Shattered windshields, tree trunks lying inside sunken car roofs, snapped branches strewn on sidewalks, darkened shop windows, barking dogs and dark puddles everywhere. This was the scene around Gramercy Park away from which I headed out of the downtown Manhattan area in search of electricity and phone signals to call my parents and let them know that Sandy had been kinder to me than she had been to others a few blocks from where I stood. It was Tuesday, October 30, a day after Sandy the Frankenstorm had laid out her vexation for the East Coast to see. If someone had told me that in a few hours I would be whisked away from the corner of 40th and 2nd Avenue to be checked into the five star Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue with every other UAE national student in the city, I would have thought it a cruel knight-in-shining-armour joke gone awry. The events that followed would see this scenario manifest, much to my astonishment and much to my delight. I stand here corrected and in awe of my country’s remarkable job at standing by its people.
Before the dust had settled and we had a chance to take in the temporary respite of our rather swanky shelter, a newspaper was doing a story on UAE citizens affected by Sandy. The story, an unfortunate mess of amplified facts, focused on all the wrong things putting the extravagant accommodation at the forefront and missed the point entirely. What was supposed to be a story on the exceptional job done by the staff members at the UAE Embassy and the UAE Mission to the UN in taking care of its citizens became a story about “privilege”. Reinforcing negative stereotypes, it was circulated on social media sites, prompting messages of praise and support and other messages of bitterness and pique. All stimulated by a cursory examination of a story requiring more responsibility and vision.
Let us cut this short and focus on the real story. Fact is, most of the named students had never stepped foot into the Waldorf Astoria before this incident and none were privileged in any other way than to have a UAE citizenship. So when it came to superstorm Sandy, this meant that they could call the emergency hotline at the UAE Embassy in the US, like many other embassies on the East Coast, to notify them that they were to remain affected by the power outage for quite some time. No one called it suffering and no one complained. They were all prepared to wait it out like every other person in New York and charge their phones at streetlight poles. They all walked up in the wee hours of the morning from their downtown dwellings in search of a cup of coffee heated over a gas plate for caffeine-starved New Yorkers on a dark morning. They had slept through the outage and strode up zombie-like and weirdly excited in the post-Sandy eeriness that had enveloped the city darkening its windows. The day after Sandy struck, downtown New York’s neon signs and traffic lights were transformed into black orbs staring down at pedestrians and drivers.
The UAE responded to every call it got in a prompt manner. Fellow UAE citizens employed at the Embassy walked over the bridge to the city at dawn, all the way from Queens, because there was no transport. They personally ensured every one of those who had followed standard procedure and reached out was taken care of. The fact that by sundown, the same day, all affected students were out of harm’s way is surely worth a mention and a monumental hat tip. It is not a question of frivolity or where the UAE decided to put its students up because the truth is that they would have taken any of it all the same. It could have been a motel, a hotel or a trailer for that matter. The focus is supposed to be about a job well done to respond to citizens reaching out to their country, not a show-and-tell of the corporate agreement and special rates diplomatic bodies have with a certain hotel for diplomatic purposes. It is about a country that cares about every single one of its citizens, diplomats, vacationers and students alike. Once power is restored below 39th Street and the ghost town that is downtown New York City has life breathed into it, the students will join their colleagues back to their normal lives away from the hype of the Waldorf Astoria to the charming New York style shoebox studios they call home. In the meantime, they are and will remain thankful to their government, to the people who showed up in the silver-coloured minivan to pick them up, taking them to a safe location with electricity and working phone lines so they can call home and speak to their families.
This is about giving credit where it is due. So, before we all get caught-up in all the pomp and circumstance, let's not forget what we came here for.
This one goes out to the person who publicised the hotline number, to the employees who picked up the phone, to the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Washington D.C., who personally contacted every caller, to the advisers at the embassy who were in contact with all the students and to the personnel in New York who single-handedly oversaw the UAE-style “search-and-rescue” mission of every one of us students and followed up every day. No time was wasted, no red tape, no resource was spared to ensure that no UAE national was left behind.
Your Highness UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Your Excellency Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Your Excellency Ambassador of the UAE to the US, Your Excellency Ambassador of the UAE to the UN, you’re running a really tight ship.
Butheina Hamed Kazim is a New York-based Fulbright Scholar of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University.