Green Man

He is an engineer who has worked on prestigious projects like the Shaikh Zayed bridge in Abu Dhabi. But every day 58-year-old Sinan Al Awsi, clad in his shorts and hat and aided with his spade, sets out to tend to his ‘babies’.

The babies in question are two patches of public land right in front of his building at Shaikh Rashid Bin Saeed Street (Mushrif Road), which Sinan has painstakingly turned into a garden that is a little oasis of greenery in the midst of the sand, concrete and asphalt. Unlike other barren lots in the city, these spaces are a verdant expanse of greenery and feature not just local plants like bougainvillea and date palms, but also Naranj (orange) and Yas trees from Iraq and jasmine shrubs from India and Thailand.

‘There is no greater joy than smelling fresh flowers early in the morning. This is my way of spreading that joy in the community,’ says the Iraqi expat Sinan, who has been living in Abu Dhabi for 20 years with his family.

Sinan began developing the two 12x4 metre patches in front of his building when he first moved to the building in 2004. ‘I did not understand the importance of gardening and communing with nature until I started living in an apartment,’ he says.

Sinan has planted saplings from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, India and Thailand
Stefan Lindeque

His first step was to cover the whole plot with fertilised soil, and plant seeds. Initially, he spent at least two hours every day after work to create his green oasis. ‘I spent a lot of money from my own pocket getting two truck loads of special soil, and purchasing gardening equipment,’ says the man grinning proudly. Apart from money, he also invested a lot of his time and effort in trying to make a beautiful garden. Often, when the watering hose developed faults, Sinan did not think twice about carry buckets of water from his flat on the third floor to water his garden.

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‘It was tough, but I think the result was well worth the expenses,’ he says.

Unfortunately, Sinan shifted residence in 2012 and his garden wilted due to neglect. ‘I had asked the neighbours to take care of it, but no one seemed interested,’ he says.

Two years later he decided to move back to the same building and began building the garden again from scratch.

‘I bought a truckload of special soil and planted tree saplings from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and India. Then I erected a fence and installed water pipes to irrigate the plants,’ he recalls.

Sinan’s green thumb goes beyond his neighbourhood. Since last year he has planted 79 coconut trees and 78 plumeria trees around Dalma and Khalifa Streets.

Every evening he spends at least half an hour tending to the garden while every Friday he is at it from 6am-11.30am. ‘The Abu Dhabi Municipality has been very supportive,’ he says, adding that one should check with the authorities before embarking on a plan to make gardens in their neighbourhoods.

‘There is no greater joy than smelling fresh flowers early in the morning,' says Sinan. 'This is my way of spreading that joy in the community.’
Stefan Lindeque

‘Everyone who passes through the garden can see the notable difference between my plots and the others. The jasmine flowers are a favourite with the neighbours because of their scent. Some people make fun of me, asking why I go through all this trouble, spending time and money, when I don’t get anything in return.’

Some have asked him ‘whether I was crazy to spend so much money on such a futile thing’, he says. ‘They also tell me I will have to go back one day and leave all this behind.

‘But I am guided by my father’s advice that you have to always try to do something that goes beyond yourself.’

Sinan derives great joy from watching his garden bloom. ‘Nature is truly the best gift by God to mankind.’

His only grievance is when people litter the place. ‘There should be some sort of awareness to build more green spaces and keep them clean as well,’ he says.

Gourmet Doggy Bags

Every Friday evening while most of the city is out and about enjoying the weekend, Emirati chef Jamal Al Breiki is busy in his kitchen making a gourmet meal for some exclusive clients; that of the four-legged kind. Around 100 stray dogs and cats across the capital are treated to leftover food from five-star restaurants thanks to Jamal and his ‘Doggy Bag Initiative UAE’.

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The idea stemmed during a lavish brunch that 28-year-old Jamal and his wife Marte were enjoying at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr earlier this year; the staggering amount of food waste generated after the feast caught his attention.

‘I had read that the UAE has one of the highest per capita food waste footprints in the world’, he says. ‘My wife and I got talking about the popularity of Friday brunches out here and the perfectly good food that just gets dumped in garbage.’

