Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be moving to a foreign country to live, let alone a country in the Middle East. Over the 2009 Christmas and New Year’s holidays, my husband Roger and I discussed what we wanted the next part of our life to be like. He thought that before retiring, he would like to do one more airport project but only if he could find something very interesting. I half-jokingly agreed that would be fine but could he try for an exotic location? As usual, Roger came through and soon we were headed to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This blog is a recap of our "leap-of- faith" wanderings around the Middle East and beyond. We joyfully share these expat experiences.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

RAMADAN . . . A SIMPLE ACT OF CHARITY – Adopt-a-Camp Care Packages

Ramadan is the Muslim holy month; a time of spiritual renewal, fasting, family gatherings and alms giving. As a Catholic living in a Muslim country during Ramadan, I see much emphasis placed on the restraints imposed on ones daily schedule. But rather than ruminate on the restraints, I decide this Ramadan to embrace alms giving and do simple act of charity as a gift to my adopted home town, Dubai.

Adopt-a-Camp (AAC), which provides “care packages” to the men who live in Dubai’s labor camps, is my choice.

Negative press coverage has plagued the labor camps in Dubai and the UAE for the past 10 years. Operated by construction companies that build the glorious buildings of Dubai, these camps are populated by laborers from impoverished Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.  Some camps have been cited for their abominable living conditions and inhumane treatment of the laborers.

I have read that, while some camps are well maintained with the laborers being treated well, others are so “dilapidated they are a shame to humanity.”

Last year was my first Ramadan. I admit I was still trying to settle in and it wasn't until the end of the holy month that I began to understand its powerful meaning. As an act of purification and reflection, it provides a period of introspection meant to heighten ones relationship with their God and fellow human beings. Many great acts of compassion and generosity are performed during this holy time.  I confess that the more I learned about the Muslim religion, the more embarrassed I became that I did nothing that first Ramadan.

I am not going to let that happen this year. Throughout the year I read about AAC and the good work it is doing to improve the lives of laborers. It currently has 38 camps and more than 12,800 men “under its wing.”  

I see these men each day in their color coded overalls all over the city working in the desert heat swarming like massive colonies of ants constructing the buildings we all enjoy. In mid-July, I read about AAC’s project to supply 3,000 care packages of personal supplies to the laborers during Ramadan. I instantly responded to the email address given with an offer to help.
Saher, her son and her "boys"

Within a few days I was speaking with Saher Shaikh the founder of AAC. A mother of two boys and former financial advisor, Shaikh makes regular visits to Dubai workers' accommodation to take care of the construction workers.

Very enthusiastically she explained, “We are going to create 3,000 packages containing approximately 30 items; personal hygiene products, clothing, bedding and food items, and it is very important that each package be identical so that the recipients will feel equal.” I know how important this is from my days at Broward Partnership for the Homeless where we often prepared similar boxes for the homeless.

Mary Beth Hickey & John Diadem with Prickly Heat Powder
After explaining that I was relatively new to Dubai and did not have a large group of friends, we agreed the best thing would be to collect financial donations towards the purchase of one of the items in the package – prickly heat powder. Just think how important this little item is to the men who work all day in the blistering Arabian Desert sun. 

Doing the math, to purchase 3000 containers at the bulk price of 5 dhs each totals 15,000 dhs ($4087). For someone used to raising large donations for charity this did not seem too insurmountable.  

I explained to Roger, “All I have to do is find 75 people to donate 200dhs ($54.42) each and I will be home free!” Roger did point out that he didn't think we had 75 friends here in Dubai but, “go ahead and take a crack at it.”

In addition to raising funds, Saher invited all to volunteer one evening to assemble the packages and deliver them to the camps. “Roger and I are in!”

To back up a bit, I did ask the “elephant in the room” question, “Why doesn't the government regulate the construction companies to provide better accommodations for their workers?” Never really got a satisfactory answer only that some do and some don’t. While there are labor laws, the big problem I read about it is they appear not to be uniformly enforced.  That being said, it seems that progress is being made.

