28 October 2016Last updated

Making a difference

Friday Making A Difference Awards 2016

They’ve built schools, helped the less fortunate, and raised funds by running marathons and climbing mountains to change the lives of thousands of strangers. In the first of our two-part series, Shiva Kumar Thekkepat profiles the nominees of four categories at Friday’s debut event

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
6 May 2016 | 12:00 am

It was late last year that Friday announced the Making A Difference Awards. The idea was to honour the most deserving among the thousands who, through some initiative large or small, are helping make the world a little better.

Through our hugely popular section, Making A Difference, we celebrate people, groups and organisations who have made a difference to the lives of millions. But we wanted to take it a step further and those whose kind deeds and philanthropy have changed others’ lives.

Keen to give our readers the chance to be involved in the selection process, we invited them to nominate people, organisations and charities who they felt deserved to be commended for their work. And they proved equal to it. The flood of nominations we received were as diverse as they were worthy, and spanned the globe.

Our job was even more difficult – picking the finalists from among this overwhelming list across seven categories. Over the course of three months, we painstakingly reviewed each nomination before preparing a shortlist for each category.

An eminent panel of judges will choose one individual/charity/organisation as the winner of each section, who will be given 
the Friday Making a Difference Award at a glittering gala in Dubai.

So, in the first of a two-part series, we present the shortlist of nominees across four categories. The listing is in no particular order.


Clockwise from right: Abdul Mannan Jamaluddin, Eva Kernova, Shams Hawksford and Maria Conceicao have made it their mission to offer kids better lives.

Unsung Hero

Shams Hawksford

Dubai-based Shams is a gymnastics instructor who spends much of her time helping underprivileged children in Kenya and Tanzania. Ever since a trip to the area opened up their plight to her, Shams has been involved hands-on, having helped rebuild a school, raised funds by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, run marathons and held charity gymnastic shows.

‘I’ve been helped by the parents of the children I coach here,’ says Shams. ‘In April, they helped me collect almost half a tonne of material – clothes, books, toys – which I took to a remote town in Kenya called Limuru. I also built a kitchen for an orphanage there that looks after 35 children. They also have no tables and chairs for them, so we helped them buy some.’

Shams also works in the Masai Mara region. She helped fund the collaring of a lion, which alerts villagers that a predator is on the prowl, and helps them avoid it.

Eva Kernova

It was a freak of nature that led Eva to her calling. In 2010, she had to cancel a trip to Europe because of the ash cloud from an erupting volcano in Iceland that enveloped the continent. ‘I’d already taken leave, so I decided to go east instead,’ says the business development manager at a Dubai company.

Eva went to Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka, where the shocking conditions of the slums moved her to set up the Choice to Change Charity. It runs a school for 150 children in the slums through fundraisers and sponsorship.

‘We have 11 teachers and the focus is on English and learning the computer,’ says Eva. She has a partner on the ground in Dhaka, Sunil Baroi, and another partner in Dubai, Mohammed Loch, who coordinate the fund-raising. ‘Our focus is on quality; we don’t want to grow too big too fast,’ says Eva.

Abdul Mannan Jamaluddin

The subject of an article in Friday in 2011, Abdul has been working as a watchman in Sharjah. Looking at the children of his building leave for school every morning, he decided 11 years ago that he would start a school for all the kids in his village Belchura, in Bangladesh. ‘I’m uneducated and am paying the price – I don’t have a high-paying job,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want any of our children to suffer that.’

After many trials, Abdul established the school by setting aside a majority of his salary of Dh3,000. It has today grown to Grade 10, with 375 students. However, Abdul has not been able to visit it or his family for the past two and a half years. ‘There are bills for the school to take care of,’ he says. ‘But I’m happy to be helping the kids get a good education.’

Maria Conceicao

In 2005, Maria, then cabin crew of Emirates, had a day off and decided to explore Dhaka. She ended up visiting a slum and a hospital, an experience that impacted her deeply. So, she cancelled her annual holiday plans and spent two weeks in the slums, starting what grew to become the Maria Cristina Foundation. Operational for a decade now, it has provided education to over 600 children.

