Ebrahim Al Haddar and George V Itty with a prototype of their upcoming book. Image Credit: Supplied picture

On July 18, 2011, Nelson Mandela, the iconic statesman, turned 93. For the third time, when asked what he wanted, his reply was simple: he wished for every person in the world to dedicate 67 minutes to community service. The figure 67 was chosen because that is the number of years he spent fighting for human rights in South Africa.

Harnessing community spirit

It was late last year and the Fifa world cup fever was at its peak. Nahtam Social Responsibility, (NSR) an NGO based in Abu Dhabi, had set up a tent in the Corniche that could accommodate at least 1,000 spectators, so that people could watch matches together as a community.

The South African ambassador, Yaqoob Abba Omar, who had heard about the work that the organisation was doing, visited the tent and was impressed by the team's efforts. "Why don't we launch an initiative to commemorate Mandela International Day?" he asked the organisers of NSR.

The Nahtam team agreed and began brainstorming to formulate an event that would portray the dynamism and selflessness of Mandela while encouraging people to do their bit for the community, no matter how big or small the deed. They soon had their answer: what could be more apt than striving to fulfil Mandela's wish of encouraging people to spend at least 67 minutes doing a good deed for the community?

NSR promptly got to work, printing a list of possible good deeds that people could implement. The list was extensive: from making a new friend to volunteering at a hospital or helping the elderly, the potential for carving a niche of responsibility is endless.

"The stipulations are very flexible," explains George V Itty, chief executive officer of NSR. "It doesn't have to be exactly for 67 minutes, neither does it have to be a mega humanitarian project; just whatever you can do for the betterment of society. If everybody spends at least 15 minutes doing something good, the world will be a better place for us all.

"People don't have to do only those things that we have listed in the pamphlet,'' he adds. "Our only requirement is that they do the deed, put down their experiences as a story, include a few photographs to support it and send it in to us." A selection of the most inspiring stories will be published in a book, titled 67 Inspiring Stories, this December. The early years

Itty believes in following his instincts. When he arrived in Abu Dhabi 16 years ago, he dedicated many of his after-work hours on projects to benefit the community. With a background in advertising design, he spearheaded several projects, such as the ‘Save water' campaign and the ‘We care to conserve' campaign, at a time when such issues were not very popular.

Three years ago, Isabelle Le Bon Poonoosamy, a social activist from Mauritius, walked into Itty's office and asked him if they could work together to raise social awareness. The idea appealed to Itty so much that he followed his instincts and quit his job, and together they formed Nahtam Social responsibility (‘Nahtam' in Arabic means ‘We care').

It was while they were searching for a sponsor to underwrite the cost of framing a set of pictures created by special needs students that they came into contact with the gallery run by Ebrahim Al Haddar. One thing led to another and Al Haddar, an engineer by profession, decided to throw his weight behind the team of Nahtam.

A sports enthusiast, Al Haddar is used to rallying together for a common goal and has represented the UAE internationally in Formula One powerboat racing among other sports. He believes modern lifestyles mean that people have lost the traditional sense of community: "When I was growing up, everybody knew each other and shared their joys and sorrows," he says. "At sunset, the elders would sit on the seashore and reflect on life, sharing their thoughts with friends and family. During these moments, the young could learn many invaluable lessons from the old - things that cannot be taught at any college." He is keen to help replace this connection by encouraging the community, and especially young people, to work together to make the world a better place.

Humanitarian touch

Itty does not see NSR as a charity organisation. The role of Nahtam is to fix the cracks caused by the stress of urban living and commercialism and cement them with a humanitarian touch, he says.

"It is a voluntary association, which promotes social responsibility and strives to conduct programmes that promote goodwill,'' he says. Having begun with 12 volunteers, today the number has risen to 160.

"The Nahtam concept is to support environment, education and humanity," explains Itty.

"We focus more on education and try to make companies understand the need for empowering society as a whole for their smooth functioning. Business is not just about making money, it is about being responsible for the world around you."

One of their educational initiatives is creating violence-free, family-oriented video games, which are distributed free to children. These bilingual English/Arabic games endorse basic principles such as manners, safety and cleanliness, formatted in a fun way.

Everyday heroes

Firm believers in leading by example, Al Haddar and Itty - who are both avid sailors - were sailing in the waters off Saadiyat Island one day soon after the launch of the Mandela Day Campaign, when they spotted a turtle that was struggling to swim.

"When we took her out of the water, we saw that she was covered with barnacles," says Haddar.

"A few were even attached to her neck making it difficult for her to eat."

Slowly and gently, the men removed the barnacles and relieved the turtle of its misery. "When she was let back into the water, she was swimming with great speed," says Itty. "It was then that we realised that we had done our good deed for the Mandela Day."

They, of course, are not alone.

Joanna Lewis, a 17-year-old student, is passionate about helping students with autism and Down's syndrome. When she heard about the Mandela Day initiative, she felt it would be the perfect forum to raise awareness for her cause. Lewis was one of the first people to send her story into Nahtam:

"I am looking forward to being a part of more events like this and to volunteering more. I have also participated in typing Braille books for the blind,'' she says.

Juad Hassan Nassar, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Al Manhal International School, is proud that she has convinced her entire family to save water: "I read in the paper that every resident uses an average of 550 litres of water each day, which is among the highest rates in the world. Around the same time, I am also head of the Mandela Day Campaign and that was just the impetus I needed."

Nassar and her father fitted all the taps in their household with water-saving devices.

"It is a small step but it makes a big difference. Together as a family, we remind each other to turn off the taps while brushing our teeth and to avoid wastage."

To celebrate Mandela's birthday on July 18 this year, Nahtam unveiled a 67-foot canvas at Khalidiyah Mall, Abu Dhabi that bore personal messages from several top dignitaries as well as the common public in the UAE.

The canvas will be presented to Mandela as a gift from the UAE early next year.

  • What: Mandela International Day, conducted by Nahtam Social Resposibility (NSR)
  • Who: Ebrahim Al Haddar (Chairman) and George V Itty (CEO)
  • Where: Abu Dhabi
  • Why: NSR is encouraging people to engage in 67 minutes of community service. Their experiences will be published in a book and distributed for free

Send in your story to the Mandela International Day campaign before October 15 for a chance to be in the book. See www.nahtam.com for more information.