x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

United in the spirit of giving at Adopt-A-Camp charity night

Volunteer response to the Dubai group's effort to provide essential items to labourers last week was overwhelming.

Everyday essentials such as toothpaste, disinfectant and shaving kits were assembled for labourers in the UAE. Sammy Dallal / The National
Everyday essentials such as toothpaste, disinfectant and shaving kits were assembled for labourers in the UAE. Sammy Dallal / The National

It's past 1am on a sweltering summer night and the Dubai World Trade Centre is home to a community of thousands that will exist for just a few hours.

The group reflects the diversity of the UAE: a woman in a full niqab is working seamlessly alongside a Lebanese woman in a diaphanous blouse as part of the human chain loading boxes filled with goods that will brighten the lives of labourers in Dubai.

When the Adopt-a-Camp founder Saher Shaikh put out the call for helpers in her most ambitious Ramadan care packages programme yet, which happened last week, she was hoping that 5,000 people would give up a Thursday night and Friday morning for a good cause.

She was overwhelmed when more than 11,000 descended on the World Trade Centre, representing almost every demographic of the city. Only being able to accept half of them was tough but, six hours later, when the convoy of full trucks containing 300 tons worth of care packages rolled into Sonapur labour camp on the outskirts of Dubai, the looks on the labourers' faces were all she needed to see to know the entire exercise had been worthwhile.

"It was wonderful that these items reached them, but it was deeply humbling, almost terrifyingly humbling, to see what these basic supplies meant to these men," she said.

Shaikh was not alone in her feelings. One of the volunteers inside the trade centre was Aiman Khan, who summed it up this way on Facebook: "Seeing everyone working side by side, regardless of their faiths, race etc was such a humbling experience. Made me believe in humanity again. Thank you."

It was a sentiment shared by most of those who volunteered, and even by some who came to the World Trade Centre and were either turned away or gave up at the sight of gargantuan queues to get inside.

The dedication was demonstrated by people like Mohammed Atif, who accidentally slept in on Thursday morning, missing the chance to eat and drink before the dawn prayer, but turned up anyway in the hottest part of the day to help.

"I came here at 2pm when they were unloading things from trucks and bringing it in here," he said, motioning to the 10 lines of tables that were used for assembly.

"I was here until 7pm. Then I went for iftar - I needed some energy - and came back here around 8.30pm."

He was with a group of friends from Dubai and was still working flat out around 2am - 12 hours after he'd helped unload the raw materials - as the final trucks were loaded with completed care packages.

Each box contained simple but useful items such as soap bars, prickly heat powder, prayer mats and beads, cups, plates, tea bags, new pillows and linen, disinfectant and shaving kits. The idea was to provide supplies for three months.

One of the big sponsors was Emirates Airline, which provided thousands of cabin bags with basic toiletries and even the pyjamas that were once supplied to first-class passengers. Each care package included three pairs of Emirates pyjamas, raising the prospect that those on the very highest and the very lowest economic rungs in the UAE could find themselves dressed identically.

The level of organisation for the packing that night was impressive. Shaikh's collection of 96 team leaders included two people dedicated to serving water to volunteers, ensuring they kept hydrated. Every volunteer received an identifying wrist band and, afterwards, a certificate of appreciation.

For the grumbles of those who were turned away, the mood inside the trade centre was buoyant and helpful. Every time a truck was filled to capacity with boxes, a cheer would echo around the hall. The last box was filled by 9pm, prompting another, even bigger cheer. Everything left over was packaged to give away to a neighbouring camp, containing another 5,000 men. By 1.30am, the convoy was ready to roll.

Gee Ramos, a Dubai Metro worker, came to the trade centre last week even though her home city of Manila was being devastated by some of the worst flooding in its history.

"We checked and none of our families are affected by the flooding, but one of our friends is organising something for the Philippines," she said. "We're collecting goods: food and clothing - anything we can give that will help. We'll be collecting on Saturday."

She and her friends are Catholic but she said Christianity and Islam both put an emphasis on charitable acts.

