British-Pakistani Freya Jaffar is the founder of Abu Dhabi Q&A, a Facebook group that helps expats in the capital to connect. The group, which was launched in 2012, currently has 42,584 members, who use the platform to ask a host of questions related to life in the capital. Abu Dhabi Q&A also organises regular events where people can meet face-to-face.
What inspired you to launch Abu Dhabi Q&A? Were you surprised by how quickly it gathered momentum?
I've always been a doer, and l like things to be done quickly and consistently. So when I struggled to find even basic information myself, I decided to do something about it. I didn't want to trail around in the heat with four children, just to find out what Friday timings in a mall were, or the most recent visa rules, or if Cadbury's Creme Eggs were available in my local store. I wanted a place that would offer a reliable and trusted source for everything related to daily life in Abu Dhabi. Yes, the size it's growing to has surprised me. While I knew it was much needed, I didn't expect this. I simply enjoyed connecting people and sharing information, and that it kept me busy.
What are some of the most common questions that you receive on your site?
Definitely medical-related. There is a distrust of the insurance system and people compare it to the ones back home, where they have built up relationships with doctors over years. So here they rely on real recommendations from members and administrators.
Would you say that the expat experience is a lonely one?
I think people can live a lonely existence anywhere. It's a cliché, but life is what you make it. Having said that, there are times when a sense of loneliness kicks in upon any major life changes.
Because the expat community is smaller in Abu Dhabi than Dubai, do you think loneliness is more prevalent here? Or, is the community actually more close-knit because of it?
I really do think the residents of Abu Dhabi are massively altruistic. For example, we often post anonymously on Abu Dhabi Q&A, and when it's a post by someone new, lonely or depressed, I am blown away by just how many strangers inbox me to connect them to the person to help them.
What are some of the things people can do to counter loneliness in the UAE?
There are lots of meet-up groups here. If you do feel daunted just turning up alone somewhere, contact the organiser and explain this. They have probably experienced these feelings themselves and would help. Try some volunteering, too. If you have children at school, this is a great way to meet other people.
Attending an event on your own can be intimidating. Do you have any tips?
My suggestion is to head along early. This allows you time to familiarise yourself with the hosts and early arrivals. It will help you relax and form conversations with others, as those you connected with upon arrival will introduce you. And it also eliminates that awful feeling of turning up alone, late, to an event at which you know no one. Also, people love to talk about themselves, so ask questions and pay attention to what they say.
What are the biggest no-nos?
Don't exaggerate being friendly and do be your authentic self. Chances are people will quickly see through any act.