Ejo #27 – Distributing Food To Labourers and Construction Workers (Karama Kanteen Strikes Again!)

The alarm went off at 9.00am and I groaned.  I’d only been in bed about an hour and it was already time to get up.  But I didn’t hit the snooze button.  I had somewhere to be.  Somewhere important.  I won’t lie and say I bounded out of bed, it was more like an oozing motion.  You see, I had finished work that morning at 7am and by the time I got home, showered and flopped into bed there was only enough time for a quick nap.  But still, I was charged up on the excitement of the day’s project (and the seven espressos I’d had during the night shift).


After a quick breakfast (and yet another espresso), David and I headed off to meet Roshni Raimalwala at her apartment.  Roshni is the woman and driving force behind Karama Kanteen, an initiative which strives to provide food and general assistance to the beleaguered men who build the foundation upon which we all live in Dubai.  The poorest, lowest class of citizens.  I’m talking about the construction workers and labourers.  Every single weekend, Roshni is out there at the labour camps, or neighbourhoods in which these men reside, handing out food which is donated by schools, companies or individuals.  Late last year David and I donated some food for Christmas hampers that were handed out during the festive period.  Unfortunately, we had been unable to co-ordinate time off to help distribute it.  This time around, we both had the weekend off and arranged to meet with Roshni to help give the food to the men ourselves.


When I published my Xmas ejo last year I asked for donations from readers so that we could, collectively, bring a small ray of light and hope (in the form of a hot meal) into the lives of a few over-worked, underpaid labourers.  Several, very generous, people contributed towards the cause and together we raised 4500dhs (equivalent to about AUD1135).  This was enough to provide a hot chicken biryani meal to 450 men.  That is amazing!


We got to Roshni’s apartment building a little early and had to wait a few minutes for her to arrive, but when she got there at about 10.20am she lit up the room with her energy and vitality.  Even after having attended a presentation in Sharjah at 5am earlier that morning she was dynamic and bouncing with enthusiasm.  Soon afterwards, several of the volunteers that Roshni had organised to assist with the day’s work also started arriving.  We met a lady who happened to be from Mulgrave in Melbourne (two suburbs away from my parent’s house – it sure is a small world).  Also helping out was an Italian catholic nun.  Yep!  Habit and all!  I must admit it was strange to see a nun in a Muslim country.  Certainly, it was a first for me.  Sister Agnes has been helping out with Karama Kanteen for a couple of years.  I got the chance to talk to her a little, and she was so sweet, warm and generous.  I hope to meet her again the next time we attend one of Karama Kanteen’s events.


After the other volunteers arrived we all drove to the restaurant where we were to buy the food for the day.  We loaded up the three cars with boxes of hot chicken biryani, mint sauce, pickles and crispy pappadums.  And then we set off for Sharjah, a convoy of delicious smelling vehicles.  It really did smell incredible, and my mouth was watering!  It felt great to know that we were giving out quality food that I would have liked to eat myself!!  Nothing but the best for our guys.


David helping to load the boxes of food.

All the volunteers loading the boxes into the cars.


When we arrived in Sharjah there was already a line of about 75 men, queuing up in anticipation.  They were all dressed very nicely in pants and brightly coloured shirts.  These guys work six days a week, 12-14 hours a day.  During these long work hours, they must wear coveralls (the colour depending on the company they work for) that remind me of the jumpsuits Death Row prisoners in America must wear.  And in a way, they both serve the same purpose – to dehumanise the person wearing them.  It was nice to see them in their off-duty clothes looking like regular guys.


The handout happened in a sandy square, dotted with a few trees and anchored by a huge boulder in the centre.  It was on this boulder that the volunteers started unpacking the boxes and preparing the food.  We all worked together to bring the different elements of the meal into one plastic bag to hand to the men.  Because David and I had organised this donation, the others were kind enough to allow us to hand out the food.  It was a lovely gesture because it really felt more personal, actually giving the food to each person ourselves.  What I found interesting was that after passing the bag to each man with the handles closed (to make it easier for him to take it), I realised that they would, almost without exception, open the bag to look inside.  So, after a while I started passing the bag to them open.  They seemed to like this better and the line moved quicker after that.  All the volunteers worked so well together, like a well-oiled machine, to make sure that everyone got their meal before it got cold.  It was so wonderful to be part of this great team, even for just one morning.


