Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Umarani Pad­man­ab­han is a very busy woman. When she’s not on the phone clear­ing the debts of poor and ex­tremely ill work­ers, she’s on a plane ac­com­pa­ny­ing sick In­dian ex­pats back to their home­towns. Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat man­aged to fit into her busy schedu

Friday - - Contents - ● @Shiva_fri­day

It is Umarani Pad­man­ab­han’s call­ing to help needy In­di­ans in the UAE re­turn home.

Her fin­gers are never far from her mo­bile phone. And with good rea­son – it rings ev­ery 10 min­utes or so with un­fail­ing reg­u­lar­ity. Most peo­ple would get ir­ri­tated with the con­stant in­ter­rup­tion, but Umarani Pad­man­ab­han an­swers each call with more than mere po­lite­ness. She is gen­uinely happy to talk to the call­ers, even if they’re strangers. “I al­ways an­swer, even if I’m about to go to sleep, be­cause it could be a mat­ter of life or death for the caller,” says the In­dian so­cial worker.

As if on cue her phone rings, and Umarani, 56, smiles apolo­get­i­cally while pick­ing it up mid-sen­tence. It is the man­ager of a bank to give her the good news she’s been wait­ing for: he’s will­ing to waive Dh23,000 of a Dh40,000 loan that Dubai-based can­cer suf­ferer Ab­dul Sat­tar was un­able to re­pay af­ter be­com­ing ill.

Learn­ing that 56-year-old In­dian mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Ab­dul had been di­ag­nosed with can­cer ear­lier this year and was given just six months to live, Umarani in­ter­vened on his be­half and pleaded that he be par­doned and his loan, or at least a part of it, waived on com­pas­sion­ate grounds. “He needs to pay only Dh17,000 and the loan will be cleared, and the case filed against him for de­fault­ing would be with­drawn,’’ the man­ager said.

Ab­dul was work­ing in a pri­vate testing lab­o­ra­tory af­ter his own busi­ness – also a testing lab – failed and he lost all his sav­ings. Post di­ag­no­sis, he had two bouts of ma­jor surgery, which shrunk his stom­ach and forced him to sur­vive on a liq­uid diet.

Al­though he was un­able to work for most of this year, his com­pany re­tained him, en­sur­ing he had med­i­cal in­sur­ance cover. “All these debts were ac­cu­mu­lated over the past six years af­ter I lost my money try­ing to set up my own busi­ness. I then had to take loans to sup­port my wife and two teenage daugh­ters back in In­dia,” he told her from his hos­pi­tal bed in NMC Hos­pi­tal, Dubai. “I haven’t seen my daugh­ters or wife for the past six years. My only wish is to be with them when I die.”

Umarani was re­lieved that his loan has­sle was set­tled. She had al­ready raised Dh20,000 from well­wish­ers over the past two months that could go to­wards set­tling Ab­dul’s pend­ing debt. Two other banks had also waived loans Ab­dul had taken to the tune of Dh80,000 to sup­port his fam­ily, af­ter Umarani in­ter­vened. Now he could re­turn to Hy­der­abad in In­dia.

Af­ter a mo­ment of ju­bi­la­tion, Umarani gets down to busi­ness and calls the bank man­ager back. “Shall I come over right away, pay the pend­ing loan amount and col­lect the clear­ance let­ter?” she asks. Im­me­di­ately her plans for the day change.

“If I can col­lect the let­ter by 3pm, we can get his pa­pers cleared by Dubai Po­lice and we can board the 9pm flight to Chen­nai,” she mur­murs, mak­ing a list of what she has to do. .

“Let’s con­tinue the in­ter­view later,’’ she says apolo­get­i­cally, promptly book­ing two tick­ets to Chen­nai that night for her­self and Ab­dul. “I’ll be go­ing along with him to see that he reaches his fam­ily safely,’’ she says. Next she calls his fam­ily and tells them they will be ar­riv­ing later that night, be­fore rush­ing off to sort out the pa­per­work at the bank.

Later that night, af­ter touch­ing down at Chen­nai, Umarani and Ab­dul were greeted by his tear­ful wife and chil­dren.

“That re­ally is the mo­ment I work for,” says Umarani, pick­ing up the thread a week later. “That’s when all the months of stress and ten­sion to raise funds and clear pa­pers be­come worth it.”

This then is a nor­mal day in the life of Umarani. She trav­els to In­dia on av­er­age four to five times a month, ac­com­pa­ny­ing bedrid­den

or men­tally ill pa­tients. The In­dian Con­sulate pro­vides free air tick­ets for sick pa­tients, she says. “They also bear my travel ex­penses so I can ac­com­pany the pa­tients or bod­ies of ac­ci­dent vic­tims and hand them over to their fam­i­lies.”

In Au­gust Umarani flew to In­dia 16 times, in­clud­ing sev­eral trips to repa­tri­ate bod­ies of ex­pats who died here in ac­ci­dents. A week into this month, she has al­ready flown to In­dia twice, chap­er­on­ing ex­tremely ill work­ers who were in no con­di­tion to travel alone.

Umarani does not keep a list of the num­ber of peo­ple she has helped over the years, but she re­mem­bers that she started vol­un­teer­ing around 20 years ago. “I for­get the num­ber of peo­ple I helped,” she says. “How is it pos­si­ble to re­mem­ber them all when I at­tend to four or five such cases al­most ev­ery day?” Her work has not gone un­ap­pre­ci­ated. In Au­gust, she was given an Award of Ap­pre­ci­a­tion for her so­cial work by the Bur Dubai Po­lice Sta­tion at its golden ju­bilee cel­e­bra­tion.

