A desire to volunteer led Abdul Karim Al Zarouni to the war-torn Syria where he saw both ISIL brutalities and the deep scar they have left in the minds of young Syrian children.
It is every student’s dream to have a gap year and see what the world has to offer. But nobody wants a gap year, and see something as horrible as ISIL troops trying to kidnap refugees.
For Abdul Karim Al Zarouni, a desire to help led him to some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places in the Middle East, far from the skyscrapers, well-paid jobs and safety of Dubai.
“Most of the refugees there have lost families in front of their eyes and that is when you realise how blessed you are with what you have,” he said of a volunteer mission to the Syria-Lebanon border in 2012.
“When you go there you value life much more, and understand how difficult it can be.
“Life in Dubai is not everything, there is so much beyond that.
“It also made me realise how giving even a little time to them meant so much.
“There would be sessions when we had to sit with the refugees and talk to them and try to ease their pain. With adults it was easier, but there were three or four-year-old children who had watched their parents die, and that hits them really hard.”
Now a businessman, humanitarian and volunteer for various charity organisations, Mr Al Zarouni, 30, wants to inspire the UAE’s young people to step out of their comfort zone and experience life.
From starting an international student group to help newcomers in the city at the University of Southern Queensland, where he completed his undergraduate degree, to working to help refugees on the Syria and Lebanon border, he has dedicated a major part of his life to helping others.
“My first volunteering activity was during my first year at university, where I established a group to make new students familiar with the rules and regulations, help them set up, find an apartment and settle in,” Mr Al Zarouni said.
“Through that we were approached by Red Cross, they needed volunteers to help with raising money and arranging food and shelter for refugees and illegal immigrants, which was my first actual humanitarian work.”
During his time at university he travelled to countries including Fiji and Papua New Guinea to help Doctors Without Borders, who support people in need.
But it was the trip to the Syrian border in 2012 that made him realise how hard life can be.
“Kids do not forget easily. If you give any kid a toy, they will be happy, but those kids, whatever we gave them, we could see there was still something on their mind bothering them and it was very hard for them to be normal again,” he said.
“It was not easy for me either, but I learnt a lot in my days there. I saw people with guns, ISIL troops trying to snatch away young people, it was very scary, but in the end that is what makes you develop an ambition to help those people.”
His attachment with the refugee children made him go back almost every month between 2012 and 2013, whenever he got an opportunity off work.
“In one visit, you cannot fix everything or cover all the children, so I kept going back,” said Mr Al Zarouni, who works for Emirates airline and for his family’s business, Al Zarouni Sons Group.
“It is not only for the sake of helping others, in turn you help yourself,” he says. “My volunteer work gave me a lot of wisdom and it purifies your soul.
“You let go of any ego and help others. It is very easy for youngsters to get busy with a normal comfortable life in Dubai, but they also need to face reality at some point.”