The “Ramadan Sharing Fridge” initiative has gone viral in Dubai, and the group’s webpage has gone from a handful of people in the beginning of June to nearly 18,000 people within two weeks.
The idea is simple – for residents to set up a fridge outside their house or in the lobby of their buildings and to ask their community members to fill it with drink and food for those in need. Within weeks of the initiative going viral, the idea has spread from Dubai to other cities in the UAE, and hundreds of thousands of meals and snacks have been provided to the laborers working in communities and construction sites.
There has been a long tradition in Gulf countries for locals to put water coolers or even fridges outside their homes, particularly during the month of Ramadan when Muslims refrain from eating and drinking from sun up to sun down. Nothing, however, has matched the scale of this initiative.
The idea for this particular campaign started with a humble fridge in front of Fikra Yel’s villa in the Meadows community in Dubai four years ago. She placed the double paned fridge with glass doors outside her garage right before Ramadan started during the sizzling summer months, and she stocked it with water, drinks, and food. The area guards, gardeners and cleaners came throughout the month to take things from the fridge, and some of her friends and neighbors also chipped in.
Ms. Yel is an expat from Holland, with roots in Morocco, and her desire to set up the fridge came from her Muslim faith. “Islam teaches us to share and care for other people. It is the most fundamental part of our religion – to look after the less fortunate, to feed those who are hungry,” said Ms. Yel.
After four years of maintaining the fridge, Ms. Yel’s family had to move to a new location that didn’t have the space for the fridge. She went on her community Facebook page to look for someone else who would maintain the sharing fridge, and she found Afghani-Australian expat Sumayyah Sayed who resides in the Springs villa community nearby.
Ms. Sayed was happy to take Ms. Yel’s fridge and set it outside her house. For her, as for Ms. Yel, the desire to do so was driven by her Islamic beliefs.
“You know our religion is very simple. Be kind to your parents, pray, and give charity. Feed the poor.” According to Ms. Sayed, many people complicate things without looking at the basic tenants of Islam.
She stocked the fridge with drinks and food and also told some of her friends in the neighborhood, who were excited to help. The Ramadan spirit was high and soon Ms. Sayed had people reaching out to her to ask if they could help them set up their own Ramadan fridge.
Many of those helping and reaching out were non-Muslims, a reflection of Dubai’s deeply diverse and interconnected community, and Ms. Sayed was encouraged to set up a Facebook page to manage the growing group. Soon she, along with Ms. Yel and three other expat ladies (Nadia Sarie, Alison Vickery, and Sophie Descplaces) were watching with wonder as the Facebook page went viral, and they were inundated with requests from other UAE residents for guidance on setting up their own fridges.
The Facebook page itself is a marvel, comprised of people with all religious and ethnic backgrounds, who have enthusiastically come together to stock the nearly 80 fridges (and growing) that have been established in just a few weeks. The fridges are managed by fridge managers who take responsibility for keeping the fridges clean and functional, and put up calls for donations on the FB page when stock runs low.
Thousands of hot meals like rice and meat, biryani, and pasta have been distributed, along with bottles of water, packets of juice, dates, Laban (a yogurt drink), cookies, chips and fruit. People have reached out to their local mosque imams to inquire about placing the fridges by the mosques. Some schools have allowed fridges to be located outside their doors, so school children can bring in donations. Some are located near construction sites. Most are in front of people’s homes and in their building lobbies and garages. Those who cannot manage a fridge have set up boxes or coolers outside their homes.
The Ramadan Sharing Fridges have pulled together communities. Neighbors have gotten together to cook huge meals together, with people meeting and mingling with some of their neighbors for the first time. Many calls for help with recipes for South Asian food such as curry, biryani and lentils have ended with ladies volunteering to visit each other and learn to cook new dishes.
Children of all ages have been fascinated with the experience of making or buying food and putting it in the fridge or handing it out directly to people. For many of the sheltered expat children in Dubai, it is the first direct act of charity they have been involved in.
Many of the laborers are fathers living here away from their families, and are touched by their interaction with the children.
According to Nadia Sarie, one of the organizers, the response from the laborers has been tremendous. She noted that people are usually pretty shy about taking the food. Once they start coming and using the fridge though, they love the initiative. “People being engaged, asking them their names and where they are from, sharing homemade food with them has been amazing,” Ms. Sarie stated. “They learn that someone cares enough about them to cook for them, that someone loves them no matter what.”
It has, as Ms. Sayed noted, “a way of humanizing people who we often don’t have a chance to interact with.”
Various businesses have also come on-board. Some have donated fridges, others have sent cartons and even trucks full of water and drinks, and many cafes and restaurants have begun donating hot meals. A few days ago Zahra Mohammed went with a team and distributed nearly 1,000 iftar boxes to workers at a construction site on the Palm Jumeirah. Restaurants are starting to post notices on the page of food they would like to donate after iftar.
In fact the generosity is not one way. Mandy Green, a member of the group, reported that she saw a construction worker buying a large pack of drinks at the grocery store. When she went down the road to put things in the Ramadan fridge she saw him putting the drinks in the fridge and taking out some dinner. “His pride and thoughtfulness of others blew me away!” she noted. Many have observed that even those who take multiple helpings out of the fridge are seen sharing what they take with their friends and fellow workers.
Participants in the initiative agree that they would like to carry this forward past Ramadan. There is enthusiasm to keep the fridges available permanently. As Ms. Sayed noted, “the purpose of Ramadan is to encourage Muslims to train themselves to be charitable and thoughtful towards others throughout the year. There is no reason for the charity to stop when Ramadan ends.”
Dubai may be best known for its glittering skyscrapers, sprawling malls, and luxury cars, but the Ramadan Sharing Fridge initiative has highlighted the most extraordinary thing about this city and this country: the remarkably generous people.
As Ms. Yel observed, “One of the main things I love so much about Dubai is that regardless of their religion, nationality and beliefs, people here are so respectful towards others and are willing to work hard together for a good cause.”
The organizers now hope that the initiative will catch on internationally.
Uzma Mariam Ahmed is a Dubai-based American regulatory lawyer, writer, and the mom of two boys. She is also the Chair of the AltMuslimah Advisory Board.
Photo Credit: All images as shared by participants of the initiative on the “Ramadan Sharing Fridge” webpage.