UAE students give back to Kerala ‘It was a scary yet fulfilling vacation’
Gouri Menon, 11, a Dubai student, had to spend over five days living in a small home with about 100 people. Walking kilometres and standing in long queues, she ensured that she could bring back food and supplies for the elderly and children
From volunteering for hours in relief camps to giving up the money set aside for a big 16th birthday celebration – these UAE children spent their summer making a difference to thousands affected by Kerala’s devastating floods in August. Sangeetha Sagar finds out their stories
For days, the rains had been unrelenting; in fact it would be the second worst deluge that the southern Indian state of Kerala witnessed in recorded history. On India’s Independence Day, Gouri Menon and her family, who were living in Trichur district, realised that the river that was running close to their house had started to overflow. ‘Initially, we didn’t think much of it until we realised it was rising at an alarming rate,’ says the 11-year-old Dubai student. Soon the electricity went out. As the family sat in candlelight, they learnt that the water had begun to lap at their neighbour’s house. ‘That’s when we decided to move to my grandma’s house a little away.’ But late at night, water started surrounding that house too, and they moved again, this time to a makeshift refugee camp – a 3-bedroom house that was already accommodating 100-plus people. ‘Although food and space were in short supply, the residents welcomed us,’ says Gouri.
That would become their home for the next five days. ‘The first day was quite disturbing – new people and a feeling of anxiety everywhere left me in panic,’ says the little girl. ‘It worsened when I saw the water rise again. I saw hundreds of dead cows being washed away in the swollen river and I asked my mum whether I’d die.’
That fear did not last long – it’s hard to keep a tenacious 11-year-old down – and was soon replaced by determination to help. By the end of their stay there Gouri, a student at Gems Modern Academy, would be truly worthy of a term her teacher in Dubai would give her later – ‘a modern knight’.
When food supplies at the house started depleting and helicopters were air-dropping food and other essentials and food trucks were arriving with aid kits, Gouri found her calling of sorts. ‘One day at the camp, she disappeared for a while, and I saw her return with a large, heavy basket from a food truck,’ says her mother Preethi Menon. ‘We had sufficient food at the time so I asked her why she’d walked over a kilometre and stood in long queues for more. “It’s for that elderly uncle who had come asking for food yesterday” she told me. The man was in his eighties and had no one around to help him. I was amazed Gouri had thought of him.’
Gouri did not stop there. She went around collecting not only food baskets but picking up lessons on everything from teamwork to innovation. Initially she tried doing a lot of things on her own, but quickly realised walking back alone with a lot of heavy items was no easy task. While the rain had abated, the scorching sun was now beating down, leaving her tired quickly.
Convinced more hands would be better, she gathered a group of ‘boys and girls, and we didn’t fight’. When the aid trucks would deliver packages containing hygiene products, blankets, clothes and foodstuff, the kids would pick them up and deliver them to the elderly, or pregnant women, or those with very small children who could not step out of the camps. ‘None of us was tall enough and couldn’t catch things that were being thrown from the truck, but we’d pick them up and rush off to deliver the packages. On some occasions, the bases of water bottles would be damaged and water would be running out so we’d have to be careful and carry them upside down.’
Once the trucks left to fetch more stuff, Gouri would head off to helicopter aid drop zones to pick up packets of biscuits and chocolates to distribute to toddlers in and around the camp area. ‘Some days Gouri would walk miles to pick up aid kits so she could donate it to the needy,’ says her mother.
‘Before this flood incident, she was not very popular with the local kids when we used to visit Kerala on our holidays. But by the end of this year’s trip, she had become a group leader of sorts, gathering kids for food and water hunts.’
Gouri nods. ‘I saw such a different life. There was no bed; my mum would sleep on a chair. We slept on newspapers with just a sheet to protect us from the cold. Several people were sleeping outside in the rain. For food there was only rice, biscuits and bread. I never want to see the last two foods again,’ she says with a smile.
‘She understood the value of food,’ Preethi says.
Gouri says initially all the adults would brush her off as just a kid and not involve her in relief efforts. But after they saw her steadfast, generous, resourceful nature, she was soon the centre of everything. ‘Everyone in the village became like a family to me,’ Gouri says. ‘And I learnt the value of friends and the importance of having a bond.’
But that was not all. Just before Gouri’s family returned to Dubai, they learnt that a government school in their village was in desperate need of a water purifier for the students.
Gouri didn’t think twice. ‘I was happy to give away my pocket money to purchase the purifier,’ she says.
Says Preethi: ‘The school children were so happy, and I made sure to take Gouri along when I went to give it to them so she could speak to the kids.’
The floods taught her several life lessons. Seeing the worried faces of children at the school, she says: ‘I realised how lucky I was to not lose any of my stationery or books. It was a scary, unforgettable but fulfilling vacation; I don’t need photos to remember it.’
On some occasions, the bases of water bottles would be damaged and water would be running out, so we’d have to carry them upside down
Besides her food and water hunts, Gouri donated her pocket money to buy a water purifier for school kids