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UAE students help feed 9,700 children for a day

Images of starving people in drought-ravaged Somalia spurred a group of university students to raise funds to help. Despite a hectic academic schedule, they found the right backing, mobilised participants, dealt with red tape and hosted a successful walkathon.

  • Shahana and You got advice on the logistical and legal requirements for the walkathon from the UN’s WFP.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Shahana Zaib. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Standing: Karan Kumar, Toby Toms Skaria, Elise Bijon of WFP, Shahana’s parents – Ismail and Yasmin ZaibImage Credit: Supplied picture

Their faces looked like skulls -paper-thin skin stretched taut over cheekbones. Giant eyes stared out, only blinking to swat away flies.The children's heads seemed far too big fortheir shrunken bodies.

Watching the television news report, Shahana Zaib had to fight not to cry. The images were horrific, but she couldn't look away.

"There were women - every single one carrying what looked like skin and bones," shudders the 19-year-old. "I couldn't make out if the child they were carrying was alive until they shifted and you could see the child moving. What struck me were the huge number of children and how incredibly frail they were."

Shahana, a third-year BA Management student at the Heriot-Watt University in Dubai, was witnessing the shocking pictures of the refugees in Somalia in August, who'd been hit by the worst drought in 60 years.

But while most viewers were moved momentarily by the footage of hundreds of thousands of people pouring into the capital city of Mogadishu - said to be one of the most unsafe cities in the world - because of their desperate situation, the teenager couldn't shake the torment and suffering she'd watched.

Thirteen million lives were threatened by the severe food crisis in Africa. Famine has been declared in several parts of Somalia. "One of the photos was particularly striking," Shahana recalls. "It was a photograph of a child lying ina fetal position, clearly starving to death. It made me sick, I wanted to put it out of my mind, but I couldn't. "

Shahana was determined to do something to help. "I had to alleviate their suffering somehow," she said. So the next day, she spoke to her friends at college who had all been shocked by the footage. The images of acutely malnourished Somali children fighting for survival were etched in their minds, and they all felt the need to help. "We couldn't just ignore it," says Shahana. And so the teenager and her friends came up with the idea to do a walkathon to raise money for the famine victims.

She posted the simple idea on her facebook page, and almost immediately received900 responses. "I was stunned at the emotions my post evoked," she admits. But it spurred her into doing even more.

Finding support

Along with six of her friends, Arunya Paramanathan, Pooja Prasad, Sagar Chandiramani, Sultana Jahan, Karan Kumar, and Toby Toms Skaria, Shahana formed an informal group that she called ‘You', an acronym for ‘Youth of UAE'.

The group decided to begin their campaign online, creating a support group on facebook called ‘Save Somalia - Dubai Chapter'. Along with sharing news about the situation there, it also helped them mobilise potential participants for the walkathon. Everyone wanted to help and they had 1,000 members within a couple of days.

Shahana and her friends went into overdrive. As weeks went by it was clear that You would not be able to handle the mechanics of fund-raising by themselves. "We had approached the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) office here once for a fund-raiser in our college," she says. "Now we decided to speak to them about our idea to help the starving children."

Within a month of launching the initiative, they managed to arrange a meeting with the WFP. The Dubai-based regional team, in charge of private partnerships at WFP, was impressed by their presentation and the level of commitment by the friends. Elise Bijon, WFP partnership and business development manager for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf region, advised them on the logistical and legal requirements for organising a charity event on this scale. Among other things, it meant approaching the municipality for permission to organise a charity event, and also getting approval to stage the walkathon.

Dh1 a day to save a child

While WFP couldn't offer monetary assistance, its help with the planning prepared the You members for the long haul ahead. The organisation shared the data it had on Somalia, which helped the friends calculate how much money was required to feed the starving children there - just one dirham a day per child.

"Through their straightforward endeavour… these young people remind us all that solutions to global hunger are within everybody's reach, even if the issue may sometimes seem too immense for us to do anything about," says Elise. "We hoped to see many Dubai residents join the walkathon to both support the cause, and encourage the spirit of solidarity of our local youth."

Shahana and her group worked on organising the walkathon while also juggling the heavy academic schedule for their exams. "There were days when my friends and I were running around after classes to finalise details, or get permissions from the municipality and go to bed only to get up early to study for our tests," says Shahana. "Most days we got by on less than four hours' sleep."

Shahana was lucky she had her father, Ismail, to advise her. Although he and his wife, Yasmin, were worried about the effect Shahana's commitment would have on her studies, they decided to help.

Ismail suggested the idea of sponsoring the event to the company he worked for - Fonterra Brands Middle East, the regional branch of the global dairy company. "They readily agreed to supply the drinks we market here to the participants, and also a T-shirt for everyone taking part," he says. Ismail's role included driving Shahana and her friends around to the government departments, and the sponsors for meetings. "She'd finish her classes, huddle with the You members charting out their daily programme, then I'd run them to the meetings, and drive her back home at round 9pm," says a proud Ismail. "She'd be up again early to prepare for the exams."

D-day nerves

Then, on November 26, three months after she'd watched the shocking footage on TV, Shahana and her friends were ready for the three-kilometre ‘Yalla Save Somalia Walkathon' which was held at Zabeel Park under the patronage of the Dubai Municipality. "We were on tenterhooks, because we had put all our hearts into it, and wanted it to succeed," she says.

The atmosphere was charged when225 people turned up at the venue at 4pm to pay Dh20 to walk the three kilometres around the park. "We were overwhelmed by the response," says Shahana. "There was a feeling of oneness as we walked together." There were students from their college, their friends, some of their parents and many others who had seen the appeal and decided to participate. At the end of the day You had collected Dh9,700, which included a Dh5,000 contribution from their sponsor, Fonterra Brands Middle East.

Collective effort

Shahana and her team are elated at the contribution they've been able to make to help feed starving Somalian children. "It's a great feeling knowing that we've helped 9,700 children, even if for only a day," says Shahana. "We plan to do more such events where we can highlight a problem, so that more people will become aware of them and pitch in to try and solve them."

The disturbing pictures of the starving Somalian children still continue to haunt her. "They don't just go away," says the teenager softly. "We can't just sit back and let go now." It is this sense of commitment that will keep You going. "Just think, as little as one dirham per day is enough to feed a hungry child or mother on the edge of survival," says Shahana. "The success of the walkathon proved people care. Now, it's time we carried the work further."

Shahana is certain that whatever she does in future it will include initiatives to help people in need. "I am very proud of what You has achieved in the small span of time we have been active," she says.

"It is not the work of just one person, but a collective effort. I feel we have demonstrated what a determined group of people, no matter what their station in life, can do if they put their minds to it. After I finish my studies, I'd like to plan events that will give people a chance to help others in need."

Shahana has proved that determination and the willingness to connect with people are all it requires to make a difference.


WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger worldwide, has already reached over 7.7 million people in the Horn of Africa with urgently needed food assistance and plans to scale up its operations to reach out to a total 11million people affected by the crisis over the next six months. Each year, on average, WFP feeds more than 90 million people in more than 70 countries.

Donate to WFP's Horn of Africa online appeal

YOU is in an initiative established by a group of students from the Heriot-Watt University Dubai, in support of the populations hit by famine and drought in the Horn of Africa. YOU is constituted of seven active members:

Making a difference

  • Who: Shahana Zaib
  • What: Raising money to help feed children in Somalia
  • Where: in Dubai
  • How: Formed You, a group that raised funds througha walkathon heldat Zabeel Park