Coronavirus: Dubai volunteers and businesses charter repatriation flights to India

Young woman who lost her job and who lived in a stairwell for days is among hundreds to fly home at the weekend

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Small business owners and community volunteers are working together to charter flights to help the Indian government repatriate citizens who have lost jobs abroad.

About 21,000 Indians have been repatriated from the UAE as part of the government's Vande Bharat or Salute India mission since services began in May.

Of this, about 3,000 citizens were flown to India on private flights organised by companies and welfare groups, after obtaining clearances from Indian federal and state authorities.

Dozens more applications for chartered flights are being submitted to missions in the UAE to clear the backlog of people waiting to return as a two-month lockdown enforced across India is lifted.

An Indian woman who lost her job in Dubai and ended up living in the stairwell of a building for nine days is among those who were repatriated on Saturday on a chartered FlyDubai flight.

I have not told my mother I was living on the staircase

Urvi Bathia, 23, moved to Dubai from Mumbai to work for a travel agency in February.

Her dreams of a better life were short-lived after the agency closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic - just 15 days after she started work.

Unable to return home, since flights were suspended, she sold a gold chain and spent her savings to pay for rent and food.

She was evicted from a room she shared with five others in Mankhool in May, after she was unable to pay the monthly Dh800 rent. She began living in the stairwell of the building but had to be careful not to be seen by the landlady.

“I have not told my mother I was living on the staircase,” she said.

“I even ate on the staircase. A friend kept my luggage and sometimes allowed me to sleep on her bed when the landlady was not around.

“I ate whatever food my friends cooked. The landlady did not know I was still living there so, during the weekend, I stayed on the staircase day and night. I had no option or I would be out on the streets. I would get on wifi from the staircase to apply for flights home.”

She would sneak in to use the toilet when the landlady was not home.

Despite her struggles, she values the kindness shown to her by people in the UAE.

After posting about her situation on a Facebook group, she was connected with a volunteer who worked with a business group to pay her rent and buy her a ticket home.

“I’m a commerce graduate and had dreams to work hard, buy a house for a better future but everything has crashed,” Ms Bathia said.

“I have lost everything I saved. But I believe this is a phase and it will not last forever. In these times nobody has time to see anybody else’s pain so I’m grateful to find people who help others with no profit for themselves.”

Another chartered flight will take dozens of Indian citizens wishing to return home to Pune, near Mumbai, on Sunday.

Pankaja Apte with her husband Akash and daughter Gargi were stranded in the UAE when international flights were shut down to control the spread of the coronavirus. The family is leaving on a flight chartered by the Gulf Maharashtra Business Forum that has worked with community volunteers to prioritise people who lost their jobs and need to return home. Courtesy: Apte family
Pankaja Apte with her husband Akash and daughter Gargi will leave Dubai on a flight chartered by the Gulf Maharashtra Business Forum. Courtesy: Apte family

The Apte family, who has lived in the UAE for more than five years, will be onboard that flight.

Pankaja Apte, 40, said after her husband lost his software job in November but the family decided to remain in the UAE until March so her daughter could complete her education.

When borders closed, just as they were planning to leave, the family struggled to pay their Dh 3,600 monthly rent, water, electricity bills and groceries.

“We had it all planned until March but, once we could not return home, our situation got very bad,” said Ms Apte, who is a homemaker.

Their friends have helped contribute to the costs of their flights home.

“Mentally we were very upset because we had to ask friends for money and family in India to send us funds. We have got a ray of hope with the chartered flight. We could not survive without a monthly income any longer,” she said.

Dhanashree Patil, 39, who runs an event management company in Dubai, has connected more than 1,000 residents like the Apte family and Ms Bathia to business groups willing to assist those in need.

About 40 pregnant women, not covered by medical insurance in the UAE, and unemployed workers left the country on two-chartered flights to western India at the weekend.

“I get calls at 2am with people crying, the men also cry because they don’t have salaries,” Ms Patil said.

“I tell them to be strong mentally and that they must have patience. Sometimes we cry together. These chartered flights will give them relief.”

Rahul Tulpule, vice president of the Gulf Maharashtra Business Forum, has worked on getting the permissions needed to secure private flights to his home state.

Maharashtra, in western India, was allocated just one flight on the government Vande Bharat mission.

Mr Tulpule has appealed to business groups and community members to help sponsor tickets and organise more flights.

“We have tried to help patients who need medicines and people who have lost jobs but this task cannot be done in perpetuity,” said Mr Tulpule, who runs a technology company.

“I’m hoping more organisations and individuals come forward to get people home.”

About 420,000 Indians have registered with missions in the UAE to return home, although officials say many have decided to remain as businesses reopen under the easing of safety measures.

Only those who have registered with the consulate or embassy are eligible to fly home on the chartered flights.