Over the weekend, I called into an Abu Dhabi pharmacy to get a prescription filled. A routine event, but it has prompted me to think about the meaning of this Year of Giving.
As I approached the door, I noticed an old and clearly unwell man carrying a plastic bag and rather raggedly dressed. At first, I took him to be just one of the beggars one occasionally encounters, asking for a few dirhams for a meal or a cup of tea. Something about him, though, made me pause.
Out of his bag, he drew a small empty cardboard packet of medicine. I stopped to take a look. Through a few muddled phrases, I gathered that it was a medicine that he said he urgently needed, but couldn’t afford to buy. It didn’t seem like the normal con trick, so I told him to follow me into the pharmacy, so I could find out what the medicine was.
It was, I was told, medicine for someone suffering from severe diabetes. I promptly doubled in my mind the small amount I had planned to give him and asked the price. That was considerably more than I had expected, so I doubled the amount again and gently said goodbye. He shuffled away.
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“Why hasn’t he got medical insurance,” the young shop assistants working in the pharmacy asked.
It could be because he is unemployed, I explained, or maybe his medical card had expired. Perhaps he had overstayed his visa, but lacked funds to return home. Perchance his family lived in grinding poverty and were unable to send him money. Perhaps he lacked a support system of friends within his community to provide him with some assistance.
There are, I told the pharmacy assistants, people living on the fringes of our society whose life is harder, more desperate, than they could ever imagine.
A few years ago, I devoted a column to another ancient expatriate who derived his income from waiting outside Abu Dhabi's Marina Mall, offering to help shoppers with their trolleys, pushing them to their cars and then unloading them, for the reward of the single dirham in the trolley's lock. My wife and I looked forward to seeing him every weekend. We learned that, from the few dirhams he earned from his hours of work, he was educating his daughters in a remote mountain village at home in Pakistan. We always gave him more than the dirham in the trolley. We liked him and respected him enormously because of the great dignity with which he held himself, working hard for a pittance in a foreign land to give his family a better future. We missed him when he was no longer there and hoped that he had found his way safely home.
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The gentleman we met last weekend was equally old, but clearly ailing. There was, too, a great dignity in the way in which he held himself, a man clearly in considerable need, yet without the slightest hint of wheedling in his seeking of help.
When I left the pharmacy, my wife told me that, in faltering Arabic, he had thanked us and ever so politely, had asked if we could give him a little more to cover at least half of the price of the medicine which, I suspect, he sorely needed. We looked for him, but he had gone. I wish we had found him.
It’s so easy to overlook people like him, to pass by on the other side. Yet, whatever the difficulties we all may face from time to time in our lives, there are always others who face challenges that are much greater in terms of their simple ability to survive.
As we draw towards the close of this Year of Giving, I hope that we can continue to spare a thought for, and recognise, those who dwell on the outer margins of our society.