Four university students who met at kindergarten in Sharjah chose to end their summer vacation a little differently this year, by travelling to flood-hit Kerala in India to help with the country's massive clean up operations.
Omar Alimi, Ahmed Zachariah Kotikollon, Hassan Hussein and Furqan Shahzad said it was a group text that inspired them to embark on the volunteering mission.
"Ahmed sent out a text a few weeks back asking us if we heard about the floods in Kerala. Within a few days we had planned the whole trip and a week later we landed at Cochin International Airport," Hussein told Khaleej Times.
As a second year student at American University of Sharjah (AUS), Alimi even missed his first week on campus just so he could join his friends on the trip.
Though Kotikollon and Shahzad both hail from India, it was the first time Syrian and Swedish expats Alimi and Hussein had visited the country. But after seeing the aftermath of the floods on the news, the foursome (who first met at kindergarten at the International School of Choueifat in Sharjah), said they knew they had to do something to help.
"We thought it would be a good way to end the summer break. We have a long summer, all the time in the world, so why not raise awareness and put that time to use," Shahzad said.
With Kotikollon's family running a charity foundation in India, he said they first headed to a boarding house for children and adults with multi-disabilities.
"The home was run by nuns and was a two-storey building. The ground floor was completely flooded, ruined and 10 of the 20 people housed within the home had to be transferred to a nearby hospital because the area was quite badly damaged."
With 10 children staying on the site, the first port of call was to help with the exterior clean up.
"They had done a lot of work to the interior, so we had to tackle the outside areas. It was quite unhygienic as it was very muddy and there was a lot of debris scattered about, including medications and first aid materials like needles and bandages," Shahzad and Hussein said.
Working about five to six hours each day separating trash from things that could be salvaged like wood and medicines, the four boys were one of 750 volunteers working solely on the boarding house.
"Every one was from the local area; we were the only international helpers at that place. Most of the people staying in the house couldn't talk, but there was this one guy who sang a lot. The nuns told us he used to sing happy songs, but after the floods he only sung sad songs. That was quite heartbreaking to hear," Hussein said.
Though the flood damage impacted the rural areas quite hard, Kotikollon and Alimi said the basic infrastructure, like the main roads and airport, didn't look too badly affected.
"When we first landed it looked clean and that's testament to the community. They have really come together for the clean up. Going into the small villages and seeing the burst dams and debris though, that was quite shocking to see. A lot of work is still needed."
Landing back in the UAE on Monday evening after five days in India, the foursome said it has put a lot of things into perspective for them.
"We didn't have much of a plan before landing there. We didn't know who we were helping clean up for, but after that experience it's made me think a lot. Many of those children we helped rebuild a home for don't see their families often; maybe just one or two times a year. But the volunteers, us, we become a temporary family for them."
And although their friends didn't initially understand why they were spending part of their summer vacation doing voluntary work, "now they get it".
"People always say they want to do things, but they never do it. We did it and it has impacted each one of us in a different way."
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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