22 October 2016Last updated

Making a difference

Boots for hope

In a moment of frustration, three boys set the ball rolling on a venture that is now making a positive impact on thousands of kids worldwide. Roxanne Kavarana Vakharia meets the Book family

Roxanne Kavarana Vakharia
12 Aug 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Cheered on by their parents, the boys work hard to share their passion for football with war-torn and poverty-stricken kids.

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 1 of 4
  • Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 2 of 4
  • Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 3 of 4
  • So enthusiastic are they about the charity, the boys started putting forth all of their pocket money into the project.

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM Image 4 of 4

They went in search of an organisation that would take their pile of used football shoes. They drew a blank – and ended up kick-starting their very own charity. This is the story of three Dubai-based schoolgoing brothers who are the brains behind a new local charity, Boots for Hope, which aims to collect gently used and new football boots and distribute them to children affected by war, poverty and natural disasters.

The ball was set rolling more than a year-and-a-half ago when football fanatics Haris, Ilyas and Zayd Book, weary after a fruitless search for a company that would take their used boots and give it to those in need, decided to take matters into their own hands. Needless to say, mum Shazia Book was a bit sceptical of her young brood being able to pursue the monumental goal of forming a charitable trust.

‘Haris thought of the concept first, while the other two pitched in with offers to get the boots from their friends and football teammates. I told them to think this through for a few days as they wouldn’t be able to change their mind once the venture was finalised,’ she recollects. To her surprise, the three came back a fortnight later with an impressive PowerPoint presentation about their plans. ‘They were very clear about what they wanted to do from the outset.’

That launched several brainstorming sessions at the close-knit British-Pakistani family’s home in Jumeirah 3 about how they would go about collecting the boots, what they’d do with them and the time and money involved. Then they got in touch with a graphic designer family friend in Australia and over many Skype sessions, the boys briefed him on their ideas for a name.

‘Originally, they wanted only the Middle East region on it,’ Shazia says, ‘but then they decided to widen the scope and wanted a global feel.’ More brainstorming later, they arrived at the name Boots for Hope. ‘There was lots of fighting among themselves about which tag line they were going to use before they settled for “Nurturing a child one pair of boots at a time”.’

Just as they were getting ready to launch their charity, they were shocked to hear that the UAE authorities had overhauled the rules for aid organisations. Dad Gareth Book, the official licence holder of Boots for Hope, and Shazia had to run from pillar to post as a new law came in and their licence got rejected twice. ‘At one point, we thought we wouldn’t be able to pull this off,’ admits Shazia, the unofficial spokesperson of the enterprise. ‘But my boys really persevered when it would have been so easy to give up.’ Then the Emirates Red Crescent stepped in to support their dream – and it materialised.

So, what is this dream? Mature beyond his 13 years, the oldest Haris explains: ‘Most people see boots as an object that keeps your feet from getting messy and to play sports with. But it can be so much more. It’s not just about collecting football boots and distributing them to those who don’t have them. The big picture is what happens after that – our charity aims to foster a sense of community and belonging in these places. We can teach them softer skills like team work, sportsmanship, camaraderie and management through football, and they can have something to be passionate about.’

Ten-year-old Ilyas, the ‘walking-talking football encyclopaedia’, thinks differently: ‘I’d like to help one of the kids we’ve donated boots to, to go on to play professional football – like my hero [Brazilian football star] Neymar who grew up with very little.’

Eight-year-old Zayd is not to be left behind: he too has big ambitions of wanting to ‘collect as many boots from as many boys and girls as possible’.

The charity wants to fill a void. Shazia laments that there are many organisations involved in taking care of the educational and medical needs of children traumatised by conflict or poverty, but their emotional and physical well-being is often neglected. It is this they hope to address by giving these kids a chance to just play and be themselves, leaving their anxieties behind. Adds Haris, ‘These kids need to get away from it all. Gifting them football boots is such an easy way to give them an outlet to vent their frustration, to let go. It keeps them out of trouble, helps them knit into a team and takes their minds to a different place. We want to use boots as building blocks for the future.’

Boots for Hope’s first consignment of football boots was handed over to the Emirates Red Crescent recently. The boots will be taken to Jordan and distributed at the Emirates Red Crescent Syrian refugee camp. ‘I think this will be the perfect way for our first collection to be distributed,’ says Ilyas. Little Zayd adds, ‘We are looking forward to seeing the photographs of the children receiving the boots.’ For safety reasons, the Book family will not be able to go to the point of distribution, as they were hoping to.

Their two big goals are to see one of Manchester City’s footballers in a Boots for Hope tee, and to also have Nike on board. The family hails from Cheshire, near Manchester, and ‘the boys are extremely proud to be third-generation Manchester City supporters’, says Shazia, a British citizen of Pakistani descent who admits to being a reluctant football fan. Boots for Hope will see an official launch at Manchester City School of Football in Abu Dhabi in September.