 “Adopt-a-Camp is working with the Ministry of Labour (MOL) as a portal for the men to get fast and effective relief. The MOL is hugely supportive of workers here and goes to great efforts to help them. In the cases of abandoned camps, as most of the men are illiterate and unaware of how to get justice, Adopt-a-Camp (by being on the ground) helps to bridge any gaps between the MOL and the men.” said Saher.

After three weeks, I face the realization that I was not going to make the goal. At first I was disheartened. I just hate to fail! However, looking on the bright side, I decided that this first effort was a “cultivation” effort that would reap greater rewards the next time. 

Like my good friend and very talented fundraiser Berne Teeple approach to fundraising, “You first have the date the donor.”  I have just been on my first date with the 33 donors who contributed 7000 dhs ($1907). I know they are all just waiting by the phone for an invitation to that “second date.”

And then there was THE NIGHT to volunteer to assemble and deliver the packages.  OK, so all 33 donors did not come out at 9 PM to assemble the packages but 5 of us went and it was awesome.

Picture this . . . a large convention centre room where Dubai Sports World was hosting a marathon festival of indoor sports.  Sports fields and sports ball flying all over the cavernous area and smack dap in the middle are tables arranged in neat rows loaded with products.

It is now 8:30 PM

Arriving a little early as I have somehow been designated a Team Leader; it didn’t take Roger and me too long to figure out the system. Good thing we are quick learners because right behind us are more than 1000 volunteers. Volunteer of all ages . . . children . . . teens . . .  college kids . . . young professionals, all representing just about every country in the world. As has been our fate since moving to Dubai, Roger and I appear to hold the senior most position in the room. 

As the volunteers flood in each is assigned a duty: “BBs” – Box Builders, “BMs” – Box Movers who carry the boxes down the supply tables, “BSs” – box stuffers who put items in boxes, “QC” – quality control who check each box to make certain it is properly filled,  “BTs” – box tapers who seal the boxes and “BLs” – box loaders who stack the boxes on the loading platform ready to be put into the trucks. Whew!

Note there are two types of boxes; one for Muslims marked “M” that contain prayer rugs and beads and one for non-Muslims.

"My Hero" Roger Foster
Roger is once again my Hero becoming a “jack of all trades” keeping the supply lines going. Fellow blogger Jani and her husband John Deidam who works for Ingersoll Rand, newly arrived expat Linda Hoagland, who has lived in Singapore, China , Scotland,  and Malaysia, and Mary Beth Hickey , who has been an expat in Dubai since 2008, become the “BSs” extraordinaire handling their stuffing duties with great aplomb.

"The evening we spent filling boxes for Adopt-A-Camp is a memory I will always cherish.  It is so incredibly sad to see the laborers working in the extreme heat day after day, not to mention the pitiful conditions of the labor camps where they live.  It felt great to actually be able to do something to help make their lives a little easier.  The volunteer turnout that night was amazing and it certainly left me smiling!" said Jani.
Linda Hoagland, Jani & John Diadem with other volunteers

All 3000 + boxes are assembled and ready for delivery in 3 hours. Quite an amazing feat.

As I kiss (3 kisses on the cheek in the UAE) and hugged my mighty crew goodbye, I survey the area to see how the delivery system is going to work.

Lines of the strong volunteers are loading the trucks while Team Leaders organize the remaining volunteers into two groups to visit the camps – Jebel Ali and one located beyond the Dubai International Financial Centre.   

I chose Jebel Ali because it was closest to home. In my infinite wisdom I send Roger home and plan to take a taxi when we finish with the delivery. Oh boy was I wrong!

It is now 12 midnight.

After much travail over where the Jebel Ali camps are located – I actually know the area because the map shows it over by the Christian Church compound where I go to St. Francis Assisi. But I am a bit perplexed as I know there are no roads in the direction of the sites. The decision is made to meet at the little Jebel Ali mosque and caravan behind the loaded trucks who certainly must know the way.

Good thing, I was correct – there are no roads. We just leave the road and go out into the darkness winding around until we reach the camp – we are about 30 cars and 3 trucks strong.

It is now 2 AM. “Won’t we have to wake up the men?” I ponder.  Not exactly!

