ABU DHABI // It took just three days in Nepal last month for five Emirati students at Zayed University to have their safe and comfortable worlds turned upside down.
Reem Thani, Sahar al Musalli, Muneera al Hanjari, Fatima al Sayegh and Nada Ibrahim are still trying to come to grips with everything they have seen and learnt after volunteering to take part in a trip that promised to open their eyes to another side of life.
They had no idea what to expect. “After those three days, I look at everything differently now,” says Ms Ibrahim, 20, a few months away from graduating with a degree in media and public relations.
“It was a life changing experience when you compare it with growing up in a country as civilised and advanced as the UAE, to the poverty and need we witnessed as soon as we got off the plane in Kathmandu.”
The focus of the trip was to educate the women on the meaning of charity and the concept of corporate social responsibility. The Foundation for the Advancement of Tourism Ethics (Fate) has introduced Zayed University to various charity ventures in Nepal through the foundation’s director, Dr Ian Michael.
Dr Michael, who is also a professor of marketing at the university, wants to help give his students the chance to see another side of the world, and explore what they can do to help. “We want to raise awareness among the students, and have them look at one of the world’s poorest economies, which is so different from what they see here in the UAE.”
On the one hand, there is a need to get more tourists to see Nepal as a viable holiday destination, in an effort to aid the country’s economy, Dr Michael says. But more importantly, he says the trip is a lesson in the differences between the economies of the two countries, and an attempt for students to identify charitable projects that can be funded in Nepal. The trip was meant to inspire them.
Through free tickets provided by Etihad Airways and a Dh30,000 donation by DEPA Ltd, a large interior company operating in Dubai and worldwide, Dr Michael’s year-old idea finally came to fruition. He was able to choose five students who showed an interest in charitable causes to accompany himself, Dr Declan McCrohan, a professor of economics at the university, and two other staff members to Nepal for three nights last month.
The group first visited the Tilganga Eye Hospital in Kathmandu, where the poor of Nepal go for free treatment, in some cases having their sight restored.
They then visited the Shree Bhagyodaya Secondary School in Sanku village, a remote and poor area of the country.
Ms al Sayegh, 20, an undergraduate in communications and media science, describes the trip as “amazing, eye-opening and very, very real”.
“It is so different there, so surprising in this 21st century world we live in to see people living without hot water, without electricity, without air conditioning, without these luxuries we take for granted, and in the most basic conditions, and yet still be so happy.”
What struck her the most, she says, is the sense of accomplishment the average Nepalese gets from a day of work, and from the ability to put food on the table.
“We work here in the UAE as well, our standard nine to five jobs, but we don’t have the sense of accomplishment and pride these people have in their work, which is their source of happiness,” she says.
The three days was just barely enough time to begin to understand the extent of need in Nepal, says Ms al Sayegh. “This trip was a backgrounder to help us understand what we can do to help, and as a bonus we got a different perspective on life as well.”
The students, with the help of Ahlam al Marzouqi, a graduate of the university who works as a staff member in the Dubai campus, organised a charity drive and raised over Dh25,000, which will go towards two key areas identified by the group on their trip.
“The school we visited needs supplies, from books to computers that can replace their outdated models – so there are areas where this money can go to help,” Dr Michael says.
The Tilganga Eye Hospital will also benefit. It has organised an eye camp in a rural village where 150 cataract operations and 50 cornea transplants will be performed.
“The hospital needs only $5,000 (Dh18,365) to $6,000 to fund that type of an eye camp, and we can help with that,” Dr Michael says.
Meanwhile, the bumpy roads, the lack of electricity prompting shopkeepers in Kathmandu to work by candlelight, and the students who walk more than two hours each day back and forth from their villages to school are images that will stay with the students for a while.
“We complain about our half-hour commute in our cars just to get to our luxurious, first-class campus,” Ms al Sayegh says. “I don’t think we’ll be complaining any more now.”