'Family life' for Al Ain orphans means trips abroad, too

A dozen children from Dar Zayed orphanage have begun foreign holidays as part of a programme to give them ordinary Emirati lives.

UAE Orphans Saeed, 9 and Saif, 5 who live in villas that are part of the Dar Zayed network. Their "families" were traveling to Indonesia on Friday, though Saif is not going because he does not have a passport yet.
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AL AIN // A dozen children from Dar Zayed orphanage are enjoying foreign holidays as part of a programme that aims to give them ordinary Emirati lives.

The trips, which began on Friday, are not a one-time gift, said Mubarak Al Ammri, head of the programmes and activities division at Dar Zayed, but happen regularly, as in any other family.

"We want them to touch normal life, to feel it," he said. "We don't want them to feel we are an organisation."

Dar Zayed serves more than 440 abandoned, orphaned or neglected children, including those who have been matched with Emirati foster families.

Children older than 2 are not eligible for fostering. Instead they live in villas scattered throughout Al Ain with Dar Zayed "families", which comprise six children plus two house mothers who work half-week shifts.

"We give them a full budget for a month and they can save some of this money to travel," Mr Al Ammri said. "We want them to learn how to manage finances."

There is an emphasis on being part of the community. The children attend government schools, live in normal neighbourhoods and make trips to the supermarket.

"The main target ... is to integrate them in society," said Salem Al Kaabi, Dar Zayed's general manager.

When boys turn 12 and girls turn 18, they move into gender-separated "youth houses". When they marry and start their own families, Dar Zayed continues to check on them.

On Thursday, as nine-year-old Saeed and his house siblings prepared to go to Indonesia, they looked like any other family.

The boys smiled proudly and teased their "sister" Dana, asking her to sing a song for their guest. Dana shyly demurred. Saif, 5, will stay at home because he does not have a passport yet. But most of the older children said they had already been abroad - including Saeed, who has been to Malaysia and Qatar with his Dar Zayed "family".

The children will travel with one of their house mothers. On Thursday they were cared for by Lubnan, a floating house mother who fills in when other staff are sick or off.

She has worked at Dar Zayed for 10 years. But it is not like a job, she said. "Really, this is a family."

Dar Zayed has matched five foster families with children this year. Potential parents must be Emirati and have stable finances, a clean bill of health and a good reputation, among other requirements. Single women over 30 are eligible, though single men are not.

Demand is high, with a waiting list of 10 families and just two eligible babies. "We have more demand than supply," said Mr Al Kaabi.

Before Dar Zayed was founded in 1988, children who were orphaned or found abandoned in Abu Dhabi were simply absorbed into the community. "Before it was small numbers, and it was normal families taking care of this very small number," said Mr Al Kaabi.

But when the number of children grew, Sheikh Zayed, the late President, decided they needed a dar ("home"). The organisation still receives support from the Al Nahyan family, particularly Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak.

"Day by day they [members of the Al Nahyan family] are asking, coming over for the children," he said. "And they call them their children."