ABU DHABI // Debra Holdsworth had been searching for a job since being made redundant in July. The 36-year-old Australian, who was last employed as an economist, finally found one but she is not being paid for it. Looking for something "constructive" to do with her free time, she volunteered at the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF). She is one of 400 people pitching in to help run the 10-day event.
"It's something big, something international happening in Abu Dhabi," Mrs Holdsworth said. "I wanted to be part of that. Volunteering here isn't usually visible." She has been working full-time since the festival started, compiling ticket stubs, putting invitations into envelopes and making up guest packs. "It's not mentally challenging, but there's always something to do and the pressure is on with deadlines," she said. "There are so many people to organise."
Kathlyn Lewis, the head co-ordinator for volunteers and who is being paid, said she had been impressed by the way the staff reflected the diversity of the city. Originally from Seattle, Ms Lewis has come to Abu Dhabi just for the festival. "It's essential for any festival," she said. "Volunteers are an integral part of how well it all runs. Having a variety of languages, especially Arabic, is really important." The festival was not short of volunteers. Response was so high that organisers were still receiving calls from people "begging to take part", said Noor Daher, another of the organisers being compensated for her efforts.
Those offering their time range from 18-year-old college students to pensioners. Those with regular jobs can volunteer only in the evenings, making daytime shifts the hardest to fill. "It's so social," Ms Daher said. "We all have such a great time together, it's like a big party. It's such a great way to make friends and new people." Rema Majed, 21, is an Emirati student at Zayed University who has been the envy of her friends since getting involved in the festival five weeks ago.
The public relations and advertising student was taking part as a way to fulfil the work experience credits required for her degree. She was lucky enough to be assigned to escort celebrities, including the actress Demi Moore, to the red carpet at the festival's opening gala. "It was very exciting," Ms Majed said. "We had direct contact with them and this is an opportunity that I would never get anywhere else.
"You'd never imagine yourself in that situation if I wasn't working for the festival. I found this professional character in me that I never thought I had." Because the Abu Dhabi festival is in only its third year, volunteers get better access and more opportunity to learn than they would at a more established event. "It's all new to us as Emiratis and we're all growing together with these events," said Ms Majed. "It's a great learning process."
The concept of volunteering is an emerging one for Emiratis, who are still getting used to the idea of unpaid work. However, it is gaining ground in such a way that new companies and organisations, such as Fazaa and Takatoff, have been launched with the goal of providing volunteers to prestigious events such as the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Tala al Hemyari, a 25-year-old Emirati, is the president of Tam, another company seeking what it calls "professional volunteers".
Half of his recruits have been Emiratis and the rest represent Abu Dhabi's diverse population. "It's everyone from students to retired people, people with a lot of time on their hands, so they love to help." Mr al Hemyari said. Those working for free at events such as the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian Exhibition offered "an opportunity for foreign people to meet locals, for people to see how Abu Dhabi is and who its people are", he said.
He said he started by organising events for other students when he was in school and had been volunteering for 10 years. Volunteer work had taken off in the UAE in the past three years, he said, particularly as a way to help people gain experience before applying for jobs. Such is the case with 18-year-old Emmanuel Sequeira, from India, who has just finished high school. After studying physics, maths, English, chemistry and information technology, he turned to volunteering to acquire event experience.
He has worked at the Capitala tennis tournament and a golf competition. Although he wants to be a pilot and is preparing for aviation school, during MEIFF he has been working as a full-time usher. "This is just another international event to have worked at," Mr Sequeira said. "When people see my CV I think they'll gain respect for me. For youngsters it's hard to get work without experience, especially the way the job market it with the economic crisis right now."