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25 June 2017Last updated
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Real Women

Everyday heroes

Working tirelessly and selflessly behind the scenes, these women and men do what they do because they are passionate about their causes, not for personal recognition. Nevertheless, we decided to give a shout-out to them, at the very least because they are an inspiration

By Catherine Harper
1 May 2016 | 04:23 pm
  • Stephanie Sutherland.

    Source:Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM

Bridging a community gap

American Stephanie Sutherland, 40, set up Dubai Mums Helping Hands to show lower-income workers they aren’t a forgotten sector of society. She organises a quarterly campaign, with a different theme each time, during which local residents contribute as their resources allow and aid is distributed appropriately.

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“We operate on a platform of people connecting people, and focus solely on our labour community. Volunteers come together with their resources, whether in goods or services, and we distribute them directly into the hands of our labourers in an effort to thank them and acknowledge their hard work in making Dubai the community we know and love. I do it because I want our labour community to know there are people who care for them. All of them are here without their families, working toward the greater good, and everyone deserves to feel appreciated and cared for. I want to bridge the gap between us by delivering items directly into their hands. Every time we run a project, our volunteers break out of their comfort zone and make a connection, which always results in spreading resources above and beyond our event.

“People are people, wherever you go, and our basic needs are the same. For me, it’s important to be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and to bring care into the lives of others. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all practised more compassion? Maybe then the news channels would be filled with that which unites us, rather than that which divides us. It needs to start somewhere, and I’m here, so I choose here. We’re in charge of the next generation and I’m trying to be an example for my children. Empathy is a learned behaviour.”

Find Dubai Mums Helping Hands at www.facebook.com/groups/DMHelpingHands

Saving dolphins and educating people

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Italian expat Ada Natoli, 44, runs The UAE Dolphin Project, an initiative set up to promote conservation of dolphins in this country

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“Species can disappear unnoticed if nothing is known about them. From my experience in the Mediterranean, I realised to effectively protect a species and its environment you need two things: information about the species, its distribution and its population and decline status; and the engagement of the public and the relevant authorities.

“I’ve been involved in dolphin research and conservation for two decades, and when I moved to the UAE eight years ago I realised very little was known about the dolphin population here. Aside from being beautiful animals, dolphins are an important ecological indicator; by studying their status, we can understand more about the status of the entire marine environment and, ultimately, of the fish we eat.

“I got a chance to contribute to the growth of the country, by doing what I knew best. I set up The UAE Dolphin Project to investigate the local dolphin population and provide scientific information to help the authorities formulate effective conservation measures to protect the species and preserve the overall local marine environment. I raise support to allow us to conduct research activities, and raise awareness among local schools, universities and communities so everyone can get involved, or at least have some knowledge of what’s in our waters and why it’s important. The public awareness and education campaign is a top priority for the project, and I’ve set up a platform whereby people can report sightings of dolphins, which is a huge help from a research perspective.

“There’s no budget allocated for research into dolphins in the UAE yet, so I work on a voluntary basis although I do it full-time. The UAE is committed to becoming greener, so the field has huge potential to become a sector for employment in the future.

“If there’s a mantra I live by, it’s ‘Care about our marine environment every day’. Reduce the amount of plastic you use as much as you can, and dispose of it properly. Choose sustainable fish and eco-friendly products. Ultimately, what reaches the sea is not only bad for dolphins; it comes back to us in what we eat.”

Find out more about The UAE Dolphin Project at www.uaedolphinproject.org

In the name of the children

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Saudi Arabian criminologist, forensic psychologist and traumatologist Lama Younis – listed as one of the 100 most influential Arabs of the year in 2015 and 2016 – set up The Lama Campaign to raise awareness of and prevent child abuse in the region

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I had the idea for The Lama Campaign for a number of years, after coming face to face with social issues such as child abuse in my job. These issues are very much present in the GCC region but, up until now, there’s been a hesitation to acknowledge their existence. Child abuse is a serious issue and the time to address it has come. The Lama Campaign aims to educate people across a range of social sectors to increase knowledge, heighten awareness of issues related to child protection and safety, and develop the skills needed to challenge and address abuse.

