x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sailors on boats docked at UAE ports get presents

Mission to Seafarers is delivering 8,000 Christmas parcels to crews missing families.

DUBAI // Thousands of small parcels are being distributed to sailors on boats docked at UAE ports during the festive season.

"Merry Christmas! Someone in the UAE is thinking of you," reads a small card tucked into the gifts of chocolates, shampoo and soap rolled into a white T-shirt and tied securely with a blue ribbon.

More than 8,000 such presents are being delivered by The Mission to Seafarers, a 156-year-old Christian agency, to seamen on hundreds of ships in Jebel Ali, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah and Hamriya ports.

The parcel has helped new seaman, Pranal D'souza, 20, overcome a bout of the blues on his first stint away from his family in Mumbai.

"It's just so nice that someone has even thought of us," said Mr D'souza, on a tug boat surrounded by his shipmates at Jebel Ali port.

"This gift really helps me. I'm missing my cousins and family, the parties and the Christmas mass at home.

"But it's okay because I now must concentrate on my career, and this is just the beginning for me. I think of my family opening Christmas gifts, and so it's fun for me to open a gift when I'm so far from home."

Chief officer Shaikh Zahid, 27, also from India, has been sailing for five years and says festivals are particularly hard on the crew. Most are at sea for four months to a year, and are often not permitted onshore due to a ship's rules or strict port formalities.

"We all know it's important for us to do our jobs and our work is out at sea, so you get addicted to life at sea," he said.

"But festivals are very difficult. Any festival is hard for the men because you think of home, and you hope to call your family and hear their voices any chance you get. So getting these gifts is a nice, unexpected surprise. It makes the men smile."

The mission operates seafarer centres in 258 ports in 71 countries.

The UAE is the only country where the mission's volunteers and chaplains distribute presents to seamen during Christmas and Ramadan.

The gifts are donated by local businesses and hotels. The T-shirts distributed carry the mission's welfare centre hotline contacts so sailors can speak to volunteers when they are in need of assistance.

This is the fourth year The Mission to Seafarers has undertaken the gift distribution initiative.

In Fujairah anchorage, the mission's support boat, the Flying Angel, pulls up near tankers and cargo vessels to hand over parcels to seafarers, while in Jebel Ali volunteers climb on board boats docked at the port.

"A seafarer's life is very tough and this counts for something, it means something to them," said Paul Burt, the managing director and senior chaplain of the mission.

"It is during the major holidays that seafarers feel the most isolated and alone. This is when they miss their families the most and the gifts are an expression of support and solidarity with them."

Yusuf Bandarzadar, an Iranian chief engineer with 35 years sailing experience, said this was the first gift he had received.

"We always take gifts back to the family, but it feels different to get something from a stranger. I feel I'm not alone, that somebody is thinking of me," he said.

Herman Erake, an Indonesian captain's assistant on an offshore passenger boat, said the crew wanted to spend more time on the phone with their families during Christmas and New Year.

"When we get a signal everyone wants to try to call home but, of course, it's expensive so only a few minutes is possible," said Mr Erake.

"We always take lots of gifts and toys back home for our family. This is the first time we are getting a gift. It may be a small parcel, but it means so much."

rtalwar@thenational.ae