To raise funds, Maria also summitted Mt Kilimanjaro in 2010, and trekked to the North Pole as well as ran a marathon across the UAE in seven days in 2011. In 2013, she became the first Portuguese woman to summit Mt Everest. Several children from her school have gone on to university and gained well-paying jobs. She also aids slum dwellers from Dhaka to find suitable employment 
in Dubai.


Some great projects are Landmark’s Beat Diabetes Walk (top), CSR campaigns by Xpress Money (left) and Creativity for a Cause by Philly Arabia (above).

Inspirational Organisation

Xpress Money

Xpress Money launched its CSR programme H.O.P.E. (Helping Our People & Environment) in 2013. ‘We know that the individual strives for growth, be it on a personal or professional level,’ says Rahul Krishnakumar of Xpress Money. ‘Our CSR programme therefore works on the theme of growth.

‘Being a migrant-dependent workforce, Xpress Money has been closely associated with government bodies like the Community Development Authority, Government of Dubai, and local and international NGOs to create or support programmes catering especially to the blue-collar community.’

The company works with a local NGO, Smart Life, on a programme that provides basic English and computer classes for labourers. As a result many of them have managed to secure better jobs.

Xpress Money has also teamed up with a yoga centre to provide free classes to labourers across the UAE. ‘Now, these people, by changing their daily routines slightly, have witnessed a remarkable change in their health and state of mind,’ says Rahul.

The corporate has also supported various special needs schools in the UAE including the SNF Centre by donating laptops and funding operational expenses. For example, over the past few years, it has donated more than 150 wheelchairs to an NGO called Valley of Love to be distributed to the needy.

The company undertook a range of initiatives for Nepal after the earthquake last year, including waiving transfer fees on remittances from the GCC countries, and collecting over four tonnes of relief material here (tents, drinking water, food supplies) that were distributed through the Emirates Red Crescent.

Philadelphia Arabia

The company organised a GCC-based Creativity for a Cause campaign for International Women’s Day that aimed to provide a platform to women to bring out their creative best and demonstrate how a simple idea can make a significant difference to the community regardless of available means and resources.

Participants were invited to send in their creative ideas in the categories of art and culture, community development, health and wellness and environment, which were then shortlisted by a panel of mentors to be part of a mentoring workshop. The contest was then opened to public voting to select the most unique and creative community idea. The highest voted idea received prize money of up to Dh100,000 (Dh50,000 + number of likes @ Dh5) and the second-highest received prize money based on the number of votes.

Landmark Group

Through the Beat Diabetes initiative, the Landmark Group aims to create awareness and educate people about the condition.

The initiative was launched in 2009 in the UAE, and was extended to five other countries – Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and India – in 2010. Walkathons are held across all six countries with over 25,000 people participating, and the Beat Diabetes Walk is immensely popular. The group also conducts free blood glucose tests for over 30,000 people. In 2011, the campaign was launched in Saudi Arabia.

Landmark Group has also partnered with several organisations to spread awareness about Juvenile Diabetes in schools.

It held donation drives for Syrian child refugees last year as well, and has a policy of employing special needs people as staff across various outlets.


The Sameness Project (top right) brings people together, to celebrate goodness, while Movement Mantra (above left) offers respite to Parkinson’s sufferers. Keenan D’Abreo donates funds to the Manzil special needs centre in Sharjah.

Inspirational Group


On April 29 and 30, a group of teenagers descended on Al Wahda Mall in Abu Dhabi. They were not there to have fun, though they did have a roaring time. They were there to use their artistic skills for fund-raising.

The art exhibition they held managed to sell paintings worth more than Dh17,900, which went towards paying the fees for a special needs student who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend classes at the Special Care Centre, Abu Dhabi.

The handiwork of 18-year-old Dubai student Keenan D’Abreo, a veteran fundraiser, and his eight friends, the charity venture Artex (short for art exhibition) has raised more than Dh100,000 so far through seven exhibitions. ‘It’s so fulfilling to raise funds for charity that benefits less-privileged people,’ he says. ‘I want to keep doing such deeds for as long as I can.’

Keenan collects paintings from students across the UAE and organises exhibitions along with his friends, all aged 18, without help from any organisation or grown-ups. So far, they have helped institutions such as Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs; Senses Residential Care Home for Children with Special Needs; Friends of Cancer Patients; and Sensation Station, with funds going towards developing infrastructures.

