Giving back to the community requires no season, although this time of the year, quite like during Ramadan, folks have that warm, fuzzy feeling of reaching out the world with an act of help or love.
Research indicates that expressions of gratitude and acts of altruism and act of charity, however small, reduces stress, light up the neurological pathways to the reward centres of the brain and account for a deep and inexplicable happiness, defying material gains. It goes a long way in improving physical and mental health of a human being.
The UAE has its fair share of happy residents, who, blessed with a good life, make it a point to volunteer in the community and make time to help the sick, needy, underprivileged with love, patience and resources to ameliorate their condition. Every time an individual indulges in this act of giving, he or she selflessly makes the world a better place to live by reinforcing some of the finer values of humanism.
Friday spoke to a few such altruistic men and women who have given the greatest reward of all times to the people in need – their time, their resources, their love and their compassion.
Helping children walk
Dr Mark Sinclair
Paediatric orthopaedic surgeon, healing the injured
At least twice a year Mark Sinclair, a resident of Dubai since 2006 and paediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Parkview, Mediclinic Hospital, Dubai, takes three weeks of unpaid leave to be in Ramallah and the Gaza strip, attending to the orthopaedic needs of score of little children, some with congenital deformities, others with shrapnel and mine explosion injuries, giving medicines, cleaning wounds and conducted complicated surgeries that gives these little angels with broken wings a chance to be whole again.
Elaborating on his mission, Dr Sinclair who has now formed a charity, Little Wings under the aegis of the Al Jalila Foundation, talks about this mission which has been his first love. ‘Long before I formed Little Wings, I was inspired to start helping wounded and sick children in troubled zones like in the Palestine region. I was thankful for the financial security that UAE provided me and decided I had to spend all my free time and my expertise in helping the sick and the underprivileged.’
Dr Sinclair went in with a pair of nurses first to Palestine in 2007, realise there were scores of children in need of help and spoke to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) and offered his services. Many likeminded health care workers joined him and they began making these trips first to Ramallah and then to Gaza strip.’
‘The kids consider me family. When we go out there twice a year, we see at least 200 outpatients and decide on order of priority the kids requiring immediate surgery.
The doctors and nurses work at least 16 hours a day, seeing about 100 kids a day. We conduct at least 80 surgeries in one stay. We fly in for a minimum of 2-3 weeks so that the kids who have been operated have a chance for a post operative revaluation and physiotherapy. It is back breaking work, but really gratifying ,’ explained Dr Sinclair who has on rare occasion also flown in the really sick kids for advanced surgery and care to Dubai. ‘I minimise that now as we realise that with these funds used in Palestine, I can actually help a lot more kids.’
Dr Sinclair is completely committed to this work and feels he is blessed that his profession gives him a chance to help kids. ‘I am passionate about helping little kids walk again and am so glad that I have the professional skills to help with that. Seeing the smile on the face of a little kid with an injury and in pain who is able to walk again, is priceless. I would not trade this for anything in the world!’ said Dr Sinclair who has helped thousands of kids in Gaza stand up on their own feet and given them the best hope of a new life in the last two decades of his work.
'Helping people empowers me'
Maria Zayat Sawaya
Volunteer social worker
She is in many ways the Mary Poppins of Dubai. If you see a middle-aged woman with a spring in her step and a smile on her face going about helping the sick and the needy, you can be sure it is Syrian national Maria Zayat Sawaya.
A mother of two grown up kids studying in universities abroad, working for others was something Maria was inspired by since her children – a daughter and a son – were little kids. ‘When my kids were small, I would try and balance my duties as a mother with this need to help others, limiting my hours of social and community work. However, once they left for university, I started spending more and more time volunteering to help with work in the community through the St Mary’s Church. My husband Sandro who works in Jebel Ali, though unable to help me in this work, is very supportive and proud of what I do. With this support from my home, I am able to allocate most of my free time to community work and I would not have had it any other way,’ said Maria who has consistently engaged in voluntary community work for over two decades now.
Maria offers her services as a translator in case of minor disputes, she visits long term sick people with medicines, food and spends time trying to cheer them up, and is available for anyone in need of help, advice or even just to hold the hand of a sick person.
She has been particularly helpful to people of Syrian origin who arrived in the UAE by helping them navigate a new place, guiding and counselling them about life here, helping them with resume writing and helping them find suitable positions.
‘I believe that each one of us has a duty to make the world a better place and while I am doing any of community work, I just don’t feel the hours passing by. When I work, I can’t walk, I feel like I am flying, it so empowers me,’ said Maria for who these acts of kindness are not random, but a way of life.
Ingraining the basics of financial literacy in every child
Mother of two
Most children in their preteens have no idea of money dynamics, financial management, savings that could help them prepare for a lifetime of sound fiscal health and management. This was something that Indian expatriate Marilyn Pinto, realised as a mother of two young daughters.
‘Back home in Goa, when I was a young girl, I wish someone had taught us the basics of financial management. Most kids make a lot of mistakes as they are no equipped for money management. I felt this more as I became mother to two beautiful daughters. Most of what I learnt was self-taught, painstakingly over the years. And I decided to start formal financial literacy classes for kids in Dubai several years ago.’
Marilyn who describes herself as a rebel educator started her company KFI (Kids Financial Initiative) global and approached schools to provide structured financial literacy programmes free of cost. ‘I got some banks to sponsor the educational programme and was able to offer this to the students free of cost. The banks see this as part of their CSR activities and I am very strict that no kind of promotion, financial investment incentive is allowed in any of my programmes. This course is not about teaching kids to invest but how to understand the concept of spending and saving and being financially literate,’ specified Marilyn.