Jamal Al Breiki ensures perfectly good food left over after hotel brunches doesn’t end up in garbage
Stefan Lindeque

Since the couple were already part of an animal welfare community called Animal Action UAE, they were well aware of the struggles in time and money that went into feeding these animals.

That’s when Jamal felt he could solve both issues with one stone. He approached his friend Elias Saad, the F&B manager of the hotel, and put forward a proposal of collecting the leftover food to feed stray dogs around the city.

‘Elias was immediately on board and we charted out a plan. I contacted another friend, Afra Al Dhaheri of Cloud9 Pet Hotel, who put me in touch with the vets there and provided a list of do’s and dont’s on what to feed the animals. We took this list to Elias and he instructed his staff to separate those foods for us when they cleared the brunches,’ says Jamal.

Jamal, a Bachelor of International Law & Politics, also has a degree from International Center for Culinary Arts, Dubai. Having spent his childhood in the UK, he says he used to enjoy dabbling in the kitchen when he was as young as 10. ‘I loved experimenting with simple foods to create gourmet meals and my spaghetti sandwiches were pretty famous,’ he says. This March, he opened Chef J Gourmet at Musaffah, which aims to create delicious and healthy food with a focus on weight loss.

The first trial run of the ‘gourmet’ doggy bags began in July. Jamal and a group of volunteers processed, minced the food in his kitchen and took them to Cloud9 to see if the dogs would enjoy it. ‘In 20 minutes, around 30kg of food was devoured,’ he says, the excitement still resonant in his words. ‘It was incredible, and at that moment we knew we had the potential of doing something special.’

After a good day’s work, Jamal posted the experience on social media and went to bed. He woke up to thousands of likes, comments, shares and queries from people and hotels on how they could be involved.

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‘Within two weeks we had Shangri-La, Traders Hotel, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, and Grand Millennium on board,’ he says.

That was the beginning of the The Doggy Bag Initiative UAE.

Every Friday, Jamal – who has four rescue dogs as pets – and his group of volunteers collect the leftover food in air-cooled vans. They visit around 15 feeding stations and vet houses;  that’s almost 100 dogs and cats every week. They begin at 3.30pm and finish around 9pm after the last meal is delivered.

Two industrial mincers are used to mince the leftover food, which is then stored in freezers before it is transported in a temperature-controlled van.

‘Every week, each hotel provides on average 30kg of food per brunch and it is expected to increase drastically after the summer. We are looking to expand to a daily pick up of all food waste as well as increasing the number of hotels, restaurants and event companies involved,’ says Jamal, who took along his six-month daughter on one of the missions.

The do-gooder says the community has been nothing but supportive in the mission. ‘We have often had people stop by and tell us how much they appreciate our work and we ourselves are proud of what we have achieved so far.

‘We have 4-5 regular volunteers besides my wife and I. My good friends George and Gabby help me with food collection. But with the volume of work involved, we need a lot more volunteers and hopefully we can get some funding eventually so that we can ensure daily operation,’ he says.

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Good meals on the house

Two Abu Dhabi-based Pakistani brothers Liaqat Khan and Ifthikar Ahmed have come up with a noble initiative to encourage diners to donate money for meals for those who can’t afford one. In their restaurant Jadoon (Tourist Club Area), they have set up a small white board where customers can pledge amounts as a "pay it forward" scheme wherein a needy person can dine and the price of the meal is deducted from the board.

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The inspiration for the campaign came when a labourer came in and had mutton biryani. However, when it was time to pay he had only Dh5 on him. ‘He said he hadn’t eaten mutton biryani in a long time so couldn’t resist the temptation of ordering one. I told him he didn’t have to pay anything,’ says Ifthikar.

Following that incident, the brothers decided to do something for the needy wherein the community could also be involved. ‘I had read of other restaurants in Europe offering "pay it forward" coffee and meals, so we too decided to do something similar,’ says Ifthikar. They raise up to Dh200 per day. Should the amount on the board fall short, the brothers, who work as aircraft technicians, pitch in themselves.

