x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Volunteers from UAE change lives of Brazil's poor

Working with a not-for-profit social development organisation, Monyati Initiatives, the group built six wooden homes in a favela in Sao Paulo.

Geraldine Hafez, an Egyptian who studied at the American University of Sharjah, with one of the grateful favela children. Courtesy Amelia Johnson
Geraldine Hafez, an Egyptian who studied at the American University of Sharjah, with one of the grateful favela children. Courtesy Amelia Johnson

DUBAI // Volunteers from the UAE have helped to transform the lives of poor families in Brazil's biggest city by building new homes.

Working with a not-for-profit social development organisation, Monyati Initiatives, the group built six wooden homes in a favela in Sao Paulo.

The experience helped families and gave the volunteers valuable insight into how people living in the poverty-stricken neighbourhood cope.

"One of the best memories I have was sitting on the roof of one of the houses hammering in the last few nails overlooking the favela, while having a coffee with the family we were helping," said Kiko Hindash, 25, a Palestinian-Macedonian studying international development and political science at Middlesex University in Dubai.

"It was very emotional when we were handing over the finished houses and wishing the families peace and happiness. I couldn't stop crying."

Ms Hindash was one of nine volunteers who took part in the nine-day project during Ramadan.

Despite having to prepare for exams and course work, she was determined to be part of the project, especially after given the hardships faced by the families.

"There was a blind and disabled woman who lived alone and whose house would flood every time it rained so was forced to stay in bed," she said. "We met a family with six young kids being looked after by their dad while the mother worked long hours and who needed a bigger home for their family.

"There was also a single mother who was trying to get custody of her children after the father left her and needed a house to prove to the authorities that she could look after the children."

Emirati Mohammed Al Sharhan, 25, who was studying for a master's degree in sustainable transportation at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, said it was a life-changing experience.

"It was nice to be in direct involvement with the local people, who tended to be shy and conservative at the beginning, but later opened their heart and start considering us as part of the family," Mr Al Sharhan said.

The volunteers stayed at a school and lived with dozens of other volunteers from Un Techo, a South American charity that specialises in building low-cost housing.

Each home cost Dh6,426 and took between two and three days to build.

The volunteers had limited food rations and endured the coldest temperatures in Brazil for 52 years.

Mr Al Sharhan urged other Emiratis to do voluntary work as a way of helping others.

Rami Al Otaibi, 24, a Jordanian architect at AECOM International in Abu Dhabi, said the discomfort of living in spartan accommodation was a small price to pay to help needy families.

"The favelas are like a scene from Slumdog Millionaire," he said. But the people "are passionate, loving, welcoming, very respectful of other cultures and extremely generous, to my surprise".

Monyati Initiatives was founded in 2009 by Monja Wolf, a German businesswoman based in Abu Dhabi.

The organisation has carried out a variety of aid work, including providing clean running water to nine rural schools in Kyrgyzstan and giving blankets and food to disadvantaged people in New Delhi.

The group worked in partnership with Etihad Airways, which gave plane tickets to the volunteers. The group had to pay for their own accommodation, transport and food in Brazil.

"To experience a small fraction of the hardships that these families go through every day had a real impact on them and they appreciated how lucky they are to live in the UAE," Ms Wolf said.

"Allowing the volunteers the chance to meet and live with the people they are helping really brought home how much of a difference they were making."

For more details about Monyati Initiatives, visit www.monyati.com

nhanif@thenational.ae