Thousands of debt-ridden prisoners have been able to return home, thanks to their fines being paid by Forgotten Society, writes Firoz Merchant
My humble roots drove me to become a success and give back to society
This time of year lends itself to thinking about how we can help others, in whatever way we can. The symbolism of Eid Al Adha is rooted in sacrifice. It even translates as “the festival of sacrifice” and marks the story in the Quran of Ibrahim preparing to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. At a time of great turbulence and upheaval around the world, with nearly one million people in Kerala made homeless by floods and 13 million people displaced in Syria, we are reminded of the need to give generously to those less fortunate.
I myself come from a humble background in India. I was one of nine children in a family of six boys and three girls. My father was a property broker and my mother was a housewife. The family’s property business often did not do well and we led a hand-to-mouth existence. When I was 11 years old, I had to discontinue my education to support my father in the business. Gradually, learning from him, I was able to grow the family business.
When I came to Dubai almost 30 years ago in 1989, it was at a time of evolution. I was inspired by the benevolence of the late Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father of the nation, who touched the lives of millions through his genuine care for them. In fact, his vision has been instrumental in establishing the UAE as the world’s largest donor of development assistance in proportion to its gross national income for the fifth year running. I wanted to emulate him and carry his legacy forward.
When I started Pure Gold as a jewellery business with a single outlet in Gold Souk, Dubai, I faced many challenges. At first, my family wasn’t sure about my decision to move to Dubai. However, I was able to convince them that I had found my calling. I started on a very small scale with just a few employees and took some time to understand the business before taking bigger risks and orders. I worked hard with my team, pushed boundaries and today we have 157 stores in the Middle East and Asia.
In 2008, the global financial crisis led to many people losing their jobs. Blue collar workers, businessmen and professionals were jailed after being laden with debts. They could not afford to renew their visas and were jailed. I believe that those who are imprisoned for debts, especially due to factors beyond their control, are not real criminals but are victims of unfortunate circumstances. Their plight moved me and I knew I had to give back to this forgotten community.
That is why, in 2008, I established Forgotten Society, a charity set up to take care of the ignored and forgotten. The idea was to help debt-ridden prisoners who were insolvent, unable to pay their dues and had been imprisoned. They did not even have money to return home when they were released.
I supported them with air tickets back to their home country so that they could live productive lives and be united with their families. Over the years, I have also made financial contributions to endowments such as the Faraj Fund, which help prisons in Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Sharjah, Fujairah, Umm Al Qawain and Ras Al Khaimah, as well as a number of other organisations, so that prisoners could return home to their families after their sentences. Through Forgotten Society, I freed thousands of debt-ridden prisoners by paying fines amounting to millions of dirhams. More than 5,000 prisoners in Ajman have been freed over the past 10 years by Forgotten Society. Through my recent endowments, 560 prisoners were freed in the UAE in April alone.
Having been blessed generously by God, I work tirelessly with numerous government authorities. Together, we identify the most pressing cases and we help as many people in unfortunate circumstances as we can. From the start, I knew I would only help prisoners who were debt-ridden due to their financial problems. My own life experience has taught me what hardship feels like. I have been able to execute philanthropic gestures on a large scale with the co-operation of the UAE government. After doing this for a decade, I have realised if you do good it always comes back to you.
What is more, I have had the chance to interact with a few of the people who have benefited from Forgotten Society. They thanked me for giving them a second chance at life and said they will be more responsible in future. I have full faith in the strong humanitarian values of the UAE leadership. This is something I have imbibed since moving here. Just as the country has given me so much in terms of happiness, peace and prosperity, so I too am giving back.
Apart from helping release prisoners in debt, I also support a number of social causes. I am funding scholarships for undergraduate female Emirati students at the University of Fujairah and offering a scholarship programme for female Emirati staff of the General Directorate of Residency and Foreign Affairs in Dubai. I have also offered to support female Emirati students in Ajman University. Other philanthropic projects include clean water supplies and the installation of handpumps in several villages in emerging nations that help provide access to drinking water as well as enabling the farming and livestock industries; the distribution of fresh vegetarian meal packages to shift workers in Mumbai, India; and, through the Firoz Merchant Foundation, the treatment of cancer patients who cannot afford their medical care.
I sincerely hope that others take a note and learn from the successes of Forgotten Society by helping each other. It is not just the business community but society as a whole that must take the responsibility in doing what it can to help the needy. That does not simply come down to the money one spends but the genuine care, time and energy we can devote to helping transform lives. There are multiple ways we can contribute to bring about positive changes in society.
Firoz Merchant is the founder and chairman of Pure Gold Group