She continued, ‘The course amounts to five-hour classes on financial education. Here I teach children the basics of personal finance, saving, budgeting, meaning of different kinds of debts, good and bad debts, how to spend wisely on credit cards and build the foundation of basic financial literacy.’
Over 5000 students taught basics of money management and fiscal wisdom
Needless to say, her courses became an instant hit with kids of all age groups as she tailored them to suit the specific needs of different age groups.
In five years, over 5,000 students from different curricula, nationality and age groups were able to gain valuable insights into financial planning, money and debt management.
Her website is replete with testimonials from thousands of students who gained from the education. Eventually Marilyn collated all the knowledge into a book Smarter, Riche, Braver which has become a guiding manual for parents helping their children on the path of financial literacy.
Desire to give back to society
Consultant, CEO, Member UAE, Superbrands Council and former CEO of Eros Group
It is easy to be a benefactor from a position of power and affluence, but the real litmus test of one’s character comes when situations change. In the case of Niranjan Gidwani, a resident of Dubai for over 33 years, who was the CEO of a leading electronics retail brand for over 14 years, helping the community was a way of life that never changed even after he stepped down from his job a year ago.
‘I hail from a Sindhi family from Hong Kong and giving back to the society is a value ingrained deeply in me by my parents, something I have been doing from the age of 15,’ recounted Niranjan who decided he would not stop his voluntary community work, no matter what the challenge.
Having seen a lot of people in need of food and medicines and help for returning to India, Niranjan aligned himself with social and community work at the local Gurudwara in Jebel Ali. ‘There were too many families struggling to pay school fees, there were families that had lost their breadwinner, unemployed people waiting to fly back to their home countries, people in need of food, medicine clothing. I saw my community needed me and I began helping all genuine cases by working hard to make their lives easier and arranging for their needs. Now, I had more time to this,’ said Niranjan who not only helped a former employee from his previous company who was diagnosed with cancer, to set up an online business, but also decided to do some voluntary work in India.
‘I had not really spent time in India for the last 15 years, so after I completed my notice period in my previous job, I decided I had to give in at least 15 days for each year I had missed out going to Indian and that accounted for 16 months of voluntary work. I made myself available for any kind of community work that was required for 15 days every month.
Niranjan offered unique kind of help such as free consultant work to start-ups to set up business, companies looking to restructure, family businesses transitioning to new work styles and inducting their new generation scions… these were areas of management expertise that he offered pro-bono to many even as he took on a new role of a consultant adviser on board of a Tech company.
However, his own work did not deter him from continuing voluntary community assistance work wherever possible.
‘Helping people need always be a structured act through an organisation, random acts of kindness too go a long way. To me, reaching out to people in need is a way of life; it comes naturally to my wife and I. We prefer to live a low-key life but dedicate our free time to helping people. In my own apartment block where I stay, every weekend, I organise the Sunday, weekend meal for the work force in my wing. This includes the cleaners, the security guards, and other helpers. I do this regularly and the look of joy on their faces is priceless.’ said Niranjan for who charity in any manner is an integral part of life.
Reaching out to the homeless
Restaurant manager, Holiday Inn, Al Barsha
Alfred Banas, a young 28-year-old restaurant manager in Dubai, felt the need to do something a year ago, when he saw the pain and suffering of many people during the pandemic and felt it was important to show gratitude to the universe by sharing his good fortune.
‘I started with volunteering for those such as beach clean-ups and volunteer work at the Rashid Centre for People of Determination that was part of our group’s CSR activities. I quickly realised that working and bringing happiness to others was deeply gratifying. Therefore, I decided to make this a regular part of my routine not just in Dubai but also by giving back to the underprivileged people in Manila, my hometown in the Philippines.’
Alfred who is single, felt he was singularly lucky to have a job and have a healthy life throughout the pandemic and on his birthday last year, he started a small project to help the homeless in Manila city. ‘I was disturbed to see so many people I knew had lost their livelihoods and their loved ones to COVID-19 and it affected me. In Manila, I had always seen many poor and homeless families living in the cemeteries in the city. They set-up make-shift tents over the graves of people who they had never known when alive. I have seen many young children live there too with their parents. It is their desperate attempt and survival that they are compelled to live in cemeteries,’ recounted Alfred.
‘I decided I had to do something. Last year, while I was on a holiday to Manila on my birthday, I started small, by distributing food amongst these people. I enrolled the help of my family and friends who supported me in the logistics of distribution. It was a great and emotional experience for me to see the children enjoying the pasta, cake, spring rolls and other food that my friends and family helped me prepare for them. It was not just about the food; it was this gesture of inclusivity that moved them, and they felt someone cared enough for them. The look of happiness and the smiles on their faces was priceless for me,’ said Alfred who plans to regularly help the cemetery people in Manila and expand the purview of his work. ‘I want to make sure that I give back to the beautiful community of Dubai that has given me a job, a livelihood by helping people of determination and the environment. At the same time, I want to set aside a portion of my savings which I will use regularly to help out senior citizens in my hometown and donate to orphanages and assist the cemetery residents. I strongly believe that sharing is caring, and it is only through giving that we receive,’ said the young man overwhelmed by a sense of happiness and calm.