ABU DHABI // Curious residents peered from their doorways as the lorry turned off the paved road in Musaffah and came to a halt in the dirt lane between rows of rundown houses.
They watched as four men walked round to the back, lowered a metal platform and swung open the doors to reveal hundreds of five-kilogram bags of rice, then flocked to the lorry as the men began to offer them out. Young Pakistani boys clad in salwar kameez, Iranian women with scarves pulled across their faces - all came forward to collect the quota of two bags per household. For the men, staff from the Grace Conservation programme, it was just another instance of distributing food to those in need, except that this particular delivery had a specific aim: to help poor families stock up on staples ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.
"We give to the families, poor people and labourers - anyone who needs some help," said Sultan al Shehi, the director of the Grace Conservation programme, which falls under the umbrella of the UAE Red Crescent Authority (RCA). "We do this to help poor people in our society, it doesn't matter where they are from." Every day lorries loaded with food for those in need roll out of the villa in Mohammed bin Zayed City that is the headquarters of Grace Conservation. The programme is the brainchild of Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan, who provides Dh5 million (US$1.36m) a year for its projects, which include distributing packaged food as well as collecting and distributing excess food from celebrations such as parties and weddings.
In the Musaffah neighbourhood yesterday, Afifa, a 26-year-old from the Punjab in Pakistan, hovered inside her front door and instead sent one of the neighbourhood boys to fetch her ration of rice. Afifa, her husband Ziaullah, a carpenter, and children Samir, Hafza and Subhan, live in one room with a small kitchen and bathroom. Her brother-in-law and his family occupy the other half of the dwelling, also cramming into one room.
"I am happy because I am with my husband and children," she said. "But life here is difficult because of the bad roads and the villas are in a bad condition." The family has lived in this neighbourhood of poorly maintained, single-storey houses for the past five years. The breeze blocks are still visible on the walls of some homes and the roofs are of corrugated iron. Pieces of cloth are hung in doorways to prevent people from peering directly inside.
Khawser, a 13-year-old Somali schoolgirl, waited in the blistering midday heat to collect her family's rice ration. "We are taking this rice for Ramadan," she said shyly. Like many of the females, she shielded her face, pulling up her brightly coloured robes to reveal only her eyes. "I live in this area with my family, my father works for the army." As word spread about the rice distribution and the crowd around the lorry grew larger, Mohammed al Shehi and Abdullah Saadi from the project attempted to maintain order. Some of the younger residents of the neighbourhood tried to sneak back into the line, claiming that their families had not yet received their ration.
"Are you all one family? Come and take the rice," Mr Saadi shouted from the back of the lorry, as he and the other staff offloaded bag after bag. Their task for the day was to go along the cluster of 300 houses distributing one tonne of rice donated by a private company. The entire neighbourhood was identified as eligible for assistance by the Grace Conservation, which maintains a database of needy families. It also assists the needy identified by the RCA.
"This is a very poor and rundown area," said Mr al Shehi. As the lorry started to move again along the dusty lane, more people came out of their homes; some simply curious, others just glad of some distraction. Among a group of young Pakistani boys hovering at the back of the crowd was Bilal, 15, from Peshawar, who lives in the area with his parents and seven brothers and sisters. "My father drives a trailer," he said, as his friends gathered around. "We moved here nine years ago. I like it here, I play cricket and football with my friends."
Hana, 15, from Iran, stood on the opposite side of the road, waiting to receive her family's rice ration. Born in Abu Dhabi, she lives in the neighbourhood with her three siblings, mother and father - who works in a used-car showroom. Like many of the other families, they are all crammed into one room. "The houses are so old and the street is not nice," she said. "It is very difficult, especially when it rains and water comes directly in."
Inside her house, Hana's mother, Jamilah, bemoans the lack of space but says her family simply cannot afford to move. Most of the houses are attached externally, and inside thin walls divide the living space between two or three families. Hana's family's belongings are stacked up against the wall in the tiny corridor leading to her home and their washing is hung in a minute courtyard that also serves as a kitchen.
A Pakistani family lives in the adjoining home. The mother, with a child perched on her hip, is too shy to ask for rice, so Jamilah instructs Hana to run back outside to collect their portion. When the Grace Conservation lorry rounds the corner into the next street, a group of Somali women are gathered underneath a tree, which provides one of the few patches of shade. Khethra Shireh, a 35-year-old mother of six, thought she had missed her chance to stock up on the much needed staple. With her husband out of permanent work, she struggles to get by.
"Life is OK, al hamdillah, but it is still very difficult," she said. "Sometimes my husband works, sometimes not, but he does not make more than Dh2,000." The Shireh family pay Dh1,500 per month for their accommodation, all eight of them squeezing into one room. Khethra has lived in the UAE for the past 12 years, moving from her war-torn homeland when she married her husband, who already had one wife.
Sumaya Sayid, on the other hand, has never been married. Clad in a full, black niqab, the 36-year-old from Yemen explained that she still lives with her father, whose income is meagre. Crowds of children chased after the lorry as it drove up the final lane. A small boy grabbed on to the platform at the back as the vehicle came to final stop for the last bags to be handed out. "Hopefully we managed to reach everyone," Mr al Shehi said as the team headed back to the office.
The Grace Conservation has been distributing food in Abu Dhabi since 2004 and recently opened a branch in Al Ain, with plans to launch in Al Gharbia. "Sheikha Shamsa would like to cover the whole of the UAE," said Sultan al Shehi. "We are learning from her about how to not just throw away good food in the garbage - it is haram." The programme's forthcoming plans include setting up stands along major roads where people travelling at iftar time can break their fast. Meanwhile, the Grace Conservation lorries will continue to distribute rice and other staples in preparation for the holy month.
The Grace Conservation can be contacted on 8005011. email@example.com