Sister Agnes helping to unpack the food on the large boulder in the square.

A long line of hungry guys.


Not all the men were able to express their gratitude but a great many of them looked me in the eye and thanked me with a shy smile, wishing me a good day.  It was these exchanges that really touched me and made the effort of what we were doing so worthwhile.  I wish that those of you who helped to finance this cause could have been there to help out with the distribution.   The feeling was incomparable.  But please let me just say thank you, from the men and from me, for your generosity and kindness.  Without you some of these men would have gone hungry.  I know that our contribution is just a drop in the ocean, but surely every single drop helps?

David finishing off the handout.

  After all the food was gone and we were packing up, I noticed a large group of men had gathered around Roshni.  They were asking for her help.  They needed assistance with medical problems, visas, looking for work or even perhaps repatriation back to their home countries.  In a way Roshni is indeed like an angel of mercy (though I’m pretty sure she’d hate to hear herself referred to in that way).  All of the men treated, and spoke to her, with a great deal of respect and reverence.  One man even trembled as he pulled out his passport to show her.  He was very nervous and the fact is that she is probably his absolute last hope for help.  What Roshni does each and every week is provide an incredible service to the neediest people in this country.  She steps in and does whatever she can, when the government and the rest of society just turns away.  It felt great to contribute just a small bit towards what she does every week, but more than that it actually felt like an honour.  

Roshni holding court - looking over paperwork, trying to help in whatever way she can.


I was so blown away by how much my friends and family from Australia and America contributed.  I mean, I am directly affected by these guys on a daily basis.  Their plight assaults me every day.  I kind of feel like I have no choice but to do something to help them.  But you guys, the ones that gave money, are thousands of miles away.  The labourers’ problem can only really be just an abstract notion, and you still found it in your hearts to dig deep and give.  I take my hat off to you all.  Not only that, most of you said that you’d do it all again the next time.  That has inspired me to organise an event like this once a year.  I will probably continue to personally contribute food to the labourers and workers of Dubai on a regular basis (albeit on a smaller scale) but I plan to make this larger donation an annual project.  So, expect me to nag you for more funds this time next year!!!  In the meantime, if anyone wants to just make a general contribution, it will always be welcome and I promise to always make sure that 100% of what you donate goes to the workers.


On that note I’ll leave you with a quote that Roshni signs all her emails off with.  “Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier”.

Ejo #24 – Christmas In Dubai (And How We Can Help The Construction Workers Just A Little Bit)

Well, this is my twelfth ejo for the year, which means I have achieved my goal of writing an ejo a month.  Taking my cue from a lovely friend who set herself nine goals in 2009, I specified 11 things that I wanted to accomplish in 2011 and this marks one of them as completed!  I am so pleased with how motivated I’ve been to finish my goals that I will definitely continue it next year and beyond (though I imagine that 45 goals in 2045 won’t be nearly as much fun as 12 for 2012, or 13 for 2013)!


I’m lucky enough to live and work in a country that provides me with a great deal of fodder and I’m never at a loss about what to write about next.  This month I have chosen to write in a little more detail about the men who have created the amazing city David and I live in.  I’m not talking about the Sheikhs who run it, and I’m not talking about the architects who designed it.  I refer to the hundreds of thousands of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi men who, day by day, brick by metaphorical brick, have built this city from a handful of low-rise buildings scattered across the desert thirty years ago, to the skyscraper filled metropolis of today.  I am talking about the construction workers and labourers.


Construction workers being herded onto their bus

Before I get into that though, I’ll briefly touch on what at first may seem like a completely unrelated topic.  Me.


I am not ashamed to admit that I have suffered depression exactly twice in my life.  I don’t have a predilection for it, unless you count my melancholic teenage years when I would lock myself in my room for hours on end, writing awful poetry and listening to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” on repeat (c’mon, it was the eighties!).


The first time I experienced real depression was when my Dad became ill and died of lung cancer.  It knocked me sideways.  Forcefully.  I sought medical help and, slowly, I climbed out of the depths of despair that I’d fallen into and back into a normal life.