The men in the camp have patiently, a virtue during Ramadan, been anticipating our arrival for hours and are all in line awaiting their Ramadan treat. The caravan of cars and the trucks pull up in front of the entrance and the distribution begins. The men, most dressed in their traditional dress, are anxious to see what their gift package contains.

The process is orderly and all are appreciative of this small gesture to make a difference for them this Ramadan season.  

 Layla helps distribute "care packages"
After the trucks are emptied and laborers retire to their humble dwellings, the volunteers congratulate one another on a job completed and we prepare to head home.

It is 4 AM.

Did I mention that my brilliant plan was for me to take a cab home?  At 4am in Jebel Ali there are no taxis. Luckily my apartment is not too far out of the way and my new friend Layla Derraz graciously deposits me at my apartment and we say “Ma's as-salaama” – Good night.

Saher says to her dedicated volunteers, "You have brought a smile to their faces, hope to their hearts and dignity to their souls. You have given them the greatest gift one human being can give another  . . .you have cared. Adopt-a-Camp flies on your angels wings." 

 Postscripts . . .
Ramadan  . . . is observed in the 9th month of the Muslim calendar, the month the Quran was sent down. Its exact timing is determined by the lunar cycle. During this holy month Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual relations with their spouses.  So during these long hot summer days of August this can sometimes mean up to 15 hours. The Suhoor is the meal eaten at pre-dawn before the fast begins and Iftar is the meal taken at sunset to break the fast. Both are considered very meaningful times of celebration with family and friends.  Iftars can also be very elaborate banquets hosted by corporations.

Saher gives instructions to volunteers Layla, Tarek and Hafilda
Layla Derraz . . . I want to thank Layla Derraz, manager external relations, Dubai Chamber, for her friendship during the evening and for giving me a ride to the camps. And more importantly, for graciously giving me a ride home!  Joining us in volunteering that evening were her handsome husband Tarek Raja and her lovely mother Hafida Belakrouch. I was much honored to share this Ramadan event with Layla and her family. 

Other initiatives of Adopt-A-Camp  . . .  The camps Adopt-a-Camp takes care of come under two categories: functioning and abandoned. Functioning camps are the permanently adopted ones where they work with the camp administration to enhance the lives of the men  by providing free English classes, free vocational classes, emotional counseling, hygiene workshops, outings so that they can actually have some wonderful experiences. Abandoned camps are more of a recent phenomenon- since the financial crisis of 2008. Those are camps where the employers have absconded, usually leaving the men with no food, water, electricity and months of un-remunerated salaries. We take care of them in every way until they find work with another company or until they safely return home.

Funds awarded to Saher by Kraft-Philadelphia from their Most Inspiring Woman in the Gulf competition, have created the Saher Scholarship Fund that enables bright graduates of the English classes, organized by the International Aid Association at  American University of Dubai,  sit for the IELTs exam. Having an internationally-recognized accreditation under their belt results in tremendous increase in their salary potential, job opportunities and even opens up the door for emigration.

Labor Camp situation . . .
Here are two interesting articles related to this situation that appeared on Most interesting are the comments (there is a tab at the top of the story for the comments). Artists vow boycott of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and UAE hits back at 'sensational' human rights criticisms.


  1. Hey Katie,
    Thank you for the reminder of the true meaning of Ramadan. You and all the volunteers are heroes and stars! What a fantastic program Saher has started. I wish I had been there to lend a hand.
    Warm wishes for a Happy Eid!

  2. We did miss you because I know that you would have been there with me at 4 AM.

  3. Hi Katie,

    What a fantastic write up and I am truly sorry to have missed "the date" as I wanted to help you in person. I wish I had been in the UAE at the time. It's fantastic to know there are good people in this world you want to help others. We are very fortunate and Dubai can really open your eyes to how hard some people have it in the Gulf.



  4. Andrew . . . don't worry about missing this opportunity. I promise you there will be more! Thanks for the support. And welcome to married life!

  5. I just wanted to take the time to write and say that I really appreciate the care package! It has many useful things.
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