Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 August 2019

Hajj Terminal volunteers offer pilgrims warm welcome

Altogether, the volunteers and passport control officers speak 10 languages between them to assist the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving to Saudi Arabia, Balquees Basalom writes from Jeddah

Volunteers prepare to welcome pilgrims to the Hajj Terminal in King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Balquees Basalom / The National
Volunteers prepare to welcome pilgrims to the Hajj Terminal in King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Balquees Basalom / The National

Dotted between a sea of pilgrims dressed in white and the officers in dark green suits, a group of 16 to 24-year-olds wait to receive the “guests of Allah”.

As tens of thousands of travellers from around the world arrive at King Abdulaziz International Airport’s Hajj Terminal, a dedicated team of 75 volunteers prepare to greet and guide them through immigration.

Dressed in jackets reading ‘Kun awnan li khidmat dhuyuf Allah’ or ‘be a helper for the guests of Allah’, the school and university students volunteer their time under the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Foundation initiative.

Some have been dispatched to the Hajj Terminal but others will be scattered across the holy sites when Hajj begins on Friday.

“We work in three shifts that cover the 24 hours across all passport halls in the Hajj terminal,” said Abudulrahman Farsi, a university student in Jeddah.

Mr Farsi, 20, and the other volunteers each underwent training before being deployed to the terminal. They are all required to speak a minimum of English and Arabic fluently to participate.

Banan Baabdullah, 18, was happy to be able to assist Turkish pilgrims in their language.

“I was very pleased to finally be able to use my third language,” she said.

“Our role is to guide the pilgrims from the gates to passport control.”

The volunteers also help pilgrims with special needs or elderly travellers who may need help with mobility or carrying their luggage.

“The pilgrims react very happily when they see us greeting them in their languages,” said Mr Farsi. “That is why we push each other to learn more.”

Altogether, the volunteers and passport control officers speak 10 languages between them but with people coming to Saudi Arabia from all over the world, communication issues can still crop up.

“After my first day here, I found it very difficult to communicate with some of the pilgrims,” said Nowayir Al Seed.

“Some of them would sit down when they arrived at the gate or would give us chocolates and spices when we asked them to take out their passports and, although that is sweet, there was a language barrier,” the 17-year-old pupil said.

To overcome that obstacle, Nowayir looked up how to say key terms in other languages.

“I searched how to say ‘one by one, stop, this way, please, thank you and welcome’ in Nigerian, Indonesian and Urdu.”

Working at the terminal has been a unique experience for the volunteers and passport control officers on duty alike. “Working at the Hajj Terminal is different to anything we have been exposed to before, you witness the emotional arrival of the hajjis,” said Abdulaziz Al Ghamdi, 27, an immigration officer.

“Just yesterday I witnessed something majestic that made me tear up.

“We had a flight arriving from Indonesia and when each group walked into the passport hall, they all placed their bags and things aside and performed sujood [prostrated] together.

“Five groups did that. All the officers were silent; we were all in awe of that scene.”

Updated: August 7, 2019 09:56 PM

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