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

Friday - - PRODUCT GUIDE - PHO­TOS BY AIZA CASTILLO-DOMINGO

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

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