UAE residents who have mastered the art of being more responsible

Five UAE residents strive to be more conscious and giving in their lives and are helping others do the same.

Krystel Hoche, the founder of Yo Neighbour. Satish Kumar / The National
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Genuine fulfillment in life, which everyone strives for in one way or another, comes from two things: growth and contribution, says Zeta Yarwood, a life coach living in Dubai.

“People who feel they are constantly expanding as individuals, and contributing to something outside of themselves, tend to be more satisfied with life, as long as they find what they are contributing to meaningful. For most people, contributing to our planet and the life on it can really hit that sweet spot.”

It’s something that goes beyond charity, however. There are ways to be more responsible human beings in everything we do, from travelling to shopping – and not shopping.

“By setting an example to others, or telling others about what you’re doing, you have no idea how many people could be inspired to do something different,” says Yarwood. “And, in turn, those people could inspire others, who then inspire others. This is where every single person really can make a difference, and it’s about much more than charity, as these five individuals and groups are showing.

Rent, don’t buy

Like many people, Krystel Hoche, a Lebanese mum living on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island, finds she has many things lying around her house that she rarely uses: “Stuff my kid outgrew, electronics I barely use, household items collecting dust in the closet.”

Last year, Hoche figured out a way that such items could prove useful to someone else, and make the owner some extra cash at the same time.

Yo Neighbor! is a new community renting app available for free on IoS and Android. Those looking for items to rent – from a toolbox to plastic chairs for visiting guests – can browse for them by location.

As well as being convenient, particularly for expats who don’t want to invest in owning items they might have to get rid of when they leave, the idea behind the app is to enable people to be less wasteful in how the consume. “People are starting to understand the need behind sharing, and not always owning,” says Hoche.

Extra Bag Community

When the Canadian Phairis Sajan went to Laos on a family break last December, she was struck by the poverty she encountered there. “Young kids don’t have shoes, diapers or pants of any kind, and they live in these wooden shacks where they might not have electricity, let alone running water,” she says. The impact of returning to her home in Abu Dhabi, and then later that same day seeing luxurious items on display at Yas Mall, was “a real culture shock”.

“We’re just so lucky here in the UAE,” she says. “I realised that I had all these old clothes and shoes, and we could have taken them along in an extra suitcase to Laos. It would have been so satisfying to have that really personal, authentic experience of giving it to people who really need it.”

So for their spring break, Sajan travelled with her husband and two daughters, aged 11 and 8, to Indonesia, armed with an extra suitcase full of clothes, shoes and school supplies. The highlight of the trip was when the family paid a visit to a local secondary school, and handed out a pencil and coloured pencil to each student. “It was an unbelievable experience,” says Sajan. “We were told later that each student has one pencil that lasted all year, so to get a pencil and a coloured pencil was amazing for them.”

Sajan is trying to encourage the UAE's other frequent fliers to follow her lead through the Facebook page, Extra Bag Community.

“The next time you visit a developing nation, consider making a little room in your suitcase, taking an extra bag if you can, and leave behind a little something that will make life better for the local community – school supplies, medical supplies, clothes, books, shoes – then go to a school or a clinic,” she writes there. “The experience will make you want to do it again. And again.”

Make someone smile for nothing

For Mina Liccione, co-founder of Dubomedy Comedy Club in Dubai, telling stand-up jokes isn’t the only way to perk people up.

She started her "Catch a Smile" project in 2014 through Dubomedy's volunteer arm, Clowns who Care, and these days, three times a year, they focus on showing a group of Dubai residents random acts of kindness. In Ramadan, her volunteers gave out gift bags to toilet attendants across Dubai.

“These ladies are someone’s mom, sister, daughter, aunt,” says Liccione. “I thought being able to bring them a little joy and appreciation as part of Catch a Smile was the perfect fit.”

Liccione says the reaction from recipients is usually one of great surprise.

“They’re humbled. One woman cried and told me all about her life. Some days we all just need a friend and for someone, anyone, to listen and make us feel appreciated. Being able to make people smile is such a deeply humbling moment, because in turn I gain so much more. I am reminded to always be thankful, kind and warm to others. At the end of the day, we are all humans. We all want to be loved. We all want to be successful and make our parents proud. We all worry about the world and our children’s future. Our similarities are way stronger than our differences. Once you can see that, an entire world of beauty and caring opens up.”

Help the nanny on to better things

Padmini Gupta grew up in Dubai, and when she returned to the city of her childhood in 2008 with her husband, to raise their own children, she noticed that the country’s labourers still faced the same issues they always had – “lack of access to funding and inability to learn new skills to grow in their careers”.

“What people desired more than money, entertainment or status was growth, and a chance to be included in this globally affluent economy that social media had exposed them to.”

But by not meeting the minimum monthly salary required to set up a bank account, they don’t have the basic financial tools.

“Neither did they have access to new learning or professional growth, so they landed up working for decades in the same job with stagnant wages,” says Gupta.

In 2015, former banker Gupta and her tech-savvy husband, Milind Singh, created the app Rise, which provides domestic workers with affordable educational childcare courses (Dh50 to Dh200). It was designed by the celebrity parenting expert Nanny Stella of Nanny 911 fame. An employer can also pay their maid through the app.

“We get a local bank account and debit card for your nanny, and the salary gets deposited automatically into her account,” explains Gupta. “Your nanny can then get access to a whole set of financial products from her home country – including retirement plans and insurance. “

Do fashion better

Maybe you check where your food comes from before you buy it. But how about your clothes? Project Just helps consumers to make informed ethical decisions about which clothes to buy, based on research on how farmers and garment workers are treated through the fashion supply chain. Although Project Just is based in New York, the non-profit has plenty of Dubai links, as co-founder Shahd Alshehail lives between Saudi Arabia and Dubai, and the Dubai-based tech expert Mehrad Yaghmai is also on board the team. Yaghmai was inspired to get involved after the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh in 2013, in which 1,134 people were killed. “For me, it brought to light the issue how a lot of the fashion clothing that we’re used to are actually produced,” he says. “It’s not that the companies can’t afford to upgrade their systems, it’s more that no one was putting a spotlight on them in terms of what they do, so they think its fine to just continue without improving their standards.”

Shoppers can browse through extensive research on the procedures followed by 132 popular fashion brands for free on the website. There's also a Smart Shopper section, showcasing brands that meet Project Just's seal of approval.