The second time was when David and I moved to Dubai.  You might remember that, initially, I wasn’t offered an ATC job as promised, and this gave me a great deal of professional anxiety.  Would I work as an ATC again?  Who the hell was I, if I wasn’t an Air Traffic Controller?  Also, even though I loved living in Dubai, I found it a cold and indifferent place.  I didn’t make many friends and started feeling that there was something wrong with me.  My self-confidence crumbled.  I hadn’t realised how important the support network of all my friends and family back home was.  And without that support, I floundered.  I forgot who I was.  In addition to all this, I found the obscenely large divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of Dubai a constant slap in the face – this alone would be enough to distress even the hardiest of optimists.


There were two things that helped me get out of my Dubai depression.  The first is a woman called Zimmy Khan, a clinical hypnotist and theta healer, who in just a few sessions stripped away all the fear and doubt and negativity I’d accumulated, leaving behind the person I’d been when we first moved here (someone I’d actually feared was gone forever – that’s what depression can do to you).  Even though I am perfectly OK now I still see her every couple of months to make sure that I stay that way.  I can honestly say that she totally changed my life for the better and I would recommend her to anyone going through any kind of crisis, big or small.


The other thing that helped lift me out of my doldrums was the labourers that work outside our apartment building (Ejo #3).  How could they possibly help, you wonder?  Well, they didn’t exactly come up to the apartment and make me cups of tea while we chatted about what was getting me down.  No, they helped me in another way.  By smiling.  In 48ºC heat, sweltering in their yellow, full-body jumpsuits, big heavy boots and protective helmets, whenever they spotted my car they would cheerfully smile, salute, jump up and down, and wave.  Our neighbours, who we’ve lived next door to for three years, can’t even muster up the courtesy to respond when we say hello (let alone smile when they see us).  Literally, they ignore us when we say hello!  But these labourers, whose lives are crappier than our neighbours’ by a factor of about a billion, act as if we’re Bollywood superstars whenever they see us.


What have we done to deserve such fanfare?  Not much.  From time to time during summer, when we were out shopping for groceries, we would pick up a few extra bottles of fruit juice and hand them out to the guys when we got home.  That’s it.  In fact, I don’t think it’s the juice that they appreciated so much as the fact that we noticed them and treated them like regular people.  To us, unlike many others, they are not just part of the infrastructure.  To us, these guys are human beings who simply have the misfortune of being born into a life so crappy that the best option for them is to leave their home and come to work here.  And to put into perspective how bad that life must be, the average monthly wage of a labourer in Dubai is about 800dhs (~ AUD215).  To earn that, they must work outdoors for 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year – for three years.  And then they reach their use-by date and get sent home.


Because they get paid so little they are forced to live in the labour camps outside the city.  They are housed a dozen men to a room.  There’s no air-conditioning or heating (and yes, it does actually get cold at night in winter) and sometimes there’s not even running water.  The conditions are abysmal.  Even worse than this, these men are deemed sub-human by almost everyone.  It’s absolutely disgusting and shameful.  And whilst it’s the construction companies that mistreat and underpay them, I personally blame the government for allowing it to happen.  It’s not as if they’re illegal workers.  The government allows them into the country on work visas.  But once they’re here, they aren’t allowed to form unions, they aren’t offered any wage protection or even minimum conditions of service.


And it’s the rulers of Dubai who benefit from these men the most.  It’s the shiny, glittering buildings that attract the tourists – and tourism, not oil, is where the government makes most of its money.  The men that build these amazing skyscrapers and towers almost never see the inside of them once they’re completed.  Referred to as “bachelors”, they are considered the lowest class of citizens in the UAE.  What pisses me off the most is that without them, Dubai would still be a dull, desert village that virtually no-one had heard of.  There would be no Palm Jumeirah.  There would be no Burj Khalifa.  The city shows no gratitude, no respect and no acknowledgement of what they’ve done or what they continue to do.  So when David and I occasionally get them a drink to quench their thirst on a hot day, they are thankful not only for the cold drink but also for the gratitude and respect that we show them.  They are thankful for the mere fact that we acknowledge their existence.


These guys (and their cheerful smiles) forced me to put my own angst into perspective.  I have an (air-conditioned) roof over my head and I live a very comfortable life.  They live like animals, get paid a pittance (most of which they send back home to their families), and for them a treat is going to the movies twice a year.  And these guys SMILE at ME!  Their predicament strikes very close to my heart.  My father was a labourer so it’s very easy for me to put him (or even myself) in their shoes.  And to be honest, I don’t know if I would have the same strength and fortitude that they do.  So, sometimes, when they smile at me it almost makes me want to cry.