“We’re developing state-of-the-art child-protection training programmes for professionals working with children, and delivering communication and education through seminars and presentations. We also advise a variety of organisations and businesses on child protection and safety, as well as empowering communities, organisations and businesses to act on behalf of child protection.

“One of the main challenges I’ve faced is dealing with individuals with mixed emotions. They want to help, but cultural sensitivities hinder them moving forward with their support. Thankfully, many of the topics we cover don’t need to be sensitive to culture; for example, our workshops about internet and playground safety in collaboration with Hissah Enrichment Centre.

“I try my best, but I’m only human and some days it does all seem a bit too much to cope with. On these days, I just put my daily tasks to one side and try my best to achieve what I can. Surprises come along but I welcome them and work with them, as they’ve helped me accept my strengths and weaknesses.

“I’ll never give up; The Lama Campaign is about empowering individuals and saving lives, and it’s just something I’m too passionate about to give up. As I say at the end of my workshops, ‘Allow the dark moments of your life to be the light of your buried potential’.”

Find out more about The Lama Campaign at www.facebook.com/thelamacampaign

Standing up for our furry friends

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Nataliya Kartavenko from the Ukraine dedicates herself to the welfare of cats in the UAE, both as a volunteer with rescue organisation Bin Kitty Collective and with like-minded friends

“Some years ago I began feeding cats around my building and organising for them to be neutered. I wasn’t part of any organised programme, though; I was just doing what I could by myself. Then I found two tiny kittens and managed to locate a few organisations that might help them, so I got in touch and found myself with a spot at an adoption day held at Creatures Oasis pet-needs store in Jumeirah. That day I met volunteers from Bin Kitty Collective (BKC) and my journey began.

“I’m often tagged in Facebook posts when a sick or injured cat is found, as BKC volunteers know I’m always ready to help where I can. We’ll pick the animal up and take it to one of our partner vets, where they offer discounted rates for strays and rescues, and make sure they either get the treatment they need or they’re humanely put out of their misery. If the cat is friendly and could be a pet, we arrange a foster home until an adoption can be arranged; we advertise the cat on a number of social media sites as well as Dubizzle, and attend adoption days around Dubai. We also send some cats abroad through BKC’s page in Germany. For feral cats who simply aren’t suitable to be rehomed, we facilitate TNR programmes in as many areas of Dubai as we can manage. Returning neutered strays to their colony has a number of benefits; it reduces fighting, which stabilises the colony and maintains the health of the cats; it discourages new cats from joining the colony thereby keeping numbers down; it reduces potentially disruptive behaviours such as yowling, which might cause upset to the community; and it promotes natural pest control.

“Nowadays alongside volunteering with Bin Kitty Collective, I also work with a close friend of mine, Alena Radzionenka, and we call our team Cataliya Rescues Cats. I work full time so my cat rescuing happens in my own time, before and after work and during weekends and holidays.

“My family came to visit once and I took them to Mamzar beach; they were relaxing on the sand while I was coordinating a TNR effort around them! I never switch off, so any time I see an un-neutered cat I’ll do my best to trap it and have it neutered.

“Looking after cats is a lot of work. There are vet visits, adoption days, TNRs, taking care of the fosters we have at home... I’m always up early and into bed late. All rescuers here are volunteers, so nobody makes us do what we do; sometimes I feel like it’s time to slow down, but then a new case comes in and I can’t say no.

“I find reward in the satisfaction I get when I see the results of our rescue work: when I get an update from a family who adopted from us, when I see healthy neutered cats in a colony where I did a TNR campaign, when I see no sick kittens around.

“It’s nice to be recognised for what I do, though; I’ve had some rather amusing awards from Bin Kitty Collective including the 2014 Golden Pom Pom award and Bin Kitty Glamour Puss award, and the 2015 Bin Kitty Crazy Cat Person award!”

