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
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 “He needs to pay only Dh17,000 and the loan will be cleared, and the case filed against him for defaulting would be withdrawn,’’ the manager said.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