Benita Adesuyan meets Dr Paul Burt of The Mission to Seafarers to learn about the important work it does.
Living close to the sea we often take its significance for granted. Here in the UAE, where so much heritage and prosperity is linked to the water – from the pearl divers on dhows to its geographical location as a hub for trade – the sea and the people who work on it are vital parts of our emirate’s make-up.
The Mission to Seafarers has been in operation since the 19th century and has had a presence in Dubai since 1962. Its main aim is to provide welfare to seafarers in any way they need it, from helping them resolve employment disputes to providing toiletries and access
Dr Paul Burt is its regional director for the Gulf and South Asia, and he oversees the operations of the Mission and visits the seafarers daily. We meet at the Mission’s offices near Oud Metha and a pile of case notes and disputes cover his desk. With vessels of all sizes entering the UAE’s ports every day, the Mission is kept busy with issues and by many sea workers in need.
‘We operate in ports and anchorages all over the world and wherever there is a wealth of maritime activity. We’re based in Dubai because the UAE is an important hub for shipping. There are 17 ports in the country from Abu Dhabi in the south to Ras Al Khaimah in the north, so we have a lot on our plate and we never have enough time or staff. But we interact with most seafarers at ports, offering them a phone call or making sure they’ve had enough to eat,’ Burt says.
The Mission runs seafarers clubs at or near ports so that the men who have been at sea have a place to connect socially and buy personal supplies. For some maritime workers it’s not possible to leave the vessel. Burt explains that many crews end up being abandoned by owners with cash-flow problems or who have simply lost interest. To reach these crews, the mission runs The Flying Angel, a 23-metre boat that has been servicing seafarers since 2008 and has provided thousands of crews who come on board with a few home comforts or employment advice. ‘It’s a life-line for some of these men – they have no unions to bang the table on their behalf or mediate for them, and that’s part of what we do,’ says Burt.
‘The Flying Angel is the only ship of its kind. It makes five or six trips a day out to ships across the Gulf and the men are always very happy to see it. Some men will come on board and buy phone cards, have a chat with us or use the internet and contact family on Facebook.’
The Flying Angel costs Dhs2 million a year to run, which is largely funded by sponsors, churches and fundraisers. During Ramadan and Christmas the organisation arranges gifting days where volunteers can help to wrap bundles of gifts to distribute to the men at Dubai Creek. They also host an annual High Tea event at the British Embassy.
A life working on the world’s seas is full of risks and Burt says the conditions on many of the smaller boats are challenging. But just because we don’t see the men on the boats doesn’t mean they don’t impact on us land dwellers. ‘People wonder why they should be bothered with the plight of seafarers, but so much of our society and the things we have and buy depends on them,’ says Burt. ‘The clothes you wear, the shoes you buy – all of these things are important and the seafarers are a valuable link in that chain. On the other hand, by its very definition, the life of a seafarer is an isolated one since all they see are the stars, a handful of other men – most of whom they don’t know – and of course the sea. But they come together as a crew. It’s a dangerous life and we just try to make it easier for them.’
The Mission to Seafarers, 211 Al Nasr Plaza Building, www.angelappeal.com (04 357 6060).
Show your support to Dubai’s marine groups
Emirates Environmental Group
Inspiring people to care about the ocean, this non-profit organisation established the Clean Up Arabia campaign to preserve beaches and dive sites across the UAE.
www.eeg-uae.org (04 344 8622).
Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG)
The first marine environmental group in the UAE, EMEG runs a variety of projects to maintain marine life in the UAE. It also looks after a coastal sanctuary and reserve (used for educational and community trips) on the western border of Dubai.
www.emeg.ae (04 363 0582).
Emirates Diving Association
This organisation promotes environmental diving. It has a research and conservation section that regularly monitors the condition of the region’s reefs.
www.emiratesdiving.com (04 393 9390).