Dubai-based comedian wins award for helping others

Mina Liccione won US$5,000 as part of the 'Spread Some Inspiration' campaign, organised by UN Women and Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

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DUBAI // Mina Liccione knows all about the power of laughter.

The Dubai-based comedian and philanthropist started the volunteer performing arts project Clowns who Care with her husband, fellow comedian Ali Al Sayed, in 2009 to put on performances for people with special needs, the elderly and hospital patients.

This week she won US$5,000 to help fund the group as part of the "Spread Some Inspiration" campaign, a partnership between UN Women and Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

Ms Liccione, the competition's runner-up, said it felt selfish to win an award for helping others.

"They're really the ones who help me," she said, and urged other women to take up good deeds. "You don't need a lot of money, it's OK. You have talent and passion."

The award's US$10,000 first prize was won by American Sheryll Mairza, who founded Operation Hope, a humanitarian organisation that serves Kuwait's migrant workers.

Started in 2004 and originally run out of a tent in Ms Mairza's yard, it now serves about 1,000 people monthly and has more than 25 regular volunteers. They provide whatever is needed: clothing, food, toiletries, bedrolls, medical aid.

Ms Mairza moved to the Gulf 20 years ago, following her Kuwaiti husband to his homeland, and was inspired to start the charity after a chance encounter with a gaunt janitor dressed in a threadbare clothes one cold winter day - temperatures in Kuwait can fall below zero.

"I made the decision that day that I was in Kuwait for a bigger purpose than just being married to a Kuwaiti," said Ms Mairza, 50.

She returned to give the man warm clothing and food. Soon after, she founded Operation Hope.

Ms Mairza said that her work is its own reward.

For one woman, an Ethiopian domestic worker who fell from a third-story balcony and lost an arm, Operation Hope provided a prosthetic arm, physical therapy and "seed money to go home and start her life anew," Ms Mairza said.

And last year, Ms Mairza helped organise a brief homecoming for a Filipino domestic worker who was terminally ill with cancer. The woman had spent a decade with one family and her sponsor did not want to say goodbye, unwilling to let her go.

"Her desire was to go home and die in her own land," Ms Mairza said.

After "some conversation and a lot of prayer," the sponsor paid for the maid's flight home, Ms Mairza said.

"She was home about three weeks and died there," she said. "But she was able to be home, and that was a blessing for us."