Friday, September 30, 2011

Losing Abu Dhabi

I’ve never been much good at goodbyes. I feel like I should have something profound or at least funny to say, but in the moment I end up being shy and awkward, sputtering out something trite like “it was nice knowing you – take care.” So when I realized I needed to write my final post, I put it off. Admittedly, I’ve also been busier than I anticipated, since I found myself fully employed only days after we arrived, but mostly I’ve been ignoring you all, avoiding the inevitable.

Honestly, I could keep this blog going for some time, as I have a laundry list of impressions and experiences about the transition back to the U.S. – our brief trip to Boston, seeing our families again, the culture shock of living in the South (or strange lack thereof) – that have been accumulating since we left Abu Dhabi. Sometimes I find myself blogging in my head, trying to find the best way to describe my current cultural predicament and wishing I had my camera in hand.

But with Sam fully engaged in school and I immersed in my new work life, it just doesn’t feel right to keep this blog going. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with so much change in my relatively short life, but at least for now I need to leave behind all things Abu Dhabi, not to keep comparing then and now, or there with here, but to face forward and embrace what lies ahead. And it would seem that my new schedule and work responsibilities are forcing me to take a good long break from blogging any topic.

So, I guess this is goodbye. It was nice knowing you. Take care.

Coming full circle...Sam and I take our last photo in Abu Dhabi just before our plane leaves the ground.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hazardous humanitarianism

Those of you who follow our blog on any sort of regular basis know that it has been several weeks since our last post, and most likely you also know this is because we have been in the process of moving back to the States and settling in our new home/jobs in Tallahassee, Florida. Well, so far so good! Hopefully, Shannon will be able to get back to writing soon and can fill you in on the details. But for now I want to talk about something else.

Not long before we left Abu Dhabi I tagged along on a charitable excursion that turned out to be a profound learning experience about volunteerism. I intentionally delayed writing about it because of a minor (and perhaps paranoid) fear that it might incriminate me or others, but also because I wanted some time to reflect on what happened. The purpose of this post is not to lay blame at the feet of anyone in particular, but is more of a cautionary tale, if you like, so that others might avoid what I experienced.

At the church we attended in Abu Dhabi, an announcement was made that a small group of people external to the church had collected a large number of toiletries and clothing donations for a labor camp in Ajman, the smallest and probably poorest of the seven emirates, and were now recruiting volunteers to help distribute the items to the laborers. Even before moving to the UAE I had heard of the deplorable conditions plaguing many of the labor camps, and had hoped that while living there I'd find a way to help those who often end up living lives of de facto indentured servitude. It had turned out to be more difficult than you might think to volunteer for such activities - you can't just show up at the local soup kitchen - so I jumped at this opportunity.

A few days later I rode with a convoy of cars, followed by a truck loaded with the donations, out to the labor camp in Ajman. With our conspicuous arrival to the camp, it didn’t take long for the workers, most of whom were Bangladeshi, Indian, or Pakistani men, to congregate around our vehicles. We were warmly greeted by smiling faces caked in ubiquitous grey dust - evidence of that day's work mixing concrete on the industrial site adjacent to the camp.

As instructed by our group's organizer, our first task was to hand out one empty bag to each worker, which he would then use to collect one of each item we had brought. The “plan” was to have each volunteer take charge of 2-3 piles of items (e.g. bars of soap, pairs of socks) and have the workers walk by each station in a single file line, holding out their empty bags as volunteers added one of each item. Sounds doable, right? 

The first complication arose when we attempted to queue up the men to receive their empty bags. It was during this exercise that I witnessed the degree to which “the line” is a cultural concept, and one that doesn’t hold much cache in south Asia. Even with a translator helping us explain the process, it proved a futile task. In the end, we just waded in among the men and handed out the bags as best as possible. But we discovered that some men were collecting a bag, going off and hiding it, and then coming back and asking for another bag. We had no system in place to prevent them doing this other than the possibility that we would recognize someone who had already been given a bag (and with just about every man wearing the traditional shalwar kameez, this proved difficult, to say the least).

Once the bags were finally distributed, the volunteers manned our respective piles of items while simultaneously trying to direct the men to proceed through each station in an orderly fashion. This went more smoothly than the empty-bag distribution had, although we continuously had to urge the men to move back a few steps because they were increasingly crowding the piles of goods. And after a while, it became evident that some men were going through the line multiple times, while the men who only went through once became visibly frustrated.

I'm not sure how the trend got started, but suddenly the men began bypassing the volunteers' handouts, reaching directly into the piles of donations next to us, and taking more than just one. In the process of doing so, they knocked over a young female volunteer next to me, and I actually had to use physical force to clear them away. Shortly after this development, a few workers got the idea to climb up into the truck and take entire bags of donations from their source, and this quickly spiraled out of control. Wanting to protect the remaining store of items, the truck driver started the engine and began pulling away, while our volunteers in the back literally fought off those trying to climb on board.

After driving around for a while the truck returned, and attempts to climb on board continued. At this point, the lead organizer who was in the back of the truck became so desperate, she began throwing the donations onto the ground, where they were immediately swarmed, of course only stoking the mob mentality that had descended upon the workers. It is important that I say here that this frenzy did not take hold of everyone; some of the workers were trying to keep their colleagues from taking the donations.

I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “why haven’t you left yet?!” Well, we were asking ourselves that same question. The problem was that a number of us were spread out across the grounds with no way of contacting each other (we had not thought to give each other our cell phone numbers beforehand), and no one wanted to leave until we had a full head count. Finally, with our stocks depleted and nothing left for the workers to take, they began to disperse. At last we were able to organize ourselves and collectively leave, each of us with a bitter taste in our mouth.

Humanitarianism sounds noble and praiseworthy, but without thoughtful planning has the potential of doing more harm than good. My purpose in saying this is not to discourage others from volunteering on behalf of the laborers; far from it! The labor camps house people who have unwittingly been stripped of many of their freedoms and are given barely enough to survive in return for long hours of back-breaking hours in extreme weather. While this particular attempt to bring aid to the camps was a bit of a disaster, I know there are extremely successful aid efforts led by competent individuals. My biggest mistake was that I assumed the organizer knew what she was doing and so asked no questions. And while our organizer had good intentions, her biggest mistake was simple lack of planning.

So my advice to those bleeding hearts out there is to keep looking for ways to help, but to ask lots of questions before you join any effort. Ask how you’re getting to and from the site, how the aid will be distributed, and what the plan is for the safety of the volunteers as well as the recipients. After our debacle, I later learned that those particular workers hadn’t been paid in six months! It's no wonder they acted with such desperation. I wish I had known that beforehand.