Gifts to camp are a labour of love

Politics and living conditions off the agenda, and grateful recipients say gifts will help them cope with being away from home and families.

December 26, 2008 / Abu Dhabi / (Rich-Joseph Facun / The National) Members of the Evangelical Community Church, bow their heads in prayer prior to delivering 225 gift bags, with other church members, to laborers at a labor camp, Friday, December 26, 2008 in Abu Dhabi. Over a three week period the congregation donated money in order to afford the donations being delivered to the labor camps.  *** Local Caption ***  rjf-1226-labor004.jpg
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The mid-afternoon call to prayer hails from the mosque as Abu Dhabi evangelical community volunteers bow their heads before going into a labour camp. "We pray, Father, for all men in the camp, that they'll be safe from harm and not face any stress at their work, that they'll get paid and be cared for, and we pray for their marriages to stay together because it's hard to be separated," said Daniel, 38, as he led prayersa with two dozen other men.

"You are merciful, so we pray that you teach us to be merciful too." It was the first time the volunteers were delivering charity to people not affiliated with their church. The camp houses more than 200 men and four women who work as security guards in the Abu Dhabi area. The places they come from include Africa and South East Asia. They are all relatively well educated and fluent in English. Each care package contains a large tube of toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, washing detergent, shaving kits, M&Ms sweets and a phone card in a beige cloth bag. The kits each cost exactly Dh62.50 (US$17) to assemble.

LuLu hypermarket donated two cans of soft drinks for each bag. The women receive skin lotion instead of shaving kits. Labour camp organisers are usually cautious about letting in outsiders, and the community did not want to appear as if it was preaching in a country that outlaws proselytising. Most churches in the country raise charitable contributions and then give them to a recognised charity group such as CARE.

The organisers at the labour camp, who belong to the church, asked that neither the camp nor the parish be named. "We're going in as servants and not as spies," Pastor Joe Page earlier told his volunteers before they climbed into four SUV vehicles carrying more than 250 of the packages with them. Camp organisers had been worried about calling attention to living conditions at the camp, a thorny issue that has often come up as the country experiences a boom in construction, driving contracting companies to hire faster than they have been able to fix up camps.

"They were concerned we'd see conditions at the camp and run to our embassies and the UN, so don't talk to them about that," says Pastor Page. "Don't get into politics either. If you're American, believe me that conversation will be a dead end. And if they keep insisting to talk politics, change the topic. "Focus on family. Ask about Christmas in their country. Tell them, 'My holy book says it's not my responsibility to criticise politics, but to pray for politicians."

Organisers at the camp also asked the church volunteers not to give cash to the workers if asked. "They might say, 'I need money to send to my family.' We're not giving out money. Just in case they nag you, but they shouldn't," says the pastor. Inside the camp, a crowd gathers around the volunteers and expresses their gratitude. "You don't know how much this means to us," says a Nepalese man, newly wed and separated from his family. "I miss my family very much."

A Sri Lankan says,"I will now use the money I would have spent on these items on more phone credit to speak with my family. Thank you very much."