If you could give 1,000 dirhams to anybody: the winners of Western Union’s Ramadan campaign

We speak to the winners of Western Union’s Ramadan campaign 30 Days of Better, to see who and what charities they gave their winnings towards.

Winners of Western Union’s Ramadan programme, 30 Days of Betters. Gelan Mohammed; Jean Claude Farah, President of Western Union, Anil Mulchandani; Juliet Mathew and Shri Ranjini.

Victor Besa for The National
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When Anil Moolchandani looks out from his balcony in Dubai Marina, he can usually see people swimming in the pool below. Just beyond that, on the other side of the wall, there’s a construction site where men are working in the searing heat.

“It’s such a stark contrast, and one that many in Dubai feel uncomfortable with,” says ­Moolchandani, an Indian who has lived in the UAE for 20 years. “We live in a bubble here, and I think Ramadan provides an opportunity for people to take a step back, see the bigger picture, and try to do the little things that we can do to help those outside the bubble.”

Six months ago, ­Moolchandani lost his job as a regional HR manager in the oil-and-gas industry. “Being out of work gives me more time to think about these guys and what they’re going through,” he says. “I count my blessings that even though I don’t have a job, I’m still better off than millions of other people around the world.”

It was Dubai’s blue-collar workers that Moolchandani had on his mind when a competition on Radio Mirchi, part of Abu Dhabi Media, caught his ear during the first week of Ramadan. The DJ wanted listeners to call up and nominate a person or people who they would like to donate Dh1,000 to. The competition by Western Union was called 30 Days of Better and involved contestants giving their winnings to those in need on a daily basis during Ramadan, with one winner selected per day.

“I’ve been wanting to distribute phone cards to the car cleaners who work in the ­parking lots of Ibn Battuta and Mall of the Emirates,” Moolchandani told the DJ, when he was put on air. “Since I am out of a job, any financial help would be welcomed for this project.”

Moolchandani had asked the men themselves what they most needed. “They told me they’ve already got food provided for them. Then one said: ‘I haven’t spoken to my little kids back home for three months, because I can’t afford to spend Dh20 on a phone card.’ It’s easy to buy a bunch of Du and Etisalat cards and walk around giving them to these guys.”

Moolchandani is Hindu, and the act of giving is a Ramadan custom that many non-Muslim expats also adhere to at this time of year.

Mother Teresa once said: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest to you.”

Most 30 Days of Better winners have been doing just that, by coming to the aid of an individual they know rather than a charity or group.

Jeelan Mohammed asked for money to help her neighbour, who has special needs, buy a custom-made wheelchair. Gelan Raya, from Egypt, also made the call to get a wheelchair for a fragile, housebound old woman who a friend was concerned about.

This week, Shri Ranjini, who lives in Abu Dhabi, travelled to Kerala to give her winnings to the Sukritham home for impoverished and abandoned girls. “Although Dh1,000 isn’t worth very much to many people in the UAE, in India, it’s 18,500 rupees, which is enough to pay for a girl’s English education for a year,” says Ranjini, who took her 7-year-old son with her to demonstrate the importance of giving. “We also bought stationery and chocolates for our son to hand out to the girls, so he understands that the world doesn’t revolve around him – there are other people who need our help. We need to show him that we can spare something for them, too.”

Juliet Matthew, an Indian who works in the operations department of an airline, thought of her Nepalese office cleaner, Sabithe, when she heard the radio competition while driving home from work. “Sabithe has a tumour in her leg and is in great pain,” she says. “Doctors have advised her to undergo surgery, but she can’t afford it. The ladies in my office have been making a plan to send her home to Nepal, where her family can look after her. None of us are in a position to help her individually, but collectively we can do something. I’m now going to call Sabithe and tell her this is her ticket money to go back to Nepal.”

Another winner, Palestinian Ahmed Mahmoud, wanted to help his office’s Bangladeshi cleaner. “He works for the kind of company that doesn’t pay its people on time, and is always short of cash. He gets to go home only once in two years. I want to gift him this Dh1,000 for Eid. I often give him some small change in the evenings and ask him to enjoy a biryani on my account, but this gift will make a huge difference in his life – it’s more than his monthly salary.”

Some argue that giving is not entirely selfless, because the deed makes the giver feel happier, too. This is echoed in the findings of a 2012 happiness study by Lara Aknin, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, who found that when spending a financial windfall on someone else, participants felt happier, more optimistic and useful. Therefore, they were more inclined to spend money on others.

“I find it’s a combination of being selfish and selfless,” says Anil’s wife, Sapna Moolchandani, who’s a doctor. “The feeling of elation when you give to these men is something that you can’t get from going to a party or the movies. You just feel a lot more alive when you bond with them.”

For the past year, the Moolchandanis have been going with their son, Kavish, 4, on regular trips to the construction site near their home. “We are especially busy during religious festivals, because that’s when the men miss their families the most,” says Anil. He also joins in large-scale corporate food handouts during Ramadan, but says it’s the more-spontaneous family trips that have given him a chance to break down social barriers with the men. “A lot of the time when you visit these camps as part of a corporate initiative, it’s a rampage, with men just scrambling for food. When it’s just us, we get more of a chance to interact with them. When they see that they can speak to somebody, they connect very quickly and like to talk. A lot of people bring them food over Ramadan and they appreciate that, but speaking to somebody for five minutes makes a big difference. They just feel that there is somebody who can actually hear them, and that’s rare for them.”

The Moolchandanis were initially inspired to help the workers by Dubai Mums Helping Hands, a community group co-founded two years ago by American mum Stephanie Sutherland. The ­women started giving fruit and vegetables to construction workers in the area “because most of their diet just consists of rice, dhal and bread”, says Sapna. “Every couple of weeks, we get some groceries and give them out.”

This Ramadan, the group has undertaken a five-week programme, hiring buses to bring volunteer mothers, with husbands and children in tow, to Dubai’s labour camps to deliver more than 4,300 bags of groceries to thousands of men. It’s almost double the number of bags they delivered during their last trip in October. “This time there wasn’t a spare seat on any bus, on any week, which shows how strong our community is,” says Sutherland. “It’s a pleasure to know our workers will eat food rich in nutrition and enjoy new toothbrushes, swim shorts, caps, phone cards and water bottles. I’m almost sure, however, that what we’ve left behind is our human factor that came in the form of appreciation, acknowledgement and ­encouragement.”

weekend@thenational.ae