A tale of two communities in Dubai


During a work trip to Israel and Palestine in 2008, Dubai-based Lina Nahhas was sitting on a bus when she looked out the window at a passing car and had a startlingly simple realization. “It was just like me car at home — a woman driving in front and her daughter, practically the same age as mine, in the back. And it was like a slow-motion vision. I thought, ‘If this bus blows up, or if there’s any kind of danger around us, I would be absolutely be shattered if this child gets hurt,'” she recalls.

“That was the very first time a sameness moment, as I call it now, occurred to me. I was no longer just looking at the story from the outside; it became personal. If anybody gets hurt, it means that my child and I are hurt.”

The Arab-Canadian calls that moment “an epiphany” — one that “rebooted [her] life.” It was the trigger for stepping away from her successful career in market research and launching the Sameness Project, a Dubai-based organization that strives to break down barriers between people and promote empathy and humanity.

Dubai is a tough place in which to form a community. Rapidly growing and constantly developing, this desert city of about 2.2 million people, 75 percent of which are male, is often segregated into districts of shared labour accommodations and super-swish high-rises on man-made islands. Apartment rents that top $4,000 a month are not uncommon. In terms of cost of living, it is the most expensive city in the region, yet 19.5 percent of the residents of United Arab Emirates (UAE) live below the poverty line.

About 85 percent of the population are expats; while the term “expat” is often used to describe savvy globe-trotting professionals, in this case, almost all of that tally is made up of migrant workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia. Aside from Arabic, the UAE’s official language, these migrant workers speak more than a dozen other languages between them.

In recent years, tensions have arisen as human-rights activists and trade unions have been speaking up about the mistreatment of some migrant workers recruited to build many of the luxe megaprojects the UAE is best known for. There have been accusations of squalid and cramped living conditions and cases in which employers have been accused of withholding workers’ passports so they can’t leave the country as well as reports of undocumented workers being denied access to government benefits.

Some workers claim that they have been forced to work for free for months until they pay back their recruitment fees. There are also reports of “runaway maids,” female foreign domestic workers — housekeepers, cooks and nannies who are employed in most middle and upper-class Emirati households — who flee because they feel mistreated and overworked and sometimes haven’t been paid.

In such a diverse place, with so many polarized living and working conditions, how do you bring people together? For Nahhas, you do it by recreating moments like the one she experienced while sitting on that bus. Drawing on her studies at the University of British Columbia, where she’d earned a degree in international relations, as well as years working on corporate social responsibility projects and personal research into empathy studies, Nahhas formed the Sameness Project in 2011 with Jonny Kennaugh and Aimee-Rose Stephenson.

The couple, who had been living in New Zealand, came to visit Nahhas in Dubai in 2010 (Stephenson is aunt to Nahhas’ daughter), and when the three got talking about the project, the couple decided to stay and help. The modus operandi: Start small and work on a community level.

“Since starting the project, I have been working exactly the opposite, navigating exactly the opposite, of how I did when I ran my company for 10 years,” says Nahhas, 43, with a laugh. “It’s all on gut.” The very first outreach event — giving bottles of cold water to some of the city’s outdoor workers — was a bit improvised. “There were 10 of us, and we met at a meeting point and then chose our drop-off places,” she says.

They handed out water to some workers on bikes travelling to the port. “I stopped for a guy on a bike who was going to deliver some food from a grocery store to a residential building,” she explains. “Security guards, gardeners — there are all sorts of people working out in the heat who have become invisible to some of us,” she adds, referring to society’s more privileged members.

The effect of that drop-off was profound. Now called Water for Workers, the event is more organized and happens six times a year. From those initial 10 volunteers, the team today consists of Nahhas, Stephenson, Kennaugh and Canadian Fiona Hepher, along with a volunteer database of 500 to call on to distribute 5,000 bottles of water at a time. The program as a whole is now sponsored by PepsiCo, which provides the bottled water. It’s a relationship that came into being thanks to Samar Habibi, a Pepsi employee who volunteered to greet workers during one drop-off and, inspired, championed the cause to her employer.

“I often keep water in my car to hand out to labourers. But this was different because it focused on connection, not merely handing out water,” explains Habibi. “Some people were unsure of what we were doing — sadly, it’s not often that these two worlds collide in Dubai. Others wanted to grab the water and go. The magic happened when we paused and exchanged smiles — I said ‘Thank you,’ shook their hands and then handed them the water. Sometimes, we’d engage in a few-minute conversation. That’s special.”

Now, the Sameness Project has moved beyond water and runs eight or nine other initiatives a year — all with the goal of breaking down barriers. Hepher, who moved to Dubai from Vancouver in late 2010 and joined the organization in March 2013, manages the outreach events from start to finish. She’s particularly fond of the We’ve Got Your Back program, which matches local taxi drivers with personal trainers to teach them stretches and exercises that will help prevent injury from 12-hour shifts in their cars. Some of the trainers, she says, earn up to 300 dirhams ($89) an hour to train clients but volunteer their time with these cabbies.

I think taxi drivers get such a bad rap in Dubai. People have a really easy time criticizing them,” she explains. “I really enjoy getting to know them on a more personal level…because, you know, you see the back of their heads when you get into a car. This is face to face; this is getting to see their family photographs and learn about what their day is like.”

Soles and Stories is another Sameness program, one that has been replicated outside Dubai. Randa Abu Rayyan, a Palestinian-Canadian, and her domestic worker, Gemma Retamel, from the Philippines, participated in the event when it was run in Amman, Jordan, in February 2013.

Retamel and a group of other domestic workers were sent pairs of TOMS shoes to decorate. The shoes were then put on display in a gallery — along with a story about the artists — and auctioned off. The workers received whatever money was raised on the night of the exhibition. “They were the stars of the show,” says Abu Rayyan. The creative process and event inspired both Abu Rayyan and Retamel. “‘I could be an artist,’” Abu Rayyan remembers Retamel saying to her. “She realized that she does have a talent other than cooking and cleaning. It encouraged her.”

As for Abu Rayyan, the experience gave her a renewed perspective as an employer. “You know, as a society, we expect a lot from our workers,” she says. “It makes you realize that sometimes you take them for granted. I know they clean for us and they help us out, but they, too, have souls. And that’s what really hit home. They have souls, just like us, and too often that’s ignored.”

The Sameness Project has seen positive effects of its work: Foremen at construction sites who were initially reluctant to give workers a break to receive the water now ask Nahhas’ team when they’ll be able to come next; the Dubai Chamber of Commerce called the team in to facilitate a networking session for corporate members and NGOs; and the group has fielded requests from cities in other countries for help in duplicating Sameness Project events.

Right now, most of the volunteers are expats (the globe-trotting-professional kind) who find out about events through social media, but the team would like to get local Emiratis more involved. “The community here is still a bit of a struggle to get into,” admits Hepher. “We’re reaching out via social media to include them.”

Still, going forward, one of the project’s biggest challenges is financial sustainability. “Our organization’s immediate goal is ‘Let’s stay afloat,’” says Nahhas. Until this year, she was funding the initiative herself (Kennaugh and Hepher are full-time paid staff, while Stephenson is part-time) with proceeds from the sale of her market-research company, but she is unable to do that indefinitely. She’s seeking out corporate sponsorships (in addition to the Pepsi water donations) that are apolitical and stay true to the project’s humanistic focus.

“One of the ultimate goals for me is to influence policy. We want to make enough positive noise so that we can go to the government and say ‘Look what we’ve done. Let’s look at policy. Look at some of the criteria that can be imposed on contractors, for example, to look after the workers. Look what can be done,’” she says.

This story ran in Elle Canada (April 2015)