Emiratis on US mission to rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Sandy

A group of 12 young Emiratis have given up their time to rebuild homes in New Jersey that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012
Taleb Al Blooshi, a Takatof volunteer, was one of 12 Emiratis who travelled to the New Jersey coast to rebuild a home that had to be demolished after being damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Takatof is an Emirati organization that provides humanitarian volunteer opportunities for UAE youth. Photo by Willie Davis for The National
Taleb Al Blooshi, a Takatof volunteer, was one of 12 Emiratis who travelled to the New Jersey coast to rebuild a home that had to be demolished after being damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Takatof is an Emirati organization that provides humanitarian volunteer opportunities for UAE youth. Photo by Willie Davis for The National

NEW YORK // Hours before Hurricane Sandy slammed into her small beach town on the New Jersey shore nearly two years ago, Leslie Morris decided that this time the warnings were serious, and she and her teenage son scrambled to pack their valuables into her car.

“Hurricane Irene was the year before and it wasn’t that bad at all,” Ms Morris said. “But the wind off the ocean felt different.”

Sea Bright is a working-class community situated on a sliver of peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Shrewsbury River, whose surging waters had already flooded the only exit routes to higher ground. Panicked, they rushed home and planned to fortify themselves in the attic of their small house.

Luckily, she says, friends called the National Guard units deployed near by and the pair were evacuated in military vehicles just before the destructive storm hit. Their house, however, was flooded and nearly submerged in sand.

Ms Morris and her son have lived for months in an army fort that was converted into housing for those displaced by Sandy, enduring the long wait for insurance payments and federal relief money.

“Up until a week ago, I was losing hope,” she said. “When my house had been there decaying for over a year, there’s a sense of hopelessness because there’s no action.”

But earlier this month Ms Morris found out that the Habitat for Humanity non-profit organisation would demolish the house and build a new one in its place. In addition to relief came surprise, when she was told that a group of 12 young Emiratis would be helping to build the foundation of her new home.

“I’m telling people and they don’t understand why these young adults would come from 6,000 miles away,” she said. “But that’s another thing I take away from this: showing compassion and generosity doesn’t have to be in your back yard, it can be in any back yard.”

As part of its public diplomacy efforts in the US, the UAE Embassy last summer donated $4.5 million (Dh16.5 million) to the state’s Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund to help repair technological infrastructure at dozens of schools. So when the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development’s Takatof programme wanted to send a team of its volunteers to work in a Sandy-affected area, the fund put it in touch with Habitat for Humanity.

The 12 young Emirati men and women who spent last week helping to renovate and build houses in New Jersey, including Ms Morris’s, aim to contribute to the rebuilding effort and also to act as cultural ambassadors for their country.

“After the devastation of Sandy, the ambassador felt it was extremely important as a country for us to be able to support the communities that were affected,” said Dana Al Marashi, head of the embassy’s Heritage and Social Affairs Department. “It’s a chance for our volunteers to be able to interact with Americans and is a further example of the close relationship between the United States and the UAE, not only through defence and trade, but through human interaction.”

Last Thursday, the group worked with Habitat volunteers and contractors to lay a foundation for Ms Morris’s house that would be able to withstand future flooding.

Saood Al Jneibi, a 25-year-old from Abu Dhabi, said he has been volunteering with Takatof for two years, and wanted to volunteer to help those affected by Sandy “to give back and represent the UAE”.

The Sea Bright residents “have been very hospitable, and we like that because our culture is the same” he said, describing how locals had delivered meals to the team. “Others just stop by and say thank you for doing this work.”

Toni Murray, who helps to run her son’s diner on the town’s main strip, invited the group to lunch at Beach Burger. She and her son had seen them working on the house as they drove down the beachfront road, “and we said let’s do something for them, because it’s so nice to see people helping us”.

Taking a break from using power saws to cut square flood vents in the house’s foundation, the young Emirati and American volunteers sat in the dirt. These are the moments when young people from both countries have an opportunity to exchange ideas, said Adel Al Areefi, 26.

“We enjoy learning about the culture of volunteering in the US and exchanging experiences and stories,” said Mr Al Areefi.

“We want to answer questions about the UAE and any preconceptions that they might have.”

Jason Card, a 44-year-old building contractor working with Habitat, said: “I’ve never interacted like this before with people from the Middle East, and it’s been a pleasure. It’s something that I want my kids to experience, too, and they might be coming by later today.”

Athena Jones, an American volunteer on summer holiday from university, said the experience had challenged some of her assumptions.

“A lot of Americans have this impression that women aren’t allowed to do nearly as many things as men, but that totally has been overwritten in my mind now,” she said, standing next to Maha Al Suwaidi.

Ms Al Suwaidi said that volunteer work is crucial for young Emiratis. “Building the personality of the young is important, learning teamwork and about different cultures, learning leadership skills,” she said, adding that she hopes to encourage others to volunteer with Takatof when she returns.

newsdesk@thenational.ae

Published: May 17, 2014 04:00 AM

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