x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Volunteer mentors to help orphans integrate into society

In what is being described as the first programme of its kind, 50 orphans will be paired with older mentors who will organise activities or just "hang out".

ABU DHABI // In what is being described as the first programme of its kind, 50 orphans will be paired with older mentors who will organise activities or just "hang out". The goal, officials say, is to help make this most vulnerable segment of society feel less isolated. The programme, called Al Khawi (Arabic for brotherhood), has been launched by the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care, Special Needs and Minors Affairs (ZHO) and Takatof, the UAE's social volunteering programme.

They have enlisted the help of 50 Emirati volunteers, who will be interviewed and vetted, then be introduced to the orphans before they pick their preferred matches, and proceed to meet weekly. Once matched up, they will "go on trips, to the gym, library, or hang out", said Maytha al Habsi, Takatof's director. She added that the arrangement needed to feel spontaneous for it to succeed. "We don't want it to be so organised," she said.

"It would kill the programme. We want the relationships to be natural, not forced." The weekly mentoring sessions are scheduled to start during Ramadan, and will last for six months before being evaluated. The ZHO said it was hoped that the programme would help orphans who might be socially isolated. "Equality is there but in a narrow sense," said Mohammed al Hamly, the secretary general of the ZHO.

"This gives it a structure." Ms al Habsi agreed. "We encourage programmes to tackle any gap, but it doesn't mean that we're in a terrible shape," she said. "These brotherly relationships are there, but they need to be organised." The main problem was the lack of a channel for society to reach out to the orphans. "I know a lot of people who say, 'I want to spend time with these youngsters'," she said.

Takatof, which has a database of more than 7,000 volunteers and has clocked up more than 70,000 hours of volunteer work so far this year, is to begin processing applications to the programme immediately. Exceptions could be made for eager expatriate volunteers willing to join the programme as well, said Mr al Hamly. The ZHO department that handles children's affairs takes care of more 400 orphans who are divided into three age groups.

Infants are given to families willing to nurture them, while older children are assigned to independent villas paid for by the ZHO. These villas are aimed at creating a family atmosphere by assigning foster parents to the children. Supervised youth homes are also available for orphans over 12, in addition to access to public schools and an allowance. Islam encourages taking care of orphans, but prohibits adoption that leads to name change.

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