On a sultry summer afternoon, I was driving past Safa Park when my car coughed, spluttered then came to a halt. I called a friend for help but he said he would take at least an hour to arrive. Tired and thirsty I could do nothing but wait. It was then that I saw a cold water dispenser before a villa. It was like sighting an oasis.
I drank the refreshing water before offering a silent word of gratitude to the owner of the villa who had so thoughtfully provided a source of comfort for passers-by. I was not the only one who felt revived. Labourers carrying out road repairs, municipal gardeners, a boy delivering groceries... all stopped to take a quick drink.
When I got home, I logged on to helpothers.org, a website that had simple but heartwarming stories of people extending a helping hand to others.
The true test of any society's coming of age is that it does not forget its essential lessons in humanity even while it strives to accomplish fresh challenges. I began looking for people who made it a purpose to do more in life than just earn a living, and was pleasantly surprised.
I found more and more people are putting aside time from their normal routine to reach out to communities, participate in charity initiatives, set up commercial ventures where part of the profits goes towards helping less privileged and generally raise awareness of the importance of selfless deeds in building a strong, dynamic and progressive society.
From individual acts of kindness, random and planned, to group initiatives and community outreach, the UAE is an excellent example of the innate goodwill of human beings. Here are a few of our nation's stories:
‘Make it part of your lifestyle'
Tania Siddiqui has been in Dubai for two years and from the beginning she wanted to do something to help women and children from her home country, Pakistan. "It's not about doing something good every now and then," she says. "It's about making it a lifestyle." This young mother who began a quilting enterprise named after her daughter Athena, feels each quilt has a story. And the fact this story is told due to the talent and creativity of women lends this art a greater appeal.
"Athena's Quilt is a socially responsible business. We make quilts for kids of all ages,'' says Tania. Each quilt is crafted with the finest material by femal artisans based in Pakistan. While giving them a regular source of income, she also ensures part of the proceeds from the sale of the quilts is ploughed back into the artisan societies in Pakistan.
"I wanted to teach Athena the right values and wanted do things for a bigger reason and do things with passion," says Tania.
The concept, she says, is about succeeding in life while at the same time giving back to society and to the artisans who make it happen.
"In just a year, the work of the artisans and their attitudes has improved so much. It's very encouraging for the artisans to know people appreciate their hard work," says Tania.
This young mother wants to empower female artisans and educate their children. Being a mother, it's very difficult for her to see kids begging on the streets in Pakistan or working instead of being in school or just playing.
"One of the projects we support is a school that provides free education, uniforms and books to over 250 girls. They are in the process of expanding to include boys as well. To play even a small part in changing the lives of these young girls and boys is extremely humbling."
‘I feel we all should help others'
Wendy Marvis, who hails from Florida, US, has been living in Dubai for six years. Over the years her concern for the men who work in hot conditions kept growing. "When I saw my gardener Ali, working in the vicinity all day, sweating and thirsty, I wanted to help. I told him he could relax on the patio, and gave him a cool glass of water. A few months later [and after I got to know more about him] I began to offer him juice and cookies and a cold cloth to refresh his face. I know it makes Ali happy to be accorded this respect. He sits there with the biggest smile on his face and it makes me feel good. One day, overwhelmed, he said to me, ‘You are just like my mum'," recalls Marvis.
Marvis does not believe her gesture is anything out of the ordinary. "I feel we all should help others. God loves all his children and it is our responsibility to make sure that that love is well distributed."
‘Every smile and laugh improves mine'
Jennifer Petrie is a home maker teaching sailing to the disabled and is passionate about giving back to society. "I am lucky in that I do not have to take up a job to make a living," she says. But she has always been keen to volunteer, and given she is passionate about sailing, she found just what she was looking for.
In November 2010, she heard about a sailing programme at the Dubai Offshore Sailing Club called Sailability, where a group of volunteers worked with members of staff to introduce people with special needs to the world of sailing. "As I have sailing experience, I was able to take a major part in structuring and running the onshore training programme for students. Sailability has an amazing group of volunteers who come from all walks of life and it has really built its own little community that revolves around the students and beyond.
"At Sailability, every smile and laugh from students improves mine. I suppose my most memorable moment was when we were assessing the students at the end of the season for their sailing awards. In January, a young man with autism joined the programme. He came every week but never spoke to us. He would follow our instructions but we were never sure whether he understood us.
"Then when I was reviewing his records and working with him in May, I realised he had been following us all along and had learned enough to be awarded a bronze certificate. That was special, to realise we had created an environment where this boy felt safe enough to learn something completely new," says Jennifer.
‘I am passionate about the environment'
Amro Dabash, a second-generation Jordanian national who works as a business application specialist in a semi-government agency during the week, loves spending all his free time doing small jobs for the community. "I am passionate about environmental issues and am always signed up for any sort of volunteer work on the weekend," says this young eco-warrior.