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‘We don’t want the needy people to feel they are being given charity. Also we don’t ask them to eat the cheapest thing in the menu. They can have any dish they like. It is a strong belief in our faith that the society is entitled to a portion of what we earn, in the form of money or any other provision. So we are just giving them what they rightfully deserve,’ says Liaqat.

‘We have regular contributors who give amounts from Dh3 to Dh100 per month, depending on their income.’ says Liaqat’s son, Abdul Qadir Khan, who runs the operations of the restaurant.

Do people misuse the board and freeload on their good gesture? On the contrary, Ifthikar says more and more people are expressing an interest to contribute to the venture and trying to set up similar initiatives. Recently, Ifthikar’s friend, who owns a restaurant called Al Arooj, also adopted the idea and it was a roaring success.

Ever since Jadoon began operations in August 2018, the imperative has been to keep prices affordable. The breakfast menu starts from Dh3; the hugely popular dum biryani is Dh10.

‘An ideal business is one that is beneficial to all parties involved,’ says Ifthikar.

Singing for a cause

She is 13 years old and can sing in 116 languages. But rather than just flaunt her talent, Dubai-based Indian expat Suchetha Satish is using it to reach out to people to further a campaign against tobacco and alcohol abuse.

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The three menaces of society – tobacco, alcohol and drugs – have always been issues she has wanted to fight against, having seen slides of patients suffering from the ill effects and listening to her father Satish, a doctor, and his likeminded friends talk about the vices.

In January 2018, at the age of 12, Suchetha set two records by singing 102 songs in as many different languages at a marathon concert that lasted six hours and 20 minutes. Her feat was registered with The World Record Academy (the US equivalent of Guinness) for "Most number of languages sung during one concert" and "Longest live singing by a child in one concert".

Suchetha holds world records for singing in more than 100 languages
Stefan Lindeque

Suchetha started singing at the age of four and has performed across the UAE and India. ‘Three years ago, a Japanese friend came to visit us and she casually hummed a song. Suchetha picked it up and sang it to us in an hour’s time. That is when we began to notice her innate talent,’ recalls her mother Sumitha.

Within a few months she had learnt songs in almost a 100 languages. ‘She never writes down any lyrics but listens to the song till she memorises them,’ she says.

On the altruistic front, she has been campaigning at various workers’ accommodations with Pravasi Bharathiya Sahaytha Kendra (the community welfare wing of the Indian embassy) and as a student volunteer at the various awareness programmes on anti tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Whenever she visits a workers’ accommodation, she uses her unique ability to sing in multiple languages and makes an instant connection with the crowd be it Bengali, Odiya or Bhojpuri. ‘I urge them to make a promise that they will quit smoking and drinking for their beloved children back home, just like me. That really touches their heart and I have got a lot of people taking the pledge,’ says the child prodigy.

She has made bookmarks with anti-tobacco slogans and pictures, which she distributes at the venues she performs at. Suchetha uses the information given by her father Satish who is a dermatologist.

Suchetha's pronunciation of words in all the languages is perfect, native speakers have testified

Another self-devised campaign called ‘Catch them Young’ is aimed at youngsters just like her. She has given innumerable talks school on World No Tobacco Day. She advocates the idea that if you can resist the temptation to smoke and drink at a young age, you can resist it forever. She also talks to friends whose parents or relatives smoke or drink as she believes if children speak to their parents it has more impact.

Apart from English, Malayalam, Tamil and Arabic, Suchetha is also learning French and Japanese. Her pronunciation of words in all the languages is perfect, native speakers have testified. She also knows more than a couple of songs in many languages, such as French, German, Chinese and Spanish.

For last year’s floods that ravaged her home state of Kerala, she released a special song in her native language Malayalam. Business magnate Dr Azad Moopen bought the song for Rs500,000. She donated the entire proceeds from the sale to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund.

Sucheta also uses her talent to foster communal and social spirit. During the last Football World Cup, she sang a song for every team in their native language. Her video was also filled with trivia about the team. ‘I want to continue to spread the message to youngsters like me that they can attain a ‘high’ through music or sports and not through addictive substances. On a personal level, I want to learn music and perform the world over,’ she says.