In fact, many of those who helped out were from other religions but supported the objectives of Ramadan. Subash Chordia, a Jain from Chennai, said his religion has its own annual fasting and charity ritual, Paryushan, which is due to begin soon after Ramadan ends.

Chordia was the head of a 30-strong group organised through AT Kearney Global Management Consultants. "The office was looking for something charitable this year - it's a good bonding exercise - and after looking at several organisations, we chose this one, where we could be hands-on with the local community," he said.

"Adopt-a-Camp came across as very credible and reputable. I'm living here and it's good seeing people doing things for the labourers. You see them working in the hot sun.

"The fact she [Shaikh] can make all this happen and make it sustainable year after year, as she's been able to do this, is very impressive. We'll be back next year."

Shaikh, a former banking executive who describes herself as "a mother of three young children and 32,300-plus adopted boys", says Adopt-a-Camp began with a chance encounter in a Spinneys in Dubai in January 2006.

Seeing a labourer struggling to muster enough coins to pay for some laban and bread, she paid for his purchase. When she asked him to buy whatever else he wanted, he chose only a small carton of strawberry milk. Later she arranged for other labourers' purchases to be put on her account at the store, with the proviso that nobody should "make a big deal of it".

But after chatting to some of the labourers and talking to a friend who provided low-scale care packages to labour camps, she decided to put together hygiene kits for distribution.

"The men said that the kindness they experienced that day changed their lives," she said.

"At the most basic level, due to our drive to make camps bedbug- and lice-free, they could finally get a full night's rest. Before, when they'd get back after a long day of hard labour, they'd be up all night scratching away because of the bedbugs and lice.

"They said that peaceful sleep was the best gift we'd given them … that and the knowledge that there are people out there who care."

That first year, she provided care packages for about 80 labourers. After putting the word out to her friends, Adopt-a-Camp snowballed in size.

It also broadened its scope, both supporting living standards in camps and adopting camps where the owners had abandoned the workers by either going bust, absconding or landing in jail. Every camp adopted was made bedbug- and lice-free.

Free English classes were organised so the labourers could get better jobs, basic medical care was provided and counselling made available for men suffering from being so far from their families and support networks.

For all the bonhomie inside the trade centre, the evening took on an entirely different tenor once the trucks were filled and driven in convoy with 100 or so volunteers to Sonapur labour camp.

For anyone who has never been to a labour camp, the first experience of one is unlikely to fade from the memory quickly, not least for the aroma of thousands of men living in close proximity with only basic sanitation.

Even at about 3am, the camp - comprised of a series of three-storey accommodation blocks in rows of 10, with almost every spare bit of railing covered with washing - there were men milling around. Numbers quickly multiplied as word spread that the care packages had arrived.

The first trucks were swamped as volunteers tried to impose an orderly queue at the back so they could hand out the boxes - an effort undermined by the open-topped nature of the first, smaller trucks, which meant boxes could be removed from the sides.

But the restrained chaos was secondary to the impression on the labourers' faces. By and large the unskilled and semi-skilled workers who build Dubai are a taciturn and stoic lot, here to earn money to send back to their families, who they rarely see.

But that morning, there was genuine joy on show, with smiles all around and some workers proudly coming up to volunteers to announce their homelands. "Pakistan, Pershawa!" one said. "Afghanistan," said another.

After the initial melee, the men realised that there really was enough for everyone, and queues started to take form.

Volunteers handed out packages until around 6am, Shaikh said, barely taking the chance to drink before the fasting period kicked in again.

"Among the many highlights of the night, one of them for me was the trading that started on the sides of the road: guys having a blast bartering with each other," she said.

"Another highlight was at 5am, all of us sweaty and dishevelled and suddenly [smelling] a waft of Hermes (perfume courtesy of the Emirates overnight kits) from a grinning worker as he walked past."

All the volunteers showed it was possible for a single person, working with others, to make a real difference.

"All a person needs to do is care," Shaikh said. "And they did."

jhenzell@thenational.ae