UAE charity pop-ups supply the needy during pandemic

Grassroots schemes scramble to help those left destitute by the coronavirus outbreak.

As the UAE grapples with a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, residents are mounting grassroots campaigns to help the low-income workers hit hardest by the outbreak. Individuals from around the country have mobilised to support the tens of thousands of people who, almost overnight, found themselves without jobs, money and food, and no way of returning home.

One such informal initiative is being run by Emirati Aamer Al Yafei, who said he was moved to do something after hearing about so many people who had lost their jobs or were not being paid.

“People are in a really bad situation. They have lost their jobs and cannot afford food. I felt like I had a duty to give back to my country and community after all I’ve been given,” the 30-year-old told Philanthropy Age. “I suppose you could say it was guilt.”

After consulting friends, the Abu Dhabi resident started a WhatsApp group, inviting people who wanted to help to sign up, and a Facebook page to advertise that help was available. Once requests for support are verified, Al Yafei posts them in the WhatsApp group, and people come forward to send groceries and other basic items.

“The person in need and the person helping enter into direct contact,” he said, “so they are able to say exactly what they need; from diaper sizes to types of baby formula. It is simple and personal.”

The scheme, which began fewer than two months ago and has come to be known as the UAE Relief Initiative, has to date helped more than 7,000 people across the emirates. The majority of recipients have been from the Philippines, but Al Yafei said Syrian, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and other nationalities have also benefited.

“I have been overwhelmed by the number of people that want to help families they’ve never met and are never likely to meet.”

Heather Harries, founder, Stop and Help.

Across the Arab region, low-income workers - who typically live month to month without any social security net or savings - have borne the brunt of the pandemic's impact.

Governments and charities stepped in to provide food aid, with many turning their annual Ramadan community iftars into door-to-door meal delivery. But the sheer number of people who lost their livelihoods meant humanitarian need outstripped the help available.

In Dubai, Stop and Help, started by British businesswoman Heather Harries, functions along similar lines to the UAE Relief Initiative, with people in need registering to get support and then being matched with donors.

Harries, who runs an education company, said it began in March when she became aware of several families where parents suddenly found themselves out of work due to the lockdown. With no savings, they were no longer able to buy food.

Moved by their plight, she set up a Facebook group to advertise that support was available, and in the space of a couple of months, the initiative has delivered grocery parcels and toys to more than 3,000 families, some receiving weekly food boxes from repeat donors.

The 53-year-old runs the scheme, which she dubs a “kindness exchange” with the support of her husband, teenage sons and volunteers. Applicants must have dependent children to qualify for help.

“I have been overwhelmed by the number of people that want to help families they’ve never met and are never likely to meet,” she said, adding the scheme wouldn't be possible without the help of local volunteers.

"It’s almost as hard to keep up with the number of people saying ‘how can I help?’ as it is to deal with the people that are wanting the help. So that's been amazing.”

Dubai-based businessman Mohamed Siddique Fazlani was also moved to act. In April, the owner of Mellow Trading, a food import firm, decided to redistribute some of his stock into food parcels, providing portions of rice, lentils and cooking oil to families left destitute by the pandemic.

Siddique, who moved to the UAE from India in 1991, teamed up with several existing NGOs who added items to the food boxes, creating a package able to feed a family of five for two weeks. Together, they began delivering the boxes to labour camps.

Soon, the team began fielding requests from other people in private accommodation who were also struggling to buy food. In the space of just two months, the pop-up scheme donated 10,000 food kits at a cost to the company of more than $150,000.

“I saw the rulers giving generously to people in need and I felt it was also my duty to contribute,” explained the 56-year-old. “If more people did this, we'd have a different world.”