Faces of philanthropy
Big hearts and open hands - that's what the generous have in common. On the occasion of International Day of Charity, here's catching up with some of the UAE's own who are working - on their own steam - to make the world a better place in their own special ways
In the age of armchair critics and keyboard warriors, moral outrage is hardly in short supply. What counts as always, however, is when we put our money where our mouth is - or walk the talk. Every year since 2012, the world recognises September 5 - the day Mother Teresa passed away - as International Day of Charity with the aim to promote social responsibility on every level, whether grassroots or international. For its part, the UAE is no stranger to philanthropy. In 2017, it was named the world's largest donor of official development aid. This week, WKND spoke to a few philanthropists who call the country home, to find out what drives them to advocate change for those less fortunate than themselves.
'There's nothing more rewarding than offering hope where there seems to be none'
For TV anchor Hermoine Macura-Noble, there was only one way to respond to the Iraqi-Syrian war and her coverage of the first refugees to cross the border into Jordan - establish a non-political, non-governmental resource centre in Iraq for women, by women. What started as small acts of kindness while on the ground ended up snowballing into a US-based 501c3 charity called The House of Rest or 'Bayt Al Raha'.
A place where "women and children from any faith or cultural background can come to find peace, rest and assistance as well as empowerment courses to help them deal with their circumstances", one has to admit the title of the charity alone sounds comforting. Explaining what drew her to go back after her work assignment to help victims of war, Hermoine says, "I felt women in war zones needed a place where they could convene and feel safe, secure and loved. No judgement. No battles. Just acceptance and the right tools to empower and heal them. I also wanted our women to understand that they don't need to belong to a man, or be a mother, or a daughter to be valued. We want our women survivors to know that, regardless of what they have endured and who they are, they will always be precious without any title."
Due to safety reasons, The House of Rest keeps a low profile. Hermoine's team thoroughly checks out all cases to ensure they are "engaging only the right people" who need help. "We want to see a world in which every woman is safe and free." Ensuring each woman's right to freedom, human rights, respect and dignity is what drives them forward - and they partner with leading organisations, humanitarian workers, medical experts and artists to make that dream a reality. To date, they have helped 93 survivors and counting (not to mention, several short-term cases as well).
There are several positive stories that come to mind, she says - but one little girl, in particular, stands out. "When our team first worked with her, she would colour the pages black due to the trauma she had suffered," recalls Hermoine. "Apparently, the Iraqi and Syrian children have encountered such a high level of trauma that it often manifests in this way. After attending some of our programmes, she started to draw in colour. One drawing she did for me was of a blue heart. When I asked her how she saw her future, she said she saw it full of love." The design is one the team reproduced on their T-shirt and tote bags for this year.
An author and certified leadership coach, Hermoine considers herself blessed in many ways, but says, "There is nothing more beautiful and rewarding than saving someone's life and offering them hope when there seems to be none."
'You're constantly aware of how much more there is to do'
When you think of refugees and how to help them, a safe space to play may well be the last thing on anyone's mind. But it only took German expat Nadine Arton watching her own two kids to realise how critical playtime is towards the development of motor skills, social skills and more. In 2015, a friend told Nadine about a huge camp she'd visited for Syrian refugees. From the stories, Nadine realised very little was being done for the littlest ones in the camp, as "NGOs were all working for kids aged six and above". And that's how The Amal Project was born.
Looking to provide kids aged 2-5 a safe space to play, learn and interact, Nadine began working to transform recycled shipping containers into solar-powered 'containers of hope' that would be fully equipped with various activities, books and materials to encourage early childhood development. Designed completely off-site, the spaces are then transported to locations that have, over the last four years, grown to include Syria, Jordan, and Antigua and Barbuda.
The sheer simplicity of the concept means the Dubai-based entrepreneur is now exploring the possibility of taking it to other needy locations around the world, including India, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Uganda and Nepal. Don't let the bright colours and promise of oodles of fun fool you though. "The final product looks so cool, but the amount of work that goes into it is a lot," laughs the 43-year-old. "It's actually a lot of admin work."