I’ve thought long and hard about where these smiles could possibly spring from.  The simple explanation is that the human spirit is incredibly strong.  Even under the harshest of circumstances, it will not break.  My problems are trivial in comparison to what these guys face every day.  Putting that into perspective certainly helped me conquer my own demons.  But feeling better as a result of comparing my life to someone’s less fortunate isn’t really enough.  I realised that if I could do something to actually help them, it would make me feel better still.  I didn’t want to ignore the issue, as so many others here do (because it’s so easy to do).  I didn’t want to be complicit with the problem, or contribute to it by turning a blind eye.


Recently, I got in touch with a woman called Roshni Raimalwala who runs an organisation called Karama Kanteen.   Roshni accepts donations of food, clothing and other goods from schools, companies and individuals, and she organises volunteers to distribute these to the labourers at the camps – often providing between 200-500 labourers a week with a hot meal.  This month she has distributed Christmas hampers to 1500 workers.  In November I bought food to provide 200 labourers with a meal.  I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.  Amazing, actually.  One of my twelve goals for 2012 will be to do this on a regular basis.


Karama Kanteen's Xmas hamper distribution


With Zimmy’s help, and by learning from my worker friends that I can be happy regardless of what the world throws at me, I am now mindfully grateful for what I have.  And I worry far less about what I don’t have.  I am hoping that, during this holiday season, you too are grateful for everything that you have.  In fact, I’m hoping that you are so grateful you’ll also consider donating to this cause.  Even just $5 will buy a couple of hot meals.  I’m not growing a moustache, running a race or even wearing a red nose to raise money.  I’m just asking, and hoping that out of the very goodness of your hearts (and that’s all it would be as it’s not tax deductible), you’ll want to do something, give something, to help make a fellow human being’s day just a little bit better.  A little less bleak.  After all Christmas is a time for giving.  Of course it feels good to give to your loved ones.  What I’ve found is that it feels even better to give to those truly in need.  If you’re interested, please let me know and we can sort out a way to transfer the money.  I’ll make sure every cent/fil goes towards food and clothing for the workers.


To finish, I’d like you to meet Najimasker.  He’s a 34 year old Pakistani who’s been in Dubai for two years.  He’s a little guy with an enormous heart and even though we have nothing in common (and probably wouldn’t have anything to talk about, even if we were to sit down for  cup of tea) I consider him my friend.  He brightens up my day, and it is my sincere hope that I do the same for him.  That’s what friendship is about, right?


My friend Najimasker


Merry Xmas everyone.

Ejo #11 – Greetings & Salutations in Dubai and Bachelor Boys

There is something which happens in Dubai which, even though it is initially amusing and almost flattering, occurs so frequently that eventually you get used to it and even actually come to expect it.  I am talking about the phenomenon of being called Ma’am and Sir.

Everywhere you go in this city waiters, retail staff, receptionists, taxi drivers, concierges, cleaning staff, gardeners, nurses… everyone in the service industry, calls you Ma’am and Sir.  It’s such a frequently used salutation that they’ve actually inadvertently created a new word: Ma’amsir.

Because David and I go out together often, we hear this one all the time:

“Hello Ma’amsir, would you like to sample our new beef bacon?”

“Ma’amsir, are you enjoying your free-flowing champagne?”

“Good afternoon Ma’amsir, may I spray you with Britney Spears’ new fragrance?”

When I say you get used to it and come to expect it, I don’t mean to say that I actually like it.  Only that I become so accustomed to hearing it that when we travel overseas and I don’t hear it, it seems odd.  For about five seconds.  Then I rapidly re-enter normality and forget about it until we get back to Dubai and are immediately subjected to it before we even leave the airport (duty free beckons you know).

It has become such an expected part of being greeted here that I have a funny little story to share.  In the early days of our move here, David and I discovered a lovely little Japanese restaurant close to our home and had lunch there a couple of times, making friends with the staff.  The third time we went, we were warmly greeted by our favourite waitress, Apple, who took us to our table.  After a quick chat to catch up on what we’d all been up to she asked us our names.  I told her my name was Chryss – she giggled and said, “Ah, Miss Chryss” (it rhymes you see).  She then asked David’s name, to which he responded, “Sir David”.  No-one else batted an eyelid but I nearly fell off my chair laughing at his audacity.  Anyway, next time you see my wonderful husband, you know how to properly address him.

