end after 40 days. The question to ask yourself is: how can you impact people for the better?"
It should've been a regular day in June 2015 when Indian expat Shambavi Rajagopal made yet another trip to the tailor in Sharjah that she'd been going to for the past 20 years. Instead, it turned out to be a day she'll never forget - for it sparked a humble idea into action, leading to a social initiative that has, today, sprouted branches beyond the UAE.
Recalling the incident, she tells of how she met her tailor that day, as he was carrying two large bags full of scraps of cloth to be dumped in the disposal bin outside. "When he asked me - after my curious line of questions - if I wanted them, I actually took a physical step back. After all, why would I take other people's clothes? But after I got home, it struck me that those scraps were only going to end up in the landfill, and that they could likely be put to use to benefit those in need," says the 52-year-old, who wrote on a related subject for her PhD.
So, in September that year, Shambavi and four friends picked up 5kg of scrap material and began meeting up once a week for two hours to craft the scraps into patchwork sheets, bags and little pillows to be given away to the needy. That was almost four years ago. Today, Save Scrap & Sew has at least 100 members working in different neighbourhoods of Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi - but also Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. Some of their products have even reached old age homes in South Africa. According to Shambavi, the group has produced roughly 1,300 double-sided sheets, 3,000 bags and 3,500 pillows to date. With a firm no-selling policy, they have an equally firm no-hoarding philosophy, and aim to give their goods away as quickly as possible to serve anyone who has use for them. If nothing else, she points out, they've lengthened the life spans of those materials by another five years, instead of letting them go to waste.
What's interesting is Shambavi's open door principle, which means she prioritises efficiency over perfection. "If people wish to volunteer, I don't want them to feel threatened by perfection," explains the former marketing faculty professor, who is also currently working with schools that find her model a great fit for their students' community service projects. "I'd rather encourage them to do something, than nothing at all." And so, at their meetups, people who don't have the first clue about sewing are welcome to pop by, because there are plenty of other ways to help out, from cutting to sorting and ironing. "I'm not saying, do a shoddy job - but the amount of time spent pursuing perfection can often be used to produce one more sheet or bag for someone who needs it," she reasons.
If there's one thing to take away from the experience, it's how she never expected one tiny act of goodwill to burgeon into the mini movement it's become. "Save Scrap & Sew is proof that, regardless of ability or skill, absolutely anyone and everyone can contribute in some way. If you purpose to do something, you will. It only takes a degree of intentionality to get something started - and it always starts with yourself, before it spreads to your home and your land."