But it's all worth it when she sees the joy of the kids who storm in when the doors open. "They're so thankful for the little things," she explains. "Some of them have never seen colour pencils; others didn't know what a monkey looked like because they didn't have access to books. It was amazing to see their reactions; they were so overwhelmed with all the toys and materials. It was almost like a sensory overload for them, but in a beautiful way."
In the beginning, Nadine says learning about their stories was quite traumatising. "Most of these kids have been through so much in life. I don't know if I could've handled what some of them have. Their stories and faces follow you long after. Despite this, they're so joyful and positive. There's so much natural hope in these young humans - that's why I love doing this for them."
Philanthropists tend to attract their fair of cynics who might see their glamorous lives as being a complete disconnect from reality on the ground. But the mum-of-two, who works for the project alongside running her own resortwear label, is not just hands-on, she's "all over" it. "I purchase every book and pencil, and open every container myself," she asserts.
The biggest challenge the kids in the camps face is the question of where they belong. "The more you get into it, the more you feel it's never enough. You're constantly aware of how much more there is to do. I was very naïve when I first started out, but it's not easy to help. All the politics and red tape can make trying to do good very frustrating at times - but I'd still encourage everyone to do whatever they can to help change situations. It gives your life a lot of meaning."
'Nothing compares with spending on those who cannot pay you back'
Businessman Inder Bhagnani's charity campaign Feed A Labour was established in 2014, but ask him how long he's been running it and he gives you a figure in terms of weeks. At the time of going to press, the initiative - which hands out non-cooked meals and small toiletries to hundreds, sometimes over a thousand, labourers every Saturday - had crossed roughly 275 weeks since it began. And as with all wonderful stories, this one too began with the tale of one.
The life-changing incident occurred when Inder stopped for lunch one day, at a small cafeteria in Barsha. "The cafeteria could only seat about 6-8 people," he recalls. That day, a labourer walked in and asked for an omelette paratha and a cup of tea. When the server told him that would be Dh5, the man ("he was standing just a foot away from me") opted to skip the paratha and just have tea. When Inder asked him why, he said, "Four dirhams means I can have four cups of tea for the next four days. I can't afford to have a paratha now."
Moved, Inder offered to buy the labourer lunch that day. As it happened, the two crossed paths the next day at the same café too - only this time, the labourer had two friends with him. Inder was only happy to buy them lunch. As the days went by, more and more people joined and Inder finally decided to donate meals every week. Volunteers offered assistance and, today, "no matter what the weather", Inder makes sure that the now-registered charity campaign continues what it started.
The idea is simple: it's their way of saying thank you. "I often have people complain and ask why the employers don't take better care of their labourers. But I'm not doing this because these guys are being ill-treated. They get paid, they do have meals, they stay in air-conditioned rooms. The reason I do this is to recognise and appreciate the hard work they put in for the city every day."
The campaign has just one rule: no fundraising. "Anyone who wants to be part of it must be part of it themselves," explains Inder. "They buy the products themselves, meet us on site, open their car boots and distribute it themselves. The timings are fixed every week, so everyone on our social media group knows exactly when and where it's happening - there's no confusion and no cash collections."
Every 50 weeks, they celebrate by handing out 20 products to 3,000 labourers. He remembers a heart-warming incident during the 150th week, when one of the labourers approached Inder to ask why he was spending so much time and money on them. "When I said it was just to appreciate their efforts, he just hugged me and started crying. He said he's lived in the city for 10 years, but no one had ever so much as looked at them. I'll never forget what he told me: 'Today, I feel I'm human, valued by someone - even if it's someone I don't know.'"
Reflecting on his former "party lifestyle" and how he came from a social circle that wouldn't think twice of dropping Dh3,000 when clubbing or shopping, Inder talks of how the campaign has really changed his outlook to life. "After seeing how much just Dh150 could buy for these labourers, I decided I would never again spend money that way again." It's a change of heart he shares with all he encounters. "When you spend on someone who cannot pay you back, the satisfaction you get cannot compare with anything you could spend on yourself. Make the effort to interact with those less fortunate than yourself. See what a difference it makes."