x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fire tragedies leave many homeless and friendless

When fire strikes a residential building, even people who are not injured need help, and quickly, and sometimes lots of it.

My daughter shouted from her room: "Look out the window". Then, I saw the fog of smoke. My junior investigative reporting team (my daughters), went down to see what was going on and brought back a report along with several pictures: the fire was in "Danger Building".

Danger Building got its infamous name after the 2005 Iranian earthquake, when the frightening aftershocks, which made the building shake considerably, sent its residents running outside. On January 10, the residents of Danger Building were out on the streets again, this time escaping from a fire.

From 6am on Friday until Saturday morning, there was almost no one out to help the families that had taken refuge in their cars, corridors of the surrounding buildings, and on the grassy slope supporting the exits on Al Khan Bridge, as they watched their building smolder and burn.

"Have the building owners or management come to see the residents?" I asked. "No. It's Friday...who cares about us?" one resident, Riya, told me. These words stopped me in my tracks. Why does she feel this way? Is it true? I got my answer, when no one responded to those who needed help. I decided to put social media to the test and sent out messages on Twitter and Facebook to several charities and other local organisations that do occasional charity campaigns, but got no reply.

Where were the aid agencies and volunteers who could assist them that chilly, cloudy morning? Why do some cases get more attention than others? Charity can't be about some lending a hand only if the tragedy merits a multi-page, glossy-coloured photo-op, pats on the backs, and international praise.

As the blaze raged, management was mute, but quickly found its voice when it came to matters of money. When some residents decided to cancel their newly signed contracts and asked for their cheques back, the building management had the nerve to demand three months rent.

Fifteen days later, another fire, but this time, the tragedy is multiplied. Over 100 families are homeless, having lost everything. This time, help was forthcoming. And unlike at Danger Building, during the second fire at Al Baker Tower, there were volunteers taking names and numbers. Perhaps it was because Al Baker Tower was only two years old; but then, the question is how did such a new building burn so fast? Looking at the torched skeleton of the building, I thought about all of those who lost everything. Luckily for them there was some help.

Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qassimi is heading a campaign, in collaboration with several other businesses and charities, to give some assistance to the victims of this devastating tragedy. They are collecting clothes and household items, and assisting people with temporary shelter. This campaign lasted only a week; it will take many many more to recover fully.

How did these two fires start? Were there any fire safety mechanisms in place? Fire drills? In my building, there isn't any. I have a fire extinguisher in my kitchen but I need to practice using it. Mohamed Shakkir, an architect with Haruia Associates, told me that sometimes the building owners will ask that in order to cut costs that the fire exits be removed.

Here are a few tips. If your building has fire exits practice a fire drill with your family. Learn the easiest path out of your building, and keep your important papers and money ready incase you need to leave in a hurry. Ask schools to have a fire safety week. Perhaps with some of these prevention methods, fires can be stopped or their severity lessened. Don't rely on building management.

So where do ordinary expatriates go when they find themselves homeless? Who will come to their aid? Only a few friends, I've learned. When it comes to rent, contracts, and real estate management, tenants are thrown to the lions. It seems heartless that even days later, residents are still homeless. Where will they eat and sleep? How will they get to work and school?

The UAE has many millionaires, businesses and charities helping people around the world.

But charity begins at home. With mercy and care, we can grow together. Without them, we're just individual grains of sand tossed around by the uncaring winds of circumstance.


Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE