Charity drive: how you and your car can aid others

Georgia Lewis reports on the volunteer organisations that need help from you and your vehicle.

In a land of low fuel prices and high speed limits, it seems unlikely that a car can be used for good. But despite the contribution to the UAE's carbon footprint by motorists, and the reckless displays of driving, altruism and cars can be a powerful combination. There are plenty of organisations in the UAE whereby people can volunteer their time - and their cars - to help worthwhile causes. Animal lovers might consider volunteering for organisations such as Feline Friends or Strays of Abu Dhabi. Lesley Muncey, chairman of Feline Friends, says volunteers are desperately needed, especially those with cars who can attend emergency calls where cats need to be collected and taken to veterinarians. Volunteer drivers are also needed for trapping missions, such as those undertaken when an area has a high street cat population that needs to be neutered and re-released. An information night held by Feline Friends attracted 42 people but only three offered to help out with driving. "If someone calls us [for help] and they haven't got a car, we do our best to get one of our volunteers to get an injured cat to the vet, but sometimes we can't always help - it depends on who is available," says Muncey. "If anyone with a car can help with injured cats in their area, that'd be great. If a cat has been run over, for example, we need someone who can respond quite quickly."

Anyone with a car that can fit a cat box or cat trap, a cage-like device that is about four feet wide, can volunteer to be a driver. Volunteers will be trained in how to handle cats who are injured or just plain terrified. "If you have a 4x4, obviously that is probably the best, but we welcome anyone's help. You might have to put some plastic down to keep the car clean but, other than that, no special adjustments to the cars are needed," says Muncey. Feline Friends also needs a new van for mass trappings. "If one of the dealerships would like to donate a van or give us a good deal on a van, that would be great. We have been fundraising for a new van for a while now." "We encourage people who call us to do as much as they can for themselves because we are so short of volunteers," she says. As if on cue, the phone rings with someone panicking: the caller's cat had fallen over a fourth floor balcony and was embedded in a bush. Also reliant on volunteers is Strays of Abu Dhabi (SAD), an organisation that rescues stray dogs and finds homes for the capital's abandoned canines. Nikki Gammans, who works as a dog trainer as well as volunteering for SAD, says that volunteers with cars are needed to pick up dogs and transport them to the American Veterinary Clinic or foster homes. "SUVs are obviously ideal, but it doesn't really matter what sort of car you have, if it can fit a dog, you can help us out," she says. "And it is amazing how much stuff can fit in a Nissan Tiida." Gammans prefers to transport dogs in crates: "It depends on the situation and on the dog - I prefer to pick up a dog in a crate, it's better if the dog gets car sick and vomits or has to go." Sometimes, however, there is no time for a crate. Gammans recalls a time when she was driving though Khalifa City A and spotted an abandoned dog and had to act immediately. "If you have a car and some spare time, we welcome your help," says Gammans. "When you see the look in those dogs' eyes, you just have to do something." There are also humanitarian causes where reliable transport is essential. Take My Junk UAE was founded by Faisal Khan, a Canadian who was born in the UAE, and when he returned to the Emirates he wanted to find a way to help people who are not living a life of wealth and privilege.

His family-run organisation collects almost anything that people are throwing away - appliances, clothes, books, children's toys, furniture - and some goods are sold at garage sales while others are distributed for free amongst low income earners. "It started as a hobby, I'd go and pick up stuff, and now it has become a full-time job," says Khan, who is based out of Ajman but picks up and distributes goods across all emirates. "Now I am trying to raise money for a second truck so I can do more pick-ups in Abu Dhabi," he says, as his phone rings non-stop with people donating unwanted items. He is looking to raise Dh20,000 for a used truck and so far he has Dh4,000 in the kitty. Khan keeps in touch with the supporters of Take My Junk by email and Facebook and one of his recent messages urged people to organise pick-ups in their area. "It can be so hard to get volunteers to help us pick things up," says Khan. "Especially big items like washing machines and refrigerators, there's heavy lifting involved and especially in the hot weather. And then in Abu Dhabi, there are parking problems and that can make it hard too." However, anyone with transport and a bit of determination is welcome to get in touch with Khan. Even the act of selling your car could make a difference to the lives of others. Asif Karim is a partner in Al Burhan Transport, a Dubai-based company that diversified into exporting secondhand cars to Iraq after the recession affected his luxury taxi business. "We had 15 luxury taxis but now we only have five; there isn't the same demand for our taxi on-call service that we had a few years ago," he explains. So the business started exporting secondhand cars to southern Iraq, but with a twist. Taking advantage of no duty on used goods brought into Iraq, Karim takes donations of clothing and household items to be distributed amongst Iraqi families who have lost their main income-earning member in the conflict. Secondhand cars built from 2008 onwards can be exported into Iraq and Karim says that sellers of certain cars may get a better deal from him than selling back to dealerships. "There is a big demand in Iraq for the Korean cars, the Hyundais and Kias," he explains. The cars are shipped from Al Hamriya port in Deira to Basra. From there, they are taken to the city of Karbala where Karim's business partner sells the cars and distributes the charitable donations. "He is very busy, running the business there and finding families who need help," says Karim.

Each month, the company ships around 20 to 25 cars to Iraq, with five cars filled with goods for distribution. Karim went to Iraq the last time donations were shipped across and helped with their distribution. "It is such a good feeling to help these people," he says. "We try our best to help and it can be done with just a little effort and time." If people want to donate clothes and household items - "but no large whitegoods like refrigerators and washing machines, they don't fit in the saloon cars" - Karim can send a driver to pick up goods from donors' houses. Volunteers with cars who can pick up goods from houses would also be welcomed by Karim. "We can always use the help. It is hard for people to give up their time so we'll have things picked up." Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, is also keen to meet volunteers. On the UAE website, it says that one way people can help out is by transporting display items, merchandise and equipment for information stands. "We usually just use our own cars, but if anyone can help out, that's welcome too," says Ghada Hatim, communication director for MSF's Abu Dhabi office. The UAE's healthcare infrastructure precludes MSF from operating clinics here - MSF's work generally focuses on providing emergency healthcare in crisis situations, such as war, natural disasters and refugee camps, where a country cannot cope with the demands on their health system. As a result, MSF's main activities in the Emirates are fundraising, accepting donations and raising awareness of the organisation's public health campaigns. MSF's Abu Dhabi office is looking to raise awareness on a public level and one of its ideas involves cars on a grand scale. "We'd like to do some sort of Pimp My Ride event where people decorate their cars to raise awareness for one of our campaigns," says Alia Hamzeh, MSF's communications officer in Abu Dhabi. "People love their cars here, so it seems obvious to find a way to bring together people and their cars and raise awareness at the same time." "Starved For Attention", MSF's global campaign to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, is the campaign the Abu Dhabi team would like to see incorporated in a car design event. The idea is still in its infancy, but Hatim and Hamzeh are open to hearing from anyone who can help, whether it is an organisation with a large car park where decorated cars can be judged, through to universities who might want to involve their design students. Toyota has also become involved with MSF through what Hatim describes as "a special deal." "The fleets have to travel through some tough conditions - sand, rocks, mud, water, different situations - and Toyota has created a special 4x4 that is only used by MSF staff, you can't buy it here," says Hamzeh. "The role of the driver is vital - they will be a translator and a guide for the region, a life-saving person."