She has also re­ceived a clutch of other awards in­clud­ing an Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Award from the Dubai Depart­ment of Healthi; Pravasi Mithra Award from the Mi­grants Coun­sel Asia in Andhra Pradesh; and an Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Award from the Te­lan­gana NRI As­so­ci­a­tion, Dubai.

Ac­cord­ing to her hus­band, BS Pad­man­ab­han, a busi­ness­man who deals in LED light­ing sys­tems in Dubai, “The big­gest ac­co­lade was given by the In­dian Con­sulate staff, who call her the ‘one-man army.’” The cou­ple have two daugh­ters – one in the US and the other in Dubai – who are both mar­ried.

The only per­son who cared

Umarani’s hus­band was in­stru­men­tal in shap­ing her phil­an­thropic ac­tiv­ity af­ter he was rushed to hos­pi­tal in 1990 due to com­pli­ca­tions with kidney stones. “I used to be by his bed­side in Rashid Hos­pi­tal, Dubai, and there I no­ticed that there were many pa­tients who did not have any­body other than the nurses and doc­tors to care for them or talk to them,” she says. “Their fam­i­lies were back in their home coun­try and they were yearn­ing for some­body to talk to or lis­ten to their wor­ries and prob­lems.

“On some days I would sit by their bed­side and talk to them and cheer them up. I would get them home-cooked food and lit­tle gifts.’’

Many of them could not af­ford to con­tact their fam­i­lies back home reg­u­larly, so Umarani of­fered to do so on their be­half to up­date the fam­i­lies about their con­di­tion.

“Slowly, this kind of so­cial work started tak­ing prece­dence and I kept do­ing this in my spare time even af­ter my hus­band was dis­charged,” says Umarani, who was work­ing with the HR depart­ment of the Cana­dian Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices at the time.

Tak­ing home-cooked food for those re­cu­per­at­ing in hos­pi­tal soon led to her ac­com­pa­ny­ing sick pa­tients back to In­dia.

“The first time it hap­pened was when I came across an il­le­gal In­dian worker at Dubai Hos­pi­tal who had suf­fered heat stroke and was in a coma. When he came around, it was found that he had lost his abil­ity to speak. He had no iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pa­pers on him so the au­thor­i­ties did not know who to con­tact.

“His pic­tures were pub­lished in the pa­pers but no­body came for­ward to iden­tify him. Then one day, a jour­nal­ist friend from In­dia called and told me he had come across the news about the man and he was from a vil­lage in Ra­jasthan. He asked if I could help bring him home.’’

Umarani con­tacted the In­dian Em­bassy and asked them to check with au­thor­i­ties in the man’s vil­lage to con­firm that the de­tails

were cor­rect. She then ap­proached the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties on the man’s be­half and sub­mit­ted all the re­quired pa­pers so he could go home.

Once she re­ceived clear­ance from the au­thor­i­ties, the In­dian con­sulate pur­chased two tick­ets and she was able to ac­com­pany him back to his home in In­dia. “His fam­ily had not seen him in more than seven years and were over­joyed to know that he was alive, al­though re­quir­ing med­i­cal help,’’ she says.

Go­ing the ex­tra mile

Find­ing her ini­tia­tive to be ex­tremely fulfilling, Umarani be­gan to ex­pand her scope of help­ing peo­ple. “With ev­ery step I was learn­ing,” she says. “How to tackle is­sues, what doc­u­ments were re­quired for po­lice clear­ances, pa­pers re­quired at the Im­mi­gra­tion depart­ment and the In­dian Con­sulate, laws re­gard­ing peo­ple who had re­neged on loan re­pay­ments...’’

Umarani even takes up cases most so­cial work­ers would avoid. Last year a 24-yearold man was ar­rested by the Ajman po­lice. A men­tally dis­turbed worker, he was found loi­ter­ing on the streets and was ad­mit­ted to Al Amal Hos­pi­tal, where he was a pa­tient for around two months.

She spent days find­ing out more about the man and fi­nally traced his fam­ily to Mum­bai. She then ne­go­ti­ated with the po­lice and the In­dian Con­sulate, and af­ter pro­cess­ing all re­quired doc­u­ments, took him home to his mother. “She is very poor, works as a house­maid and ob­vi­ously couldn’t come here to take him back,” says Umarani. “She was in tears when she saw her son. She hugged me and thanked me for bring­ing her child back.”

Even as we speak, a call in­ter­rupts us. The travel doc­u­ments of a case she had been work­ing on for a month – of an ac­ci­dent vic­tim who was in hos­pi­tal and want­ing to go home – have been cleared, in­forms the caller.

Umarani will have to fly to In­dia tonight ac­com­pa­ny­ing the pa­tient. There is no hes­i­ta­tion. She pre­pares to head home to pack her bag.

“What I am do­ing is just a drop in the ocean,” she says. “If I can be of any help to any­body, I am al­ways will­ing to go the ex­tra mile.”

Umarani helped can­cer pa­tient Ab­dul Sat­tar, this pic­ture, re­turn home to In­dia. She has also helped other peo­ple

who have found them­selves in dif­fi­cul­ties

For­mer In­dian pres­i­dent Ab­dul Kalam has con­grat­u­lated Umarani on her work

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