x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

My mission is maximum fund-raising

A saver since youth, the charity organiser Alexi Trenouth has devoted herself to helping seafarers, where every dirham counts.

Alexi Trenouth, whose charitable ways began early, stands in the Dubai offices of her employer, Mission to Seafarers.
Alexi Trenouth, whose charitable ways began early, stands in the Dubai offices of her employer, Mission to Seafarers.

I've always been a bit of a saver. My piggy bank was usually full and my younger sister, Victoria, would steal from it. I was really careful about what I spent my money on; I was the annoying one. When my sister was at university and I was at boarding school I now and then bailed her out by sending £20 (Dh112) in the post. I grew up and went to school in Dubai, and my family has also lived in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. My mum was an English teacher and my dad worked as a civil engineer.

I work for the Mission to Seafarers in Dubai, a charity that looks after the well-being of mariners all over the world; it has been operating in the UAE since 1962. In 2006, the charity launched The Angel Appeal to build and equip a boat that could go to sea and deliver necessities to seafarers anchored off the coast. Many of the mariners have to stay on the vessels for months at a time, sometimes without pay. They cannot come ashore because the costs are too great for the ships' operators and because of time restrictions.

One of the biggest problems seafarers face is loneliness and isolation, so in order to alleviate these issues we take them phone cards, internet access, a welfare officer, clothing, and in the case of one ship even food and water, as the crew had not been paid for months. My job is diverse - I organise events, give presentations, manage the website and write newsletters and thank you letters. I try to go out on the boat once a month.

I've been involved with charities since I was at school; I'm now 25. My parents drilled in to me that my CV would look like everyone else's if I didn't do these different things. Growing up in Dubai, I was jealous of my friends in the UK. I thought they were really grown-up having part-time jobs like paper rounds and office work. It's hard in Dubai for kids to work. At school, we were encouraged to volunteer as part of a UK schools scheme called Duke of Edinburgh, which encourages social responsibility.

I went to Dubai College until I was 15, and then to boarding school at Uppingham in the UK for two years, from 2000 to 2002. As soon as I was in the UK I got a summer job waitressing in Southampton. I was hired at an agency and worked at weddings and the Southampton Boat Show, among other places. After I graduated from school in England, in 2002, I returned to Dubai. I took a year off and then worked a few jobs for four months, including data entry and working at exhibitions. I was earning much more than I would in the UK, about Dh50 an hour, as opposed to around Dh18 per hour in the UK.

I was living at home and saving nearly all of my salary. Then I volunteered for a charity in Thailand for four months and travelled for another four months after that. The money I'd saved saw me through. I went to university in 2003, at the University of Edinburgh. I started off doing mechanical engineering, but after a few days I realised I'd chosen the wrong course, so I switched to economics. I did that for two years, but realised that wasn't for me, either, because it was so boring. I'd been doing some extra subjects at the same time, and one of those was Farsi. I loved it, so I decided to enrol in the programme full time. In the UK, a university might advertise a course but not always fill it; I ended up being the only student in the class.

I got quite a lot of one-on-one instruction. As part of the course, I lived in Tehran for a year and did research, including a study on women coping with HIV in the country. My lodgings were in the British Council, which paid for my living expenses while I was there. My family gave me an allowance during university because they didn't want me to have to take out a loan. A lot of my friends had loans and an allowance from their parents and still ended up in debt. My family has a spreadsheet somewhere listing all the money that I owe them, and they pull it out every now and then.

I always had a job in university, including working in horrible nightclubs with shifts lasting until 4am. For the last two years I worked in a restaurant, and loved doing that. I actually saved about £2,000 during that time. I volunteered throughout university at a charity called Edinburgh Global Partnership, which is student-run and sends volunteers abroad to various projects. I went to South Africa and taught English for students with special needs, and worked in HIV education in Uganda.

When I finally graduated, in 2008, I carried on working in a restaurant for four months. That paid about £6 per hour, but tips were really good. I returned to Dubai in October 2008. I didn't think I'd be able continue my charitable work, but then I heard from a friend that the Angel Appeal was recruiting. The charity work I've done has changed how I think about money. I see how far money can go. When you're going home at night and start chatting to the taxi driver, you realise how simply he lives while away from his family. If you've just spent Dh700 on a night out, there's something a bit obscene about that.

I'm still a saver, but I have become better at spending money. I prefer to spend on things like seeing my family. My sister is in Australia and my parents are in Portugal at the moment, where they live on a boat. They spend the summers sailing and winters in Dubai, where they have a flat in the Green Community. Being able to see them and buy my little nephew presents matters a lot to me. I've just come back from Australia and there were no holds on my spending there.

I share an apartment in The Greens with a friend. I don't keep a budget, but I send money back to my UK current account. I've probably sent around Dh10,000 so far. I like shopping, although I spend more on food and entertaining. Mall of the Emirates is a bit of a vice, as it's on the way home from work. It's drinking that jacks up the price of going out, so we'll sit on the balcony and have friends around instead. A particularly busy weekend might be going to the Meridien Terrace for the all-inclusive buffet, which costs Dh190, or a nice meal at a restaurant another night. An average spend might be Dh200 to Dh300. I think Dh500 is a bit much for a regular night out.

There is a huge disparity in Dubai, and the seafarers particularly are invisible here. They might earn around US$400 (Dh1,469) a month and still manage to send most of it home. The problem is when they don't get paid at all. We've just been dealing with a ship whose crew haven't been paid in four months and are stuck in port. Last summer there was a ship in Fujairah in a similar situation and the crew had no air conditioning, food or water. In that case it's not about not having money - it's about having nothing at all.

Donations fund the running costs of the Flying Angel - about $750 a day, which includes fuel, crew costs and maintenance. At Christmas we distributed more than 4,000 presents; at Easter we took out cakes and Easter eggs to the seafarers. During last Christmas we also gave everyone a free phone call home. The store on the Flying Angel stocks electronics, DVDs, snacks, toiletries, clothes, fishing equipment - things that we on land take for granted.

It can be very revealing in fund-raising when you ask for help, as you see where priorities lie. Ships bring in 99.3 per cent of everything we have in the UAE, and without the workers, we'd not be able to buy any of the things we take for granted. Some people are incredibly generous and realise how lucky they are to earn the money they do here. It is easy to think Dubai is a very greedy place, but there are many many people here who looking for ways to give back.

* As told to Jola Chudy