Movement Mantra

Vonita Singh lost her father to Parkinson’s disease in 2009. ‘We lost so much time in getting him diagnosed, mostly due to lack of information that I took it upon myself to learn about the disease,’ she says. ‘If we had known then that movement is so integral to arresting its progress he could have coped with it much better.’

The tragedy gave Vonita, a trained dancer, the impetus to learn how to integrate dance into patients’ daily routines. She trained with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Brooklyn, but back home in Dubai she couldn’t find any patients she could help. She launched Movement Mantra in 2013 as a pro-bono group, but it was only after she came across a Facebook group for Parkinson’s patients that she found her subjects. ‘We had seven members on the first day,’ says Vonita. This increased to 30 plus in two years. Now, 17 patients are regulars in the twice-weekly classes at her villa in Umm Suqeim. ‘We hope to help them lead a better life.’

The Sameness Project

They are a bunch of Dubai-based ‘social innovators aiming to spread goodness’. Lead innovator Lina Nahhas says the idea is to ‘facilitate moments of sameness with the intention to look past the things that separate us from another, and see what makes us the same in our humanity’.

Projects include Water for Workers – to engage and thank Dubai’s workers through meaningful two-way conversations. The group has distributed 120,000 plus bottles of water so far, engaging more than 2,000 volunteers and 200 corporates.

Another initiative involves helping cabbies and labourers attain well-being through the services of fitness professionals. This has benefited over 800 drivers and 600 plus labourers across Dubai.

Yet another project involved pairing mainstream and special needs students in a creative endeavour to showcase their sameness, encouraging integration.


Saima (top left) regularly organises events for special needs children, while Arushi (above) is devoted to saving Mother Nature. Rohan (left) has been working hard to serve labourers in the UAE.

Little Hero

Rohan Kapur

The Grade 10 student of Delhi Private School, Sharjah, founded Serve The Heroes, an initiative for labourers, in 2012 when he was just 13. The 50-member strong group has successfully served 6,000 plus labourers in a span of three years. The members give labourers a cool, refreshing drink, cakes or fruits, biscuits, or a cap to help them beat the heat while they are toiling in the sun.

Last iftar, the group served dates, water and doughnuts to over 300 labourers at Bee’ah’s Tandeef Operations Yard.

Rohan’s group has gone beyond the confines of Dubai, and served labourers in Sharjah and Ajman as well. They have also participated in the National Day Parade for the past two years. Rohan is the 15th Regional Ambassador of Tunza Eco-Generation (Seoul, Korea) to the Middle East.

Arushi Madan

The 17-year-old Dubai student is known as the green warrior, an environmental activist who has won the Sharjah Environment Awareness Award. She joined the UAE online group Students for Earth and is its president at present. The 4,000-member group donated medicines and relief supplies to those hit by the Chennai floods in India last year.

‘We also have large-scale projects such as the A Dose Of Help scheme, in which we collect unused medication that have a year 
to the expiry date from homes, businesses and pharmacies across Dubai and Sharjah,’ says Arushi. ‘We send it to the UAE Red Crescent to be distributed to the poor and needy. So we salvage medicines that would otherwise go to the landfill.’

The young activist runs a pick and drop textbook recycling campaign as well, which has even had students from Abu Dhabi lending a hand.

Arushi’s now waiting for Sharjah Municipality to identify a site to plant 250 trees under a mass tree plantation drive allocated to her by the Environment Protection Agency.

Saima Khan

The 17-year-old Dubai student has volunteered with more than 85 charities, philanthropic organisations and non-profit bodies locally and globally over the past four years.

Along with four friends, she’s the founder of a charity group called Step Up that serves as a platform for youth to contribute to social causes. ‘We’re also working on implementing several social and environmental projects,’ says Saima.

The group organises events for special needs students and adults as well.

Step Up has 250 volunteers who actively take part in its various initiatives and projects. ‘We recently took part in Give a Ghaf green community planting event held in Al Barari Estate,’ says Saima. ‘Step Up planted more than 15 trees. We also organised a party for students of Manzil special needs centre and assisted during the Walk4Autism event.’

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat

Features Writer