AL SUBAIGHA, AJMAN // Sitting on a worn mattress in a tiny bedroom in this dusty and hardscrabble village, a frail Mariam Salma al Bedwawih watches patiently as workers tear down walls and gut the ceiling of her dilapidated home. Everything the elderly widow has left in this world, after outliving her husband and two of her three sons, is sitting in piles outside the doorway. Both she and her Filipina helper are sleeping on tattered mattresses on the floor. But Mrs Bedwawih is thankful for the commotion. Hers is one of dozens of poorly constructed and dangerous dwellings being repaired by Human Appeal International (HAI), a non-governmental organisation working to improve the lot of hundreds of people in the emirate's remote villages missing out on the rapid, headline-grabbing growth of Ajman city.
"I belong to Ajman," she says. "I feel the same as anyone in the big city. I am being looked after, thank God." More remarkable, however, is that Mrs Bedwawih has no idea what HAI is. She assumes the workers who are rebuilding her house, fitting it with a new kitchen, bathroom, flooring, ceilings, walls and furniture at a cost of Dh100,000 (US$27,250), are from the Government. That suits Salem bin Ahmed al Nuaimi, the founder of the charity, just fine.
"It doesn't matter about us," said Mr Nuaimi, who said many of the people getting help are in the dark about their benefactors. "What matters is that we get this work done and that we help these people. It is the projects which are important, not HAI or individuals." Mr Nuaimi established HAI in 1984 and has never drawn a salary for running the charity, which operates in Europe, Africa, Asia and around the Middle East. Its biggest project is a Dh10 million plan to improve housing of poor Emiratis such as Mrs Bedwawih in Umm al Qaiwain, Ras al Khaimah and Ajman.
In the small region of Masfout alone 16 houses have been completed, 35 are undergoing renovation and another 15 are under review. Those houses under renovation were built originally as part of a project by Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid, Ruler of Ajman, and were the home of the emirate's Bedouin communities in 1982. But they were built with flat roofs that did not drain and over the years began to crumble. In some cases walls and ceilings fell apart. Most were built using asbestos, a substance that has been banned from modern day construction. The damp was so bad in some homes that it attracted termites, which ate away at the buildings.
The families who receive aid from HAI are in the emirate's lowest income bracket, with no other means of doing such costly maintenance work themselves. Yet they have been entrenched members of Ajman society for generations. Most of the houses in disrepair have huge bolts and iron structural support showing through walls and ceilings. The ruin, disrepair and poverty stands in stark contrast to the rapid multimillion-dirham development of Ajman city's Corniche. So rapidly is the city growing that it is on the brink of an electricity supply crisis, unable to meet the demands of such major construction. And yet in villages such as Al Subaigha in Masfout, 90km away on the Oman border, residents struggle to make ends meet. There are 207,000 people living in Ajman, a population that is projected to grow by 50 per cent over the next five years. A Dh12 billion international airport is scheduled to open in 2011 and the Government is setting up a tourism authority to market the emirate. Ajman has only one five-star hotel, the Ajman Kempinski, but the establishment is already planning an expansion to handle growing demand. In total, there are plans to add 5,000 hotel rooms within three years. A heritage centre and two old-style souqs are also under construction. The emirate also recently unveiled its second-largest project, the redevelopment of its marina in conjunction with Tanmiyat Group, a company from Saudi Arabia. The face of Ajman is already changing at a rapid rate. It is a world away from the villages around the barren, rocky desert of Masfout. At another village housing 30 families, one Bedouin elder, Khadoum bin Awad al Kaabi, says there is no disconnect between his village - closer to Oman than Ajman's city - and his people. Living off the produce of a small farm of chickens, sheep, goats and cows, a modest plot of palm and lemon trees and with only one grocery shop to service the community, life is simple for his tribe in Masfout. Buses come and collect the children to take them to the nearest school a few kilometres away, but other than that their lives involve little interaction with the outside world. There is little need to venture to the city except in times of need. "The ruler shows us great interest out here and any time we need anything we go to the ruler and he provides us, so we feel a strong part of Ajman," said Mr Kaabi. HAI was established in 1984 by Mr Nuaimi following a trip to Sudan in the wake of the humanitarian crisis. Newspaper and television images of dead bodies on the streets and the walking skeletons of people suffering from starvation touched his heart and spurred him into action. Mr Nuaimi spent eight months in Sudan, overseeing the receipt and distribution of donated goods and money from the emirate. All these years later his mission continues. Mr Nuaimi spends his time travelling between his various international offices to ensure the smooth running of the operation. There is, he says, something in his soul which keeps his passion and commitment alive.
Unlike other such organisations around the world, HAI's money and provisions are handled directly by its own staff to ensure they reach the right hands. Around the world, HAI has 300 employees and thousands of volunteers. A major focus of HAI's work - 81 per cent - is on women and children, especially orphans. The organisation sponsors 434 orphans in the UAE and more than 40,000 elsewhere in Senegal, Kosovo and Jordan. The children, who have lost one or both parents and are in dire need of financial support, are monitored throughout the year. Every day for the past three years in Palestine, in the biggest ongoing project to date, HAI distributes US$10,000 (Dh36,729) worth of bread. For the past 14 months the organisation has also distributed bread to 10,000 families in Lebanon. Elsewhere in the world HAI works on building infrastructure in Iraq, distributing food in Bosnia and creating income-generating projects for women in India. The organisation also runs a programme where members of the public can sponsor individual orphans inside or outside the UAE. Visit www.hai.ae to join or donate to any of the charity's projects. firstname.lastname@example.org