From exploited jockey to 'A' student

A Dh27 million UAE-Unicef programme has helped reunite 1,700 children with their families.

DUBAI // Al-Koury Ould Ahmed was just five years old when he left his family in Mauritania and was sent thousands of kilometres to the Emirates. His family was assured he would be well looked after. The reality was very different. He was forced to work as a camel jockey, living in poor conditions and exposed to emotional and physical harm. He was one of 5,000 children trafficked into the UAE before the Government banned the use of jockeys under age 18 and weighing less than 45kg. "They showed me his picture when he was just five years old," said Mahmoud Kabil, one of Egypt's most acclaimed actors and a Unicef goodwill ambassador. "He was a baby, riding on a camel, living in the desert and deprived of food because they were watching his weight." Al-Koury, now we years old, was one of 1,700 children who benefited from a joint US$10 million (Dh27m) UAE-Unicef programme launched in 2005 to repatriate and rehabilitate over 1,700 children, including hundreds from Mauritania, Sudan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The children were rescued and moved to transit shelters, where they were provided with medical care while their families were traced. Mr Kabil, who is active across the Middle East in his Unicef role, met earlier this week with Al-Koury, who is now living with his mother again in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. He said he was "flabbergasted" when he first heard about the trade in children for use as camel jockeys. Al-Koury's mother maintains she was told by an acquaintance that her son would be taken care of and would only be gone for a short time. For the next three years he was apart from his family, living in the UAE where he rode camels and performed menial jobs such as cleaning and taking care of the animals. "He told us that he really missed his mother during that time," said Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, Unicef's head of regional communications. Al-Koury, who looks older than his 12 years according to Mr Kabil, still shows some signs of the trauma he went through, but has readjusted well, particularly in school. "One thing that is very, very positive is that he came so proudly and showed me his papers and his copy books. He's an A student," Mr Kabil said. "He's an excellent student and has an average of 86.6 per cent." Funded by the UAE and managed by Unicef, the programme to remove children from the camel racing industry is now in its closing stages. "This is a success story," Mr Kabil said. "This is something that is really relevant to the effort that Unicef did with the [non-governmental organisations] and the Government of the Emirates." Mr Kabil, who was named as a Unicef goodwill ambassador for the Middle East and North Africa in 2003, sees his role as a "conduit" to focus attention on issues affecting children across the region. He and Major Gen Nasser al Menhali, the Ministry of Interior's acting assistant undersecretary for naturalisation, residency and exit affairs, met on Wednesday to discuss the issue of child protection. Major Gen al Menhali said he hoped Unicef officials would join the ministry on future visits to countries where there are similar projects to support former jockeys, the UAE state news agency WAM said. Mr Kabil makes regular trips around the region, recently visiting a refugee camp for internally displaced people in Yemen, where he said he was shocked by the alarming rates of malnutrition. He has also travelled to Gaza, where the Israeli blockade is impacting children's access to medication and other vital goods, he said. While in the West Bank, Mr Kabil met children who have to walk 20km to school because of restrictions placed on their movement by the Israeli military. "There are a lot of issues that break your heart all over the area," he said. "They are all important."