x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Moe the smiling warrior who played rugby for the love of meeting people

When he arrived in Dubai from Iraq looking for a better life, Mothana Khafaji could hardly speak a word of English, so he joined a rugby club to make friends - and he made lots.

Katie Pattison-Hart trains limbers up for an event when she and James Elliot-Square will take to their machines and row for 24 hours. Charles Crowell for The National
Katie Pattison-Hart trains limbers up for an event when she and James Elliot-Square will take to their machines and row for 24 hours. Charles Crowell for The National

When he arrived in Dubai from Iraq looking for a better life, Mothana Khafaji could hardly speak a word of English, so he joined a rugby club to make friends - and he made lots. Last month Moe lost his life to cancer but he will never lose those friends. Mitya Underwood reports

"Whatever he did in Dubai, he did it with a smile and made a huge impact. He was a guy that could make anyone from anywhere feel welcome," says Chris Gregory about his former flatmate Mothana Khafaji, who died last month after battling colon cancer. "He was just one of life's good guys."

The Dubai expatriate life is often criticised for being shallow and transient, but occasionally something happens which pulls the community together and silences the critics.

When Mothana - a former Dubai Hurricanes player known to his friends as Moe - was told he had colon cancer in 2011, it triggered one of those moments.

From that date up until his death last month, hundreds of people from across the country and further afield have worked to raise money to cover his medical bills, and keep his spirits high.

"Moe was perhaps the first Iraqi guy that played rugby," laughs Chris, a project manager at a rock engineering company, who met Moe on his second day in the country. "He wasn't the most competitive player, or playing for the love of rugby, he played for the love of meeting people.

"And when something like this happens to someone like that, everyone pulls together. Dubai is a very transient place. You meet someone, you become friends, and they leave two years later. But there are people like Moe who make such a big impression on everyone they meet. He deserves everything everyone has done, and more."

Originally from Iraq, Moe moved to Dubai in 2002 in search of a better life. He spoke very little English but, after meeting some rugby players from the UK, signed himself up to the Dubai Hurricanes, becoming the only Arab on the team and instantly part of the "Canes family". He also became an amateur boxer and adopted the name Warrior.

"He made so many friends here," Chris says. "He just had a personality that people warmed to."

Moe left Dubai in 2011 after struggling to find a secure job with his Iraqi passport. It was shortly after he left that cancer was diagnosed. It had already spread to his pancreas and liver.

Due to an early misdiagnosis he had to undergo chemotherapy treatment in Amman, Jordan, before travelling to the US, where he died. None of his medical costs in Jordan or the States were covered by insurance, and that was where his friends stepped in to help. They have already raised almost Dh500,000 through the Doe for Moe campaign.

"At first we were a bit worried because of the Arab pride thing," says another friend, Amanda Maxwell, an HR worker. "But he loved it because it wasn't charity. He loved the fact people were coming together and he was the reason. It was really beautiful."

Many of Moe's Dubai-based friends, including Amanda, visited him when he was undergoing chemotherapy in Jordan before he flew to the US late last year.

His brother, Kutaiba, who lives and works there, was able to find a medical group who could sponsor a medical visa and pay for a small portion of his medical bills.

Sadly, the treatment was unsuccessful and Moe passed away in Denver, Colorado, on Sunday, March 24. His body was repatriated to Iraq and buried next to his father, who also died of cancer at a young age.

After the initial diagnosis, Moe's friends here set up a Facebook page to post messages and photos for him. "He loved it," says Lindsay Morrison. "And for his family to see that as well, they were overwhelmed, actually more than overwhelmed. Then when he passed away, Kutaiba got in touch to ask us to send the photos to him."

As an Iraqi, Moe, who was thought to be about 40 when he died, sometimes experienced difficulties leaving and arriving in the UAE. When Lindsay first arrived in Dubai 10 years ago she remembers him sleeping in the airport for a week because of a problem with his name. This meant he rarely saw his family back home in the last eight years of his life.

"Through the photos and messages they could see how Moe lived his life here, and how much he meant to everyone," says Lindsay, who describes him as a "friendly giant".

After his initial diagnosis his friends organised a number of fund-raising events, including a marathon, a kayak round the Palm Jumeirah, and a golf day. The money raised will go towards outstanding medical and funeral expenses, which are now the responsibility of his family.

This Friday, many of his friends will gather again to support two people undertaking a gruelling 24-hour row.

James Elliot-Square and friend Katie Pattison-Hart, a Guinness World Record breaker, will begin at midday on Friday at The Shack gym on Dubai's kite surfing beach, finishing midday on Saturday. They will row alternate hours on machines, each effectively covering between 130 kilometres and 180km - the approximate distance between Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

"Everyone here is in the same boat so you almost have an extended family, not just friends," says James, 29, a property consultant and Hurricanes player.

"And when something happens to that extended family you feel like it's your duty to step up to the plate.

"When we started planning this, he was still strong. It was just in the last few weeks that things started turning quite bad. I had a phone call from Chris to say things weren't looking good. But once he died we decided to carry on. It would have been unfair to pull out now."

The most difficult part of the row will be trying to refuel some of the 1,300 calories burnt every hour - 15,600 in total - while trying to rest the body in between each stint.

Fortunately Katie, 33, already has experience in endurance rowing, after crossing the Atlantic in 2011 for another charitable cause. "I didn't know Moe, but when James asked me to do this and told me what it was for, of course I said yes, even though I thought I was retired from all that and would never get on another rowing machine," she says.

People can donate on the Doe for Moe mycause.com.au page, which has so far collected about A$30,000. James and Katie are also looking for as much support as possible on the day - and night - and are asking people to come to the gym for the event.

"This isn't just one event, it is one of many events that people have done for Moe," James says. "The Hurricanes and his friends have continually done things to help out. It has been a massive team effort, he deserved that."

At Moe's funeral a eulogy from his Dubai friends - including Chris, Lindsay and Amanda - was read out to the mourners.

It said: "You were courageous in your life and in your battle with cancer, and you have shown us that you are the Warrior that climbed into that boxing ring. You are our warrior and our legend. Rest in peace Moe."

To find out more about the cause, email doeformoe@hotmail.com, or visit www.mycause.com.au/page/doeformoe.