Another time, I went into a gourmet chocolate shop to buy a gift for David (I’m a good wife, aren’t I?).  As I entered the store, a delightful Russian male shop assistant greeted me with, “Welcome Ma’amsir”.  I was momentarily confused thinking that he might be addressing a couple that had perhaps stealthily entered the store behind me.  But I looked around and no, I was alone.  And apparently I was also to be known as Ma’amsir.  I don’t know if he referred to me as that because he was so used to using that salutation that it just popped out without him thinking, or if he just didn’t really know what the hell Ma’amsir was but had been trained to say it whenever a customer entered the store.  Either way I was amused.  And no matter how silly it does get, it sure beats being greeted with, “Whaddaya want?”.

There is another cultural phenomenon that occurs here which takes a little getting used to.  Two points to make before I go into it are that a) homosexuality is strictly forbidden in the UAE, and b) public displays of affection between a man and a woman (even if they are married) is frowned upon.  Between an unmarried man and woman, it is absolutely prohibited.  And here comes the twist.  We’ve noticed that amongst the labour workers in Dubai (the majority of whom are from the sub-continent) it is not unusual, it’s even common, to see two (or more) men holding hands or walking down the street with their arms draped around each others’ shoulders or waists.  If they’re sitting waiting for a bus, perhaps one can be seen caressing the other’s arm or leg.  And when the construction workers have their on-site afternoon nap, it is not uncommon to see them laying close next to each other.  Spooning even.

Now personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that EXCEPT that if David and I were to lay down that close (say in a park – yes, such things do indeed exist in this concrete jungle) we would risk being arrested, charged with indecency and possibly (if they wanted to push the point), even deported.  We do occasionally hold hands in public, usually at the mall but we are always very sensitive about the Muslims around us – we are, after all, guests in their country.

Apparently, however, between two men it’s completely fine.  Some people (David among them) believe that this affection is actually a sign of homosexual love – after all, these guys live in male-only labour camps, away from their wives and girlfriends for months, even years at a time.  I don’t actually subscribe to that notion though.  I just think that they were raised in a society in which it is accepted that men are affectionate together in a platonic way.  Either way though, I must confess that it is initially quite strange to behold.  To be honest, I think it’s kinda cute to see two grown men walking down the street with their pinkie fingers interlocked.

Speaking of all the Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers – predominantly employed in the construction industry – they are given an unusual label by society.  Check this out.  They are called “bachelors”.  Whether they are married or not.  Most of these guys come out here on a labour visa and earn a pittance.  They can’t afford their own housing so they live in over-crowded labour camps.  They can’t afford their own cars so they get carted to and from work in hot, over-crowded buses.  And they can’t even dream of being able to afford to bring their wives and family to live here.  Even a visit visa is beyond their means.  So, even though most of them have wives and several children, they live and are known as bachelors.

Bachelors really are treated as bottom of the barrel citizens here.  Even on their days off, if they go to the mall to hang out, they are frowned upon because they are seen to be lowering the tone of the place.  And it’s not as if they go dressed in their construction overalls and dusty boots.  In fact, they are usually better dressed in their long sleeved shirts, belted pants, dress shoes and pomaded hair than the Australian tourist wearing a ripped t-shirt, baggy shorts and flip flops.  But still, they are eyeballed by security from the time they enter to the time they leave and I find that shameful. 

There was a big story about a year ago of a ‘bachelor’ being refused entry to a shopping mall (albeit in Saudi Arabia) simply because he was a ‘bachelor’.  What is going on there?  Segregation?  Apartheid?  Thankfully it isn’t quite that bad in the UAE and I hope it never is.

It’s time to go now – David and I are off to Australia in a couple of days for a whirlwind three week visit and I’ve got lots to do.  Next time I’ll get a bit more stuck into the whole bachelor situation in Dubai.  It’s a complex and very confronting situation and I find that it’s something that I need to work really hard at not ignoring and actually dealing with.  I promise that the next ejo won’t take as long to produce as this one did.