x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Moved to act by one man's hunger

A self-described British Pakistani housewife with a background in investment banking runs a charity that assists people in labour camps.

Saher Shaikh has devoted much of her time to improving the lives of labourers.
Saher Shaikh has devoted much of her time to improving the lives of labourers.

DUBAI // A chance encounter at a supermarket checkout inspired Saher Shaikh to devote much of her time to improving the lives of labourers.

The mother of three saw a man who could not afford to pay for his meal and offered to help.

That event six years ago sparked the self-described British Pakistani to set up the AdoptaCamp charity.

The organisation attracts hundreds of people every year to events that support workers in labour camps and now provides supplies to 12,800 people in 36 camps across the Emirates.

"I was in Spinneys in Marina Walk with my son, who was a baby at the time, and while we were in line I saw a labourer at the checkout struggling with his money," says Mrs Shaikh, 34. "He had some bread and a small bottle of laban and was paying in fils."

She offered to pay, but to spare the labourer's pride she said it was her son's birthday and asked if he would allow her to buy him his meal and anything else in the supermarket he wanted.

"He could have had anything but came back with a tiny bottle of strawberry milk," Mrs Shaikh says.

She then told staff at the shop to put the cost of other labourers' items on her bill in the future, and the seeds of AdoptaCamp were planted.

In April, ExpatWoman, a magazine for women who move to the UAE, presented a community service award to Mrs Shaikh for her work.

"My first impressions of her were that she is too nice and there's got to be something more to it," says Maria Tapal, a Pakistani national who has been a friend of Mrs Shaikh for four years.

"But after a few years I realised that she is genuinely nice. She is one of those rare people in Dubai that does not have any pretences and that is really refreshing.

"I know that if I was ever in a bind I could depend on her for support, and that is what makes her so special."

Mrs Shaikh's early life in the UK and her career in banking were far removed from the labour camps and her life as a housewife in the Emirates.

"I have been in Dubai for six years," she says. "I used to be an investment banker in the UK and in retail banking in Canada before we moved to Dubai.

"I have always had a passion for children and animals, and my dream was to open up a sanctuary for orphaned animals in Kashmir. Getting involved with helping labourers was by chance."

Mrs Shaikh's family background is a patchwork of nationalities. Her father is from Afghanistan and her mother is from Lucknow in India.

"Although both of my parents were living in the UK at the time, my mum decided she wanted to be with her family and they were living in Karachi," she says.

After she was born, her parents took her back to the UK and she spent her formative years in England.

"My parents always wanted the best for me so they saved up to allow me to go to a public school," Mrs Shaikh says. "I met some really wonderful people, and I grew up very English and proud of being so."

At the age of 10 she moved with her parents back to Pakistan because her father wanted to be closer to his parents, who had shifted there from Afghanistan. They were getting old and needed more looking after.

"Two years after that my grandmother died and it was good that we were together as a family," Mrs Shaikh says.

"I loved every minute of my time in Pakistan. Pakistanis are such warm people and I always felt that I was part of a larger family."

At 18, she returned to the UK to do her bachelor's degree in finance and international stock markets at the University of Westminster.

She then took a job at an investment bank in London before moving to Canada with her husband in January 2001.

The couple had been childhood friends and did their MBAs in finance together at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. Later, she took a job at a retail bank.

Mrs Shaikh and her husband, the property developer Shamrez Shaikh, moved to Dubai in 2005.

"We have been married for more than 10 years and I don't think there is a kinder, more generous person I know," says Mr Shaikh, 37, a Canadian national who was born in the UAE to Pakistani parents.

He says they are keen to give their two sons, aged 6 and 4, and their daughter, 2 months, a sense of responsibility.

The boys often help their mother on visits to labour camps and collections for people in need.

"The way she juggles being a mother, a wife and helping to run the AdoptaCamp is amazing," Mr Shaikh says.

"I'm more in the background now to provide support but she has inspired a lot of people who volunteer their time to help with the charity."

For more information, visit the AdoptaCamp Facebook page.

nhanif@thenational.ae