Three Dubai friends find a way to help

Moved by the Haiti earthquake in January, three friends from Dubai find a voluntary role for the poor in Ghana.

DUBAI // As they witnessed the tragedy of Haiti's earthquake in January, three school friends in Dubai decided they could not stand by and do nothing.

Like others across the Emirates and around the world, Victor Charpy, Gabriel Gougaud, and Yasmine Canga-Valles - all 17 - decided to raise money for the emergency appeals.

But, they also realised that as important as financial assistance was, they also wanted to be on the ground, helping in whatever way they could.

Victor, Gabriel and Yasmine, who are from France and in their last year at Lycée Georges Pompidou, a French school in Dubai, started to hatch a plan to spend part of their long summer holiday volunteering in Haiti.

But, with their parents somewhat reluctant to allow their teenage children to travel by themselves to a potentially volatile country, the three friends decided to find somewhere else they could volunteer.

They looked at projects in Asia and South America, but by March, Victor, Gabriel and Yasmine had settled on spending a month in Ghana.

The three young volunteers say they had trouble finding an organisation here that would take on teenage volunteers for international projects. Instead they ended up approaching Projects Abroad, a UK-based NGO which places volunteers in humanitarian roles with organisations around the world.

What they did not anticipate was the amount of money it would cost: the three needed to raise Dh65,000 to cover their costs, including insurance. They came up with a project proposal and shopped it around to local donor organisations.

After weeks of trying to work out a way to get to Ghana, in between schoolwork and other commitments, they had secured funding from sponsors including the Al Maktoum Foundation.

"It was very rewarding, especially because we did everything to make it happen," said Gabriel.

On June 30 they left Dubai and headed for Ghana, eventually arriving at the town of Kasoa and the Royal Seed Home orphanage and school.

There they were faced with bucket showers, no running water and only rudimentary infrastructure - a far cry from their privileged existence in Dubai, where Victor has lived for 16 years, Gabriel for two and Yasmine for eight.

Before they left, the three friends organised a fund-raising drive at their own school and within the wider community, generating Dh3,000, which they used to purchase basic food items, clothes, books and water for the Royal Seed Home.

At the school, which caters for 200 children aged six months to 15, Gabriel and Victor gave lessons in English, maths, geography and IT. Yasmine assisted a teacher with a class of 25 children aged one to four years old. The three friends also helped with general maintenance and other tasks.

"At first it was very challenging," Yasmine said. "I passed a lot of time with the kids, just being with them. I took care of them when they were sick. They had very little and each one didn't have enough attention."

Yasmine said she came across lots of "shocking" stories. Kobi, seven, who is deaf, was found in a box floating down a river when he was just three weeks old and in a "very bad condition".

The three forged strong bonds with many of the children. Hannah, a quiet eight-year-old orphan, left a particular impression. She was always looking after the younger children, said Gabriel, and never complained.

"This eight-year-old came to me and she cried when we left and asked us not to leave," he said. "It was really emotional."

The trip was rewarding in many ways, said Gabriel, not least because it gave him a strong sense of independence.

"You could definitely feel that cultural gap," he said. "But the experience teaches you a lot."

While their overriding feelings about the experience are positive, Yasmine, Gabriel and Victor all faced challenges during their month in Ghana. Stark cultural differences quickly became obvious and the level of poverty was often confronting.

"I knew we would encounter this," Victor said. "But, when I came back here [to the UAE], you just think how lucky we are."

The three friends are preparing to return to the orphanage next year, after they finish their final exams and before they head to university.

"You do it once and you want to do it again and again," Yasmine said. "You feel independence and the satisfaction of helping."

They would all encourage more young people to volunteer.

"Be patient and be really motivated, because it can take a lot of time," Victor said. "But you won't regret it."