‘I couldn’t last more than 15 minutes, it was intolerable,’ says the smartly-suited young professional. He’s talking about being out in the midday sun in Doha in July while volunteering to give water to labourers toiling in unbearably hot temperatures, in the mid-forties.
‘Speed’, his online name, is the organiser of the Qatar Living website’s Community Volunteer Group, a 550-strong group of people keen to give a helping hand to anyone in need – from sweltering labourers to an elderly Indian man trapped in Doha by debt, and the animals made homeless by the Qatar Animal Welfare shelter fire.
The QL website is hugely popular for everything from buying and selling stuff, verifying wild rumours to telling jokes and making friends. It has many groups, but one of the most popular is the volunteer group. It’s an impressive demonstration of the power of the online community, where people can react instantly and work together to solve a problem.
The group was originally run by ‘Qatari Girl’ who organised hospital visits and blood donations, but her other commitments meant it went a bit quiet. However, it leapt back into life in early 2008 when a fire at a workers’ camp robbed 700 men of their homes and belongings.
The smoke was still billowing above the camp when the story was posted on QL and there were immediately hundreds of responses. A drop-off point was chosen, and within days volunteers had donated carloads of clothes, food and toiletries.
‘One lady came with her 4x4 full of new clothes. She’d gone round her neighbours in West Bay and asked for donations. She even had new CD players and radios,’ says Speed. He adds that he is constantly amazed and delighted by how much people are willing to help and what they are prepared to do. ‘We have so many members, from different ages and nationalities – but our one goal is to help others,’ he says.
From his online name we were expecting a baseball-capped ‘dude’, but instead met a thoughtful, quietly spoken and soberly dressed HR officer. One of the fascinating things about such an online group is building cyber relationships, then meeting ‘Dohagal’ and ‘Gypsy’ for real. ‘Everyone uses nicknames, you don’t even know if it’s a guy or a girl. You can have someone who online is very bold with what they say, then you meet them in person and they are very shy,’ says Speed.
As well as giving people the chance to have an outspoken alter ego, through QL the community group also gives people the chance to break out of their Doha bubble, to work with other nationalities and people from all ends of the pay scale: ‘We have people doing different jobs, from top managers to junior levels. Not everyone can donate money or things, some people just give their time.’
Also, taking part in an event like the water drive, where 2,000 bottles of chilled water were handed out to workers over two days last summer, lets you have a taste of what it is feels like to work in such conditions. ‘It was a good lesson, we drive around in our air conditioned cars. We don’t feel the heat, we might be outside for one minute going from the car to the mall or to the office, but that’s it. We have to salute these people, the way they are here working for us.’
There are many expats here with time on their hands who want to do community and voluntary work, but struggle to find an outlet for their altruistic desires. Local charities may only be looking for Arab speakers.
Speed says his group can fill the vacuum, and he has ideas for other ongoing projects which he wants to get off the ground: ‘We are planning a programme for women who want to do more to help, but maybe have kids and other commitments. We are looking at maybe visiting women in hospital or in prison.’
He is also working on getting aid together to send to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake and hopes to liaise with the Red Crescent and Qatar Charity to co-ordinate getting donations transported. Speed does a lot, but would love to do more. ‘I look at the teams from different countries going in to help and I would love to be able to take our group over there and help in person,’ he says.
More information at www.qatarliving.com/group/qatar-living-volunteers.