DUBAI // Hundreds of stranded workers have been flown back to their home countries thanks to the generosity of an Indian expatriate who pays for their tickets.
Rubina Umer has bought more than 200 flight tickets in the past 11 months. She buys the tickets for expatriate prisoners who have completed their sentences but can't afford to fly home.
"We have been successful in reuniting 218 prisoners with their families," she said.
"The thought of them meeting their families is enough to help us keep going," said Mrs Umer, 35, an HR analyst from Mumbai who has spent most of her life in the UAE.
This month Mrs Umer has given tickets to seven prisoners to reach their homes in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines.
She was inspired to start the Freeing Prisoners Project in June 2011, after reading a newspaper article about students who had raised Dh40,000 to help prisoners to return home.
"I went to Dubai Central Prison in Al Aweer last year and got firsthand information on how to assist prisoners. Since then I've been giving them air tickets so that they can go home," she said.
Most of those who have benefited from the scheme are labourers who landed in prison after their visas expired. Many workers borrow money to move to the UAE after recruitment agencies dupe them and end up as illegal workers without the promised jobs, she said.
"They stay in UAE for two months and try their luck with washing cars, doing odd jobs at places to earn for their families back home, and overstay.
"Once caught by the police they need to pay the penalty for overstaying. As they haven't earned anything they cannot pay, so they are sent to prison."
Once their terms are up, they do not have the funds needed for a one-way ticket home - as little as Dh550 to Dh1,500, depending on the destination.
"We book their flights back home and the agent sends the e-ticket to the prison. The authorities in turn make arrangements to send the inmates back home."
Mrs Umer co-ordinates with prisons in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain to help the jailed men and women.
After getting a list of prisoners from prison authorities, she sends an email to friends and colleagues seeking help to purchase tickets for the inmates.
Without the support of her friends and family the Freeing Prisoners Project would have failed, she said. "My family is appreciative of my work and always supports me in this endeavour."
Mrs Umer's husband, Mohammed, says his wife swings into action as soon as she gets the lists from prison. "A lot of prisoners have benefited because of this. She is doing a great work," he said.
When prison officials are ready to release a prisoner in the capital, they usually call Faisal Al Harmoodi Travel Agency to arrange the tickets. Hussain Mohammed Moussa, a sales manager at the agency, said they try to find the cheapest fares for prisoners and humanitarians such as Mrs Umer who are assisting them.
"We issue a ticket whenever we get a request either from the jail authorities or from Mrs Umer. We also look for the closest date for the inmates to travel once their sentence is completed so that they are not stuck in jail," he said. "Where possible, we provide discounts."
He praised Mrs Umer's efforts to help the prisoners. "She is a very kind person and has been helping a lot of people," he said. "We assist her as much as possible."