MARYAM SID­DIQI Writer

The Same­ness Project con­nects peo­ple from dis­parate walks of life in Dubai and be­yond­­­— one small ges­ture at a time.

Elle (Canada) - - Guest List - BY MARYAM SID­DIQI

THE GIG In ELLE World, Toron­to­nian Sid­diqi writes about the Same­ness Project, a Dubai-based so­cial ini­tia­tive that is cre­at­ing con­nec­tions be­tween peo­ple from dis­parate walks of life. IN­TREPID

RE­PORTER “Many peo­ple are work­ing on in­ter­est­ing projects, but they’re so busy they for­get to talk about it. I’m glad I’m a con­duit for them.” ■

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 my 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 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 h

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 h

“I think taxi driv­ers get such a bad rap in Dubai. I re­ally en­joy get­ting to know them.”

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 part­time) 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. n

Par­tic­i­pants in the Wa­ter for Work­ers pro­gram (above, right and be­low); a trainer works with a taxi driver as part of the We’ve Got Your Back pro­gram (far right)

The Same­ness Project staff, from left: Aimee-Rose Stephen­son, Lina Nah­has, Jonny Ken­naugh and Fiona Hepher

A pair of TOMS shoes that were dec­o­rated for the Same­ness Project’s Soles and Sto­ries pro­gram

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