AL AIN // It might not have been your traditional family picnic, but the ties were every bit as strong.
Hundreds of children from Dar Zayed orphanage gathered in the desert this week for a festival to celebrate together as one family.
The annual event included children under the care of Dar Zayed staff, children from the centre who are now in foster families, and the sons and daughters of employees.
“We all come together and enjoy together – my sisters and my brothers,” said Nissreen, 15, who has lived with Dar Zayed for her whole life. “It’s very good for us, a change from study to having fun.”
As the children arrived on Wednesday a carnival sprang up, with music, popcorn, face-painting, costumed characters and a miniature train ride. There were also games such as sack races and tug-o-wars.
When the sun dipped below the dunes, families settled by their tents and tended barbecues.
Dar Zayed for Family Care in Al Ain looks after more than 400 abandoned, orphaned and neglected children.
“They give us all the things that we want, they take care of us – our mothers, all of them,” Nissreen said.
Children under the age of 2 at the centre are eligible for fostering, while older youths live in villas of six to seven with two “alternative mothers” who work half-week shifts.
“They are living normally, like any other family,” said Maysoun Abdullah, a Dar Zayed social worker. “They have a house, housemaid, driver, mother.”
Strolling through the crowd with her friends, Nissreen said she planned to leave her Dar Zayed villa when she married: “I want to be a doctor.”
The centre’s staff try to immerse the children in Emirati culture, said Mubarak Al Ammri, head of the programmes and activities division.
Regardless of their background, the children speak Arabic, wear local dress and learn local traditions.
All of the children receive UAE nationality.
“We have a heritage and culture section. It works on these kids to let them grow up with the values of UAE society,” Mr Al Ammri said.
The staff also try to maintain a sense of continuity for the children.
“We are trying our best not to change the ‘mother,’” said Ms Abdullah, who has worked with the orphanage for nine years.
During that time she has watched Dar Zayed children grow up, marry each other and have their own children.
“They like to call them Zayed,” Ms Abdullah said.