See more of Nataliya’s rescue efforts on her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/nataliya.kartavenko.9

Breaking barriers for special needs

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Britons Nick Watson, 46, and wife Delphine, 41, have two children; Rio, 13, and nine-year-old Tia. Rio has severe special needs and both Nick and Delphine are committed to raising awareness of special needs in the community

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“Consider the question, ‘What do you do for your child when you know they’re too disabled to ever be considered for the Paralympics or Special Olympics?’ You get together as a family and give that experience to your child – the same experience any other able-bodied or less-disabled person is entitled to experience. Then you look at the bigger picture, and you use this mission to spread an important message to help others both within your community and internationally.

“Rio, our Angel, has something called 1q44 deletion de novo syndrome, which is so rare only a handful of children have been diagnosed with it worldwide. What this means for Rio is that he has seizures, he’s non-verbal; he has severe learning, gross and fine motor skills disabilities; sensory integration dysfunction and he is still in nappies, amongst many other challenges. But this isn’t why he’s special. He’s special because he’s a very happy, loving little boy. He lives only in the now, and has huge appreciation for life, which is a valuable lesson for all of us. He’s the one who’s inspired us to do all this.

“Team AngelWolf began back in 2014, at our first-ever race. We did the Dubai International Triathlon, a half-Ironman distance race; I swam 1.9km with Rio in a kayak, cycled 90km with Rio sitting in a seat on a specially adapted bike, and ran a half-marathon with him in a specialised running wheelchair. Our mission really got going at the start of the 2015/2016 season, though, and we’ve been taking part in sporting events – triathlons, running, cycling, stair climbs, swims and so on – nearly every weekend. We’ve done more than 30 races and covered more than a thousand kilometres and Rio is with us whatever we do, because we know it’s the only way he’ll get to experience things like this.

“We work as a team together with Rio. One of us races with him whilst the other two act as the support team! Even Tia – Little Wolf – has raced with her big brother in a duathlon, where she ran pushing Rio’s special pushchair and cycled dragging it behind her.

“She completed the race and didn’t complain once, even though Rio weighs 27kg, the chair isn’t light and she’s tiny! A real proud moment for us was when they crossed the finish line; on the last run leg, more than 50 of Dubai’s triathlon community ran with them to give them support. It was a moment just like the last running scene in Forrest Gump, and so emotional to witness as parents.

“The message from TeamAngelWolf is very simple – to encourage awareness, acceptance, inclusion, integration and equality of and for people with disabilities within our communities; to inspire communities to take responsibility for their own health; to instil the importance of teamwork; and to motivate individuals to recognise that anything is possible, and to use that belief to make a difference in the world. We hold inspirational talks at schools and corporations; to date, we’ve reached more than 5,000 children and more than 1,000 corporates since September 2015.

“Being the father of a child with special needs is hard. As a man, you want to fix things, but Rio can’t be fixed in the literal sense of the word. It hurt and broke me for a long time. It took me a while to accept I’d never play rugby with Rio, do a triathlon beside him, go out for a drink with him, have a father-son conversation with him… Not in the way I’d envisioned when a scan first showed we were having a boy, anyway. I buried myself in work to hide from it all. Then I had surgery in connection with colon cancer, and it was a life-changing moment; I realised I had to make the most of the blessing I’d been given. As Bob Marley sang, “When life throws you lemons, you make lemonade”.

“I realised there was no reason why Rio couldn’t play rugby, do a triathlon, have a father-son conversation. It just had to happen a little differently to my expectations and to what society said was the norm. That was my second lesson; expectations lead to disappointments. If you can’t change the situation, change the way you react to it. You don’t need words to have a conversation! Rio has taught us this. He’s a wise lad, if only society would give him – and others like him – an opportunity to show and guide us.

“Rio loves the races; his smiling face is angelic when we’re taking part. He has full control, though, and if he wanted to stop then we’d stop. He may not be verbal but he can communicate; he knows the sign for ‘finish’, although he’s never used it in a race. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; he gets upset when we stop at the end, then he gets irritated and signs ‘more’. Even if it was an eight-hour Ironman event! Many a time during a race when we’ve been struggling ourselves, we remember Rio is our motivation. He’s turned to us and signed ‘I love you’; nobody needs any more motivation than that.

