Emirates Effect: Takatof, a programme that encourages volunteerism in the UAE, provides humanitarian aid to children in Tanzania.
Emirati volunteers help change lives
ABU DHABI // When Sultan Al Minhali saw children walking barefoot for kilometres to reach the empty hut they called a school in Tanzania, he was moved to take action.
The 24-year-old Emirati engineer from Abu Dhabi presented the children with new shoes.
"They were so, so, so happy - as if we had given them a car," he said. "They are deprived. They are all living a simple life, bless them."
The smiles on their faces, he said, were enough to change his life.
Known to some as a honeymoon destination, the east African country is home to many living in poverty.
Mr Al Minhali was there last summer with Takatof, a social programme designed by the Emirates Foundation to create a culture of volunteering throughout the UAE. Their mission in Tanzania was to deliver humanitarian aid by rebuilding school classrooms and health institutes.
He and a dozen other Emiratis gathered enough money to provide more than 100 pairs of shoes for the children.
"Your priorities change," Mr Al Minhali said. "You don't take things for granted like you used to."
Maytha Al Habsi, the head of the programme, said its volunteers have been to Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, Pakistan and the United States to deliver humanitarian aid.
The effect the Tanzania mission had on Mr Al Minhali was common among Takatof volunteers, she said.
"It is an eye-opening experience for many people," Ms Al Habsi said. "They come back appreciating everything, and become naturally humanitarian, giving more naturally, not distracted by materialism.
"It would even make them better parents, better friends and better employees."
So far, about 28,000 volunteers are registered with Takatof. And the database is growing, Ms Al Habsi said.
"A lot more people here are getting into volunteering, helping how they can," she added.
Many people who participate in the overseas trips, after weeks of hard work, do not want to return to the UAE.
"People start having a new purpose to help others," she said.
One such person is Tuaiba Al Darmaki. On a trip to south-west Missouri in the US last year to build homes for those who had lost everything during a tornado, Ms Al Darmaki wanted to stay longer than the week-long programme to help.
"When I heard about the story, it was very sad - these people lost everything maybe in five minutes," said the 28-year-old, from Al Ain. "Takatof asked if we were willing to go and volunteer. We said, 'of course.' I was representing Emirati women in this project."
Although the group had to rise at 5am each day and worked in the freezing cold for a week, Ms Al Darmaki said making others happy motivated them to keep going.
"What Ms Al Habsi said was right: thank God we are in this country, have everything, and thanks to our leaders who give us everything, they make us comfortable," she said. "Seeing how people live makes you appreciate your life."
Mariam Baniyas, 30, from Sharjah, was also on the Missouri trip and she, too, was highly motivated.
"We built about four or five houses, but we wanted to do more," she said. "The people were also very grateful."
Ms Al Habsi said such trips not only change Emirati lives, but also prepare them to provide assistance in other situations.
She said it was important for Emiratis to learn that help was not only about financial support, but also through giving aid, no matter how little it was.
The simple act of keeping children occupied during catastrophes, including amid the floods in Pakistan, lifted a large amount of stress from families, Ms Al Habsi said.
"Keeping kids busy with simple games is valuable in these times when depression takes over," she said.
"Mum is worrying about the future. Dad is, too. The volunteers provided medical, psychological and emotional help."
Mr Al Minhali remembered their driver in Pakistan telling the volunteers that they were like Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, because they were always ready to provide assistance.
"As my country did a lot for me, we want to repay it by letting people see our country through my work," he said.