An unemployed homemaker who has spent the past few weeks cooking and distributing dozens of free meals in Dubai has had her work recognised by Emirates Loto.
The company, which hosts a weekly raffle in the UAE, donated 10,000 meals to the Filipina, who made international headlines for her humanitarian work last month.
Feby Cachero Baguisa Dela Peña, 34, has been handing out meals to Dubai residents since the start of Eid Al Fitr, after seeing people queue for food vouchers at local restaurants.
She now cooks enough food, from her own kitchen, to feed at least 200 people each day.
"The support from Emirates Loto is really important because the 10,000 meals will last for about 25 days," Ms Dela Peña told The National.
“I am so thankful for their help. They have made it possible to feed so many more.”
Each day, just before 3pm, Ms Dela Peña steps out of her Deira flat, pulling a red wagon laden with food behind her.
She sits in a shaded area on Al Muraqabat Street and lays out a cardboard sign that reads in simple, black capital letters: "Free!!! Food for everyone."
People arrive in droves, despite the heat. They are mostly low-income workers from Pakistan, the Philippines and India, who have had their livelihoods affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. They queue for a container full of chicken and rice, one of the dozens of meals Ms Dela Peña wakes up at 3am to prepare.
The mother of three pays for the food herself.
"For 12 years I've lived here in Dubai, my family also has had struggles and we've been through ups and downs too. And it's time to give back,” she said.
The very first day she cooked the meals, she did so with Dh500 borrowed from her husband, who works in retail at The Dubai Mall.
"Then I asked him for another Dh500 the next day, and he replied ‘Where did the first Dh500 go?’” she said.
“Sometimes he thinks I'm crazy, but he's really happy too.”
As word spread about her efforts, people began donating food by dropping it off at her flat.
Producing more than 200 meals each day requires round-the-clock work.
The night before, Ms Dela Peña’s brother-in-law and husband help her prepare the food in the flat she shares with 11 other people. This means chopping and marinating about 30 kilograms of chicken.
She gets up every day before the sun to begin cooking about 25 kilograms of rice and 150 eggs.
Other family members will pop in to help with cooking or packing the food, but Ms Dela Peña does not leave the kitchen.
When the meals are packed and loaded in the wagon, she takes them outside. Often, the line has already formed before she gets there.
"People tell me I should be looking after myself and it's too hot, but how can you give up?” she said.
“These people are really depending on you. It really keeps me going.”
The project has been such a success that she is in discussions with Dubai authorities to turn what started out as a good deed in her kitchen into a full time charity.
Since the outbreak, the government has launched several drives to help support people who have had their income affected by the coronavirus.
Over Ramadan, the 10 Million Meals campaign saw 15.3 million meals distributed across the Emirates.
Despite the official initiatives, communities have also come together to help each other.
"People walk for over an hour in the heat to queue for food," said Ms Dela Peña.
"I have to help these people, I can't help but imagine how I would feel if it was a member of my own family."
Paul Sebestyen, chief executive of Emirates Loto, said Ms Dela Peña had touched the hearts and minds of the community.
“Her work truly changed lives for the better, and I would imagine the community is extremely thankful for her efforts,” he said.
“Her impact on the UAE community has been inspirational.
“We wanted to help support her by ensuring those who she has helped, and more, can continue to be nourished on a daily basis.”