He believes every drop in the ocean is important. "I am a free diver and sign up for the Emirates Diving Association's diving programmes where I educate people on coral reef conservation, against shark hunting, and other marine conservation initiatives. I often dive at sites near Khorfakkan and Fujairah to educate recreational divers. A simple thing such as telling divers not to swim around the reefs with long fins as these can damage the reefs is an idea I learnt and I try to pass on to others."
From one-day volunteer work to long-term help, he is willing to do his bit anytime. "When you spend an entire day picking up used cans, glass pieces, paper and plastic bags from a beach, you can actually see the beach returning to its pristine condition. It makes you happy that your effort has made a difference. In long-term projects, I know I will not be able to see the results in a day, but I sign up because I know my contribution will help."
Dabash is willing to give up his time to these causes as he feels, "If you want to stay in a good home, you have to work hard to tidy it up.''
‘My faith in human nature was upheld'
That was what an emaciated man told Mathew P recently. An art director at a Dubai-based advertising agency, Mathew was returning home after a birthday dinner when a man approached him pleading for money. "He said he had been duped and had lost all his money. He asked me for Dh20 to buy some food and some money to help him return to his country and family."
Something about the man struck Matthew as genuine and after getting him a meal, he told him to wait for him at the same spot the next day, promising to help him. The next day, Matthew drove the man to an airline office, bought him a ticket back to his country and also paid for his overstay penalty. He also purchased gifts for the man to take home to his family.
Despite the fear he could have been conned, Mathew says he decided to help the man. And fortunately for him, his faith in human goodness was upheld. A few days later, Mathew received a call from the man after he landed in his country thanking him for all the help.
Although cautious by nature, Mathew is willing to lend a hand to someone in need.
‘I was so touched by the offer of help'
Rhian Lindley, a young mother of three who arrived from South Wales, UK, a year ago, experienced a random act of kindness some months ago. Driving along Shaikh Zayed Road after picking up her daughter, Isabel, five, from the school, she noticed the fuel gauge of car hovering around the E sign. Her three-year-old twins, Daniel and Abigail, were also in the car. Although worried, Rhian thought she would have enough fuel to make it to a petrol station.
But her car stalled in the middle of the road. "It was really hot and I was tired and sweating. My children began crying. Although I was waving for help, no one stopped. Just when I thought the situation was getting impossible, a taxi driver stopped. After I told him about my situation, he said he would return with help and drove off. That's it, I thought, he won't return. But to my surprise, in 15 minutes, he was back with a bottle of cold water for my children and a can of petrol! I was so touched. I tried to offer him money but he refused it.''
The impressions of a place, says Rhian, are formed by the experiences one has in it and this random act of kindness in turn goaded her to do her bit for the community. When her neighbour was leaving on holiday, she offered to feed her pet cat and fish every day until her return. "It would have cost her a lot of money to make alternative arrangements for her pets. But to me, it just meant being a good neighbour."
‘Life is full of opportunites to be kind
Bernadette King Turner is the director of Beautiful Minds, a successful children's nursery. But business apart, her first love is children. She belongs to a family of six children and has fond memories of her parents fostering many other youngsters in Nelson, New Zealand, where she spent her childhood.
Her priority has always been childcare. "I have always worked towards spreading happiness and tending to the emotional well-being of a child," she says.
Turner has is a registered general and obstetrics nurse specialising in paediatric oncology. Her nursing career began when she was 18, first in New Zealand, later in Saudi Arabia. She moved to the UAE in 1992. After arriving in Dubai, she plunged headlong into volunteering for all kinds of causes, including collecting boxes of essentials to distribute at labourers' accommodation. In 1997, she began fund-raising for children with cancer with the Children Helping Children foundation. "For two years, I ran the programme and the campaign was successful. I also garnered support from friends and family."
‘I am blessed to share in this community'
While the children's nursery is a passion for her, her larger commitment lies with helping people. "It makes me sad when [people forget to do even small acts of kindness] like speeding by in their cars and not waiting to allow pedestrians standing in the hot sun to cross the road. I think life is full of opportunities to bring out our true inner kindness and we should to make use of them."
In Ghusais, a group of 15 women in two apartment complexes have created a network to support each other's families. Sheetal Rishi, one of the young mothers, says of her wonderful experience: "I am yet to come across a community so strong. I have survived many nanny-less periods and emerged unscathed because of the lovely neighbours I have."
Another member of this informal group is Cherida Fernandes, who experienced two medical emergencies with her daughter and on both occasions, it was her neighbourhood network that came to her rescue. "My husband travels extensively and during one of his periods of being away, my daughter had a fever. Despite medication, she started having convulsions. I was terrified and called up my neighbour. She, along with another couple, our new neighbours across the corridor, rushed us to the hospital. I had never been introduced to the couple until then but they handled everything from registration to paying bills and so on. They waited until my close friends arrived before leaving the hospital."
Fernandes says the women in her apartment community do all kinds of jobs to help one another. "From sharing meals to celebrating birthdays to teaching kids and organising summer holiday programmes and art sessions for each other's kids, we help out in many ways. Often, we offer to baby-sit for our neighbours with small children so they can take a break and catch a movie or just go for a nice dinner.
"I am truly blessed to share such an amazing community experience."