'When there's disaster, people unite': UAE's rich and poor unite to help Kerala flood victims
Hour after hour the people came, donating dry food, clothes and blankets for flood victims in stricken Kerala.
Some did not have much money to give but still dug deep to help those who have lost everything.
At Universal Hospital in Abu Dhabi, dozens of aid boxes were stacked in the foyer on Sunday following urgent appeals for candles, blankets, soap and footwear.
Hospital staff who had finished their day jobs donned specially printed, white Kerala T-shirts and began packing up the items. The hospital on Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Street has become the epicentre of the relief effort in the emirate.
"In tough times we come together," said Aashish Bhandari, who came to donate but ended by staying on to help.
"We are fortunate that we can give something and it's an amazing effort. It shows that humanity is still alive," he said.
By the afternoon, a shortage of room inside the centre meant staff began piling up boxes out on the street.
"I am here because the situation is bad in Kerala," said Prajeesh Kandrassery, who is from the Indian state.
"This will help support the people and I feel very happy about that."
Staff at Universal Hospital have organised a charter flight that is set to leave Abu Dhabi on August 21 and will be able to handle 41 tonnes of aid. Two more relief flights are planned soon after, although details of where the aircraft will land are still being worked out as Cochin airport in Kochi, which serves the state of Kerala, remains closed due to the floods. Once it is reopened, however, UAE authorities have promised to waive any custom duties on supplies being flown out.
Dr Shabeer Nellikode, founder of Universal Hospital which also has branches in Al Ain and Dubai, is leading the relief effort.
"People from the richest to the poorest are helping,” he told The National.
“People who don’t have money have come here with items. I was almost about to cry when that happened. They came with bags full of things to be shipped back.”
Mr Nellikode’s phone does not stop ringing and he is surviving on four hours sleep a night. On Saturday, his team of volunteers worked until 3am. The response from all nationalities has been the most heartening, he said.
“When there's disaster, people unite. The Emiratis have helped too. One person gave me Dh200,000 and said he trusted us to get it to the right people."
Mr Nellikode has set a deadline of midnight on Sunday for donations and has suggested people donate through other channels after that. Emirates Red Crescent, for example, is also accepting donations.
More than 400 have died in the floods and while the situation has slightly improved on the ground, power is down in many areas and the spread of disease has become a real concern. Mr Nellikode's team have supplied Dh100,000 worth of medicines so far.
“We thought we would do a little bit and then walk away but the response from the people made us do more,” said Mr Nellikode. “They would come and say: 'we trust you and that’s why we are donating to you'.”
Relief efforts have come from across the UAE. At least Dh15 million has been pledged by three prominent Indian businessmen. And about Dh4 million worth of goods were collected by the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre in Dubai.
The Indian Social Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi is also helping, while at the Kerala Social Centre in the capital, volunteers have already prepared close to 100 boxes. Dozens of volunteers worked until midnight on Saturday and the same effort was repeated on Sunday. The boxes contain blankets, first aid and children’s clothes.
“Our volunteers are out in the field collecting things now,” said Ajweb Parabur, a volunteer at the centre. “There has been a very positive response.”
This week also marks Onam, an annual Hindu festival with roots in Kerala, but these celebrations have ceased at the centre with all hands now on deck for the relief effort. “That money will be transferred to Kerala,” said Mr Parabur.
UAE leaders have also responded to the disaster. The President, Sheikh Khalifa, ordered the formation of an emergency committee which is being chaired by Emirates Red Crescent.