“Doing these sporting events with Rio has bonded us in a way we never thought would be possible. There are moments when it’s just the two of us and I look at him and think, “You are purely amazing”. At those moments I realise – beyond all practical thoughts of having a 13-year-old son who’s still in nappies, who can’t have a verbal conversation with us, who won’t ever get married or have children, who’ll be living with us until we die, with an unknown future – how very lucky and blessed we are.”

Find more on TeamAngelWolf on YouTube and at www.facebook.com/Team-Angel-Wolf. The Watson family love having supporters at any of Rio’s events, and want to help other disabled children experience sporting events in the way Rio does; feel free to come down and join in or cross the finish line with Rio. To book an inspirational talk for your school or corporation, get in touch with TeamAngelWolf directly via the Facebook page.

Supporting parents of NICU babies

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French expat Sandrine Piedras, 33, lost her daughter Lucia at just 51 days old after she was born at 29 weeks. Despite her own personal grief, she recognised a need for support among parents of babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and wrote a survivors’ guide to NICU, which is available to download free on her blog

“I made a promise to my daughter that I would make her little life count for something, that I would do something to leave her mark on the earth, that I would help other mums in her name. I wrote the NICU survival guide after Lucia died; it came from pain,
tears, love and joy, and the joy was getting to know other amazing women who went through hell with me. That experience helped me grow as a woman, as a wife and as a mother.

“I guess the professional side of me was partly why I was able to think about others at such an awful time; as a communications director, I saw there was something missing and I could do something about it. And I love helping people. I felt if I could just make one mother less scared about entering NICU, I ought to do it.

“NICU is a very, very frightening place. In Europe it’s the norm to have at least an explanatory leaflet, and often there are support groups for parents, but it’s not the case here yet. The medical teams take tremendous care of our premature babies, but there’s room for improvement when it comes to support for parents.

“The survivor guide I created has helped and is helping parents of babies in NICU. Parents entering the ward do so at probably the worst moment of their lives; after an emergency delivery, fearing for their baby’s survival, with hormones crashing around everywhere, in pain from surgery; they enter this terrifying world of beeps and flashes and can’t even hold their baby. That’s hard to process for any parent. In Lucia’s name, I hope what I’m doing helps even in the smallest way.”

Find Sandrine’s guide and blog at www.nicudubai.com

A cycling sisterhood

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British expat Emma Woodcock, 46, set up free-to-join women’s cycling group Velo Vixens Dubai to encourage more women into the male-dominated sport and ensure they get the right support to enjoy cycling

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“Velo Vixens Dubai currently has 600 members. We run several sessions every week, suitable for every level of rider from beginner to advanced, and we’ve had girls aged from nine to 76 wearing our Vixens jerseys with expats of all nationalities and Emirati women riding side by side. The whole thing is run by a small group of wonderful volunteers and a really strong community has risen up. They are an incredible bunch of positive women.

“Combined with the sheer joy that cycling brings, I’ve come to understand how important it is for women to have strong female friends, especially as most of us are away from our extended families here. They shape who we are and who we can become. I’ve watched women blossom as they learn new skills and overcome fears, and there’s something really special about sharing that journey.

“A Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life. In fact, the results were so significant, the researchers concluded that not having close friends or confidants was as detrimental to your health as smoking or carrying extra weight.

“There’s too much media pressure on women around what to wear, what to look like, too much body shaming. I want to fly in the face of all that.
I always wanted Velo Vixens to be a positive group and said I wouldn’t allow any negative comments, and to my surprise – given all the sniping and passive/aggressive behaviour that goes on elsewhere – there hasn’t been any. Velo Vixens are a source of strength and an incredible support network to each other; we nurture one another. It makes you feel good when you make someone else happy. What could be more important than that?”

Find the Velo Vixens on Facebook; www.facebook.com/groups/VVDXB

By Catherine Harper

By Catherine Harper