Besides looking for partners here in the UAE, the Book family is also looking to register the charity in the UK, and the youngsters are keen to try for tie-ups with clubs there.

The boys have been playing the game since they were three, and eat, live and breathe football. Haris plays for his school Jumeirah College and captains the Elite FC Under-13s Advance Squad, while Ilyas plays for Jumeirah Primary School and has been captain of the Elite FC Under-10s Advanced Squad for the past four years. They carry a football wherever they travel and make it a point to play informally with local kids, be it in Sri Lanka or Langkawi, Malaysia, recently.

The boys are so enthusiastic about what they’ve set up, they’ve been ploughing the money they get as monthly allowance or as gifts on Eid and birthdays into their charity, either to pay printing flyers or to buy boots in sizes their collection does not have. Recently, Haris complained to his mum that he had no money to replace a broken phone charger because all of his allowance went into the charity till. So, mum and dad have had to step in and restrict the donated amount to 75 per cent of their pocket money.

The organisation’s focus remains football boots. ‘People give us sneakers and the odd football kit too. Yes, if pushed, we will take them,’ Shazia says, but points out that as Ilyas argues: ‘It’s unfair if one child gets a pair of football boots and another kid next to him gets trainers.’

They are equally firm about getting boots in good condition. Washing the boots is a big – and, at times, contentious – job in the Book home. Shazia says, ‘I know parents who make their children clean the boots before giving them to us. This is a good way to get the kids involved. There’s so much charity work that goes on over here but there’s nothing really for kids.’

The boys have to also dry them, sort them into sizes, maintain a log and pack them. Dad Gareth jokes that these chores mean an easy escape from studies.

Articulate Shazia plays a bigger role in the charity than Gareth, a director for a risk consultancy firm. His office is a drop-off point. ‘I convinced him to do this. He said, “We can’t have smelly football shoes there”,’ she laughs. Gareth exclaims, ‘Very often, I’m the one getting all the boots from the donation boxes. I also help in the printing. That makes me the printer, transport manager, chief financial officer and cheap labourer – two ends of the spectrum and everything in between!’

Has the aid initiative changed the children? ‘It has given them a common cause amidst their daily squabbles, and brought them together. They have a goal and something to challenge themselves with,’ Shazia observes. Haris, who wants to be a lawyer or an investment banker, feels Boots for Hope has made his younger siblings more aware of what is happening in the world. ‘They now stimulate conversations when they see or hear something on the TV or radio.’

The senior Books feel the siblings have also grown in confidence. ‘When we first brought out the flyers, they were quite reluctant to go drop them off at other houses,’ observes Shazia. ‘Now they talk to any and everyone about the charity,’ says Gareth. ‘Earlier, they wouldn’t have a conversation with the elders while handing out flyers. But they’re so passionate about the cause, it shows when they talk comfortably to strangers.’

They are keen that as parents they bring up empathetic and socially conscious children. The boys have always been involved with some sort of charity or the other growing up these past 10 years in Dubai. They organised a donation drive at their previous school for an earthquake in Pakistan and recently their home was a drop-off point for the Nepal earthquake relief effort. ‘It was quite a lot of work, itemising and labelling the items one by one, especially the medicines,’ says Shazia.

‘One of the reasons for doing this is so the boys see this while growing up and it becomes an everyday part of their lives. Something bad happens in the world and you reach out. It doesn’t always have to be a huge contribution. A simple act like donating a pair of football boots can have such an impact.’

The roots of their involvement in charitable causes go deep. Shazia says she grew up in a household where charity played a big role. As far back as 1960, her late father Choudhary Abdul Latif Akhtar started and financed a girls’ primary school in the Sheikhupura district of Pakistan. He faced many challenges, predominately resistance from the community for choosing to educate girls, but he persevered and succeeded. ‘We believe the school is still running today but has been taken over by the government,’ Shazia says. Pre-partition, her grandfather built and supported a private middle school in Pakistan’s Sangla Hill district.

‘Gareth and I have tried to do the same with our kids. We are very proud they are growing up with the ethos that if you want to help people, you can do it. This is Dubai, and over here kids are taught to dream big. Boots for Hope can only be as big as Haris, Ilyas and Zayd want it to be. We hope this trust’s impact continues to the next generation – I think that’d be a lovely legacy.’

‘It’s a children’s charity, run by and for the children,’ Gareth concludes. ‘We’re just helping them.’ Charity sure begins at home for the Books.

Boots for Hope has drop-off points all over Dubai, including the boys’ schools. Click on to the Boots for Hope Facebook page for more information.

Roxanne Kavarana Vakharia

Roxanne Kavarana Vakharia