Saying a real, reel 'Thank You'
Shukran Workers is a community initiative to help Dubai's domestic workers - without whose help our lives would be very tough indeed - enjoy a fun-filled evening of food, friends, laughter. and movies!
Whether we are directly employing them or not, domestic workers are an integral part of our daily lives. They do the work we cannot do, in conditions we cannot imagine, and yet their contribution to our lives is often overlooked and underappreciated. Few people stop to think about what workers living in the UAE do in their free time, let alone try to involve them in their own plans - but that is exactly what prompted Indian expats Mohit Bhojwani and Prakarti Lakhwani to start a community event to help workers in a way money cannot.
"We all hire domestic helpers - part time or full time - to take care of our homes, and they are people who have left their countries behind in order to come and work for us," explains Mohit Bhojwani, co-founder of Shukran Workers, when asked about the inspiration behind the project. "When we step outside, even for 10 minutes, we can't handle the summer heat, but there are people in this city working in those sweltering conditions for hours on end. There are a lot of companies who help them financially, but we wanted to give them something in kind: the chance to have a normal, fun weekend."
Which is how Shukran Workers came up with their movie night concept. On dedicated Fridays, the group - comprising 14 young professionals - arrange for everything from a community hall in Bur Dubai and a projector to goodie bags, so that domestic workers can drop by and enjoy a fun movie experience with their friends, at absolutely no cost of their own. The films shown are fairly recent releases and there are movie nights for both male and female workers, so both groups can enjoy themselves. Besides the film, the workers are treated to popcorn, cupcakes and a dinner box. Needless to say, the response, so far, has been phenomenal.
"Towards the end of these events, people will be chanting and screaming, rooting for the heroes or even singing along. Sometimes, after the movie gets over, they are reluctant to go home so they put on music and start dancing as well. They really let themselves go!" Mohit gushes proudly. "They're also addicted to their mobile phones just like us. So we have a lot of selfies, photos and videos being taken. The reactions have been so good that their employers call us and tell us that we have changed their lives. Normally, domestic workers have a very fixed sort of schedule - work six days a week and get a day (or half a day) off. They roam around a little, and then they come back home. But with this event, they have something to look forward to!"
The idea for Shukran Workers came to Prakarti and Mohit a year ago, while volunteering for a Water for Workers initiative, wherein they had to distribute water to workers on a hot Friday morning. The duo were surprised - and inspired - by the number of people who were ready to wake up on a Friday morning to help others, and started thinking of other ways they could get their friends and families involved. They decided to start out small, by inviting everyone they knew to a local supermarket to spend a small amount for care packages that could then be distributed to construction workers; in two hours, they'd managed to collect packages for about 2,000 workers. Today, their events have grown rapidly and Mohit confesses that the people of Dubai are the reason for their continued success.
"People here are always ready to give back," says Mohit. "Our community hall is given to us by a landlord, chairs are given by event partners, we have a dinner sponsor and a dessert sponsor. The photographers are also volunteers and one of our friends makes the popcorn and buys the drinks. It's incredible that we are able to give all these people a good night out - and it doesn't even cost us much."
A lot of domestic workers have basic necessities but are deprived of a social environment. "Think about it," Mohit points out. "We can afford to go out and spend Dh100 on a movie for two and popcorn, but not everyone can afford that much every weekend. Most of the workers are sending money back home to their family and, for those people, every little bit counts."
Claira, a domestic worker from Mysore in India, echoes similar sentiments. In the last five years since she got to the country to work as a domestic help for an Indian family, she has seldom got the chance to see a movie in a theatre. "Normally, on Friday evenings, I go to a bazaar, sit and talk to people for some time and then buy things that I can send back to India," she tells me. She then goes on to gush about the movie she was shown at the Shukran Workers event - Queen - and how the main character kept going despite her circumstances, and didn't give up. "I've been in Dubai for all these years, but this is the first time I've seen an event like this," she adds. "We all really enjoyed it."
While some may have access to televisions, there are those who have gone months, even years, without seeing a single film. Putraaj, who hails from Tamil Nadu, for instance, confesses that he doesn't normally do anything on weekends because he doesn't want to spend that money. "I just sit in my room, usually." Putraaj works as a sweeper in a supermarket and is eagerly looking forward to his next movie night. "I just need to know when it is," he says. "I'll gladly go."
Shukran Workers' events are not just for an Indian crowd - the team makes sure that they screen English movies as well, and all their movies have a humorous element to them, as "comedy transcends language or nationality". Their English movie nights are attended by workers from the Philippines and Africa, amongst others. Moreover, earlier this year, they held an event exclusively for workers hailing from Nepal, after the devastating earthquake hit their country.
"A lot of the workers here were not able to travel back, and many of them had lost loved ones during the earthquake," explains Mohit. "We wanted to be there for them emotionally and mentally, which is why we organised an event and invited everyone from Nepal to come to together so that we could express our solidarity."
The team have no plans of slowing down. In fact, they are already looking for other creative ways they can help different sections of society, and already have a bunch of new events lined up for this month. Even more amazing is the fact that everyone in the team manages to make the time for these events despite holding down nine-to-five jobs.
"We can see the happiness in the workers, and that's why we continue to do what we do," says Mohit. "Shukran Workers is not a daily initiative; we run monthly or according to events. And, yes, all of us have careers and personal lives. But we want to make a difference and spread smiles."
As can be seen though the events, happiness can be found in the smallest things - like watching a movie uninterrupted, with some popcorn on your lap and friends by your side.