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Women wait with their children at the Pakistan Association Dubai office to ask the welfare committee for assistance.
Randi Sokoloff Staff
Women wait with their children at the Pakistan Association Dubai office to ask the welfare committee for assistance.

Where the desperate find hope

Struggling Pakistani families get advice and financial aid from an association in Dubai

DUBAI // It is 6pm and Latifa Hakim Ali has been sitting patiently in the blazing sunshine for 12 hours. As the night draws in she is joined by a growing band of women. They come clutching listless babies and small children hiding in the folds of their abayas, their heads covered by a multicoloured array of dupattas. They murmur their personal tales of hardship to one another. The crowd grows bigger, snaking around a ramshackle building. But this tiny, unmarked office spells hope to many of those who have made the journey. At the centre of their expectations is an unassuming bungalow, the headquarters of the Pakistan Association Dubai. Every Monday night the association's welfare committee holds court over a sampling of the nation's 850,000 Pakistani expatriates, dispensing advice and cash to the needy in equal measure. Dozens flock to hear a few kind words and have their money troubles slightly eased. Association staff dispense little pink numbered tickets, calling each person in turn for an audience with the welfare panel. Up to 60 can be heard each night. Latifa, 40, a mother of three from Ajman, says: "This is the first time I have been here. My husband is a driver and dropped me here at 6am on his way to work. I have been waiting ever since. "He earns Dh4,000 (US$1,090) a month and our rent is Dh3,000 with another Dh2,500 going towards the electricity every couple of months. We want to educate our children but we cannot afford the school fees. "The school bus fees alone cost Dh350 a month, so I am hoping for a little help towards paying them." If those turning up are expecting an easy ride, they get a short, sharp shock. The committee is on the lookout for "professional beggars" and has a policy of tough love, believing that those who turn up need to be educated as much as helped with handouts. Cases are scrutinised in detail, there are follow-up home visits and officials liaise with professionals on behalf of the illiterate. "We cannot give tuition fees if you are educating the children at home," Inayat ur Rahman, a committee member, tells Latifa. "If you put them into a Quranic school, then fine. Someone will come to examine your house and we will investigate this further." Then, softening, he adds: "We will pay for one child to attend school for one year. You have seen how many people are outside, so we cannot pay the fees of all three. Our policy is helping one child per family." Sadly, Latifa is a drop in the ocean; the association's office is crammed with boxes of files full of such cases. Over the past five years the association has helped about 4,000 expatriates, handing out hundreds of thousands of dirhams, although officials fear many more are slipping through the net. "No one would come here in front of a panel of 10 and say, 'I am in trouble, help me' unless times were desperate," says Rizwan Fancy, chairman of the committee. "Some, though, think we have coffers full of money and can dish it out. It is not for those kinds of people, or anyone who has run up a shopping bill or credit card debt. "We do a lot of fact-finding to make sure it is not a fabricated story and look at the urgency and intensity of the need." Mohammed Khaleeq, the secretary general of the association, adds: "I think Muslims find it hard to come here to ask for help. The eastern and Islamic culture does not encourage begging and these people are not used to borrowing money. We should be reaching out more to them in their own communities. Those who need help and those who can help can easily be identified that way. "Sometimes people just need the right piece of advice. We have limited resources and a small budget, but if someone wanted to go into higher education, we could talk to a university on their behalf or negotiate with a bank if they are in debt. We would rather talk to officials directly than hand out money in those cases." Many of those who journey to Oud Metha cannot read or understand basic paperwork for visa, passport or medical requirements. The welfare committee carries out arbitration on their behalf with government officials as well as dispensing money from its Dh100,000-a-month budget, funded by its wealthier members as part of their zakat, an Islamic requirement to donate a percentage of their assets to charity. "Our budget is very low," says one coordinator. "We prioritise the very needy, like people whose electricity has been cut, those who need surgery or a body repatriated and big families in need of sponsorship for school fees. If their visas have been cancelled, we can provide them with a ticket home. We get a lot of widows as they have no means of income. "Most people come here in a crisis. Many do not understand the language in this country and need pointing in the right direction. "We get a lot of support from the human rights department, Dubai Police and government hospitals, who help set up payment arrangements, repatriate bodies and deal with referrals from us, sometimes waiving fees in special cases." While a handful of men turn up to the weekly sessions, the majority are women - perhaps, the committee suggests, because of male pride or because wives are better at taking the initiative. Khursheed Mousa, a widow, tells how her two sons, Rashid, 25, and Abid, 20, were killed in a bomb blast in Pakistan leaving their wives and young families bereft. She is given Dh200 towards her expenses. Many of the women come carrying sick children, unable to afford basic medicine, and are referred to the association's health camp, where free medication is dispensed by doctors once a month. Diseases like scabies are rife in some neighbourhoods because of a lack of education about health and hygiene, says the committee. Gulzat Tariq, 25, is worried about her five-month-old daughter, Bismah, who lies listlessly in her arms with a mystery illness. Her husband is a lorry driver in Pakistan and while she has paid Dh1,500 towards medical expenses, she is desperate for the remaining Dh500 to clear her bill. Other cases are not as straightforward. Taj Mohammed Sharif, 50, a father of 12, has fought a four-year battle to get compensation after his bus was involved in a road accident. He wears a permanent brace on his torso and has run up Dh100,000 in legal fees, but so far has failed to get damages for his injuries. The association, having exhausted all avenues to help, will buy him a ticket home. Members hope the committee will eventually be made up of a panel of experts representing the law, schools and social welfare, while outreach programmes identify the needy and target mothers for education programmes and health awareness. tyaqoob@thenational.ae

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