The Emirates Foundation's Takatof volunteering programme has provided dozens of Emiratis with the opportunity to work on Expo Milano 2015, an experience participants have described as "life-changing”.
Over a six-month period starting on May 1, UAE national volunteers travelled in groups of 25 to spend about three weeks in Milan at the expo, which includes a UAE pavilion.
Amal Al Kuwaiti, 24, and Wafa Al Katheeri, 34, were in one of the first groups to travel to Milan.
Al Ain resident Ms Al Kuwaiti joined Takatof in 2010, three years after the programme was established to foster a culture of volunteering in the UAE.
"Going to Milan was a huge opportunity,” she said.
"Serving my country is my duty and I am very honoured to represent my home country when helping people overseas.”
Joining the volunteer group has spurred Ms Al Kuwaiti on to get more involved in other activities in the community.
"I take part in organising several events in Al Ain, such as children's activities in schools and special-needs centres,” she said. "I love trying new things.
"I was involved with the race circuits as one of the marshals — something I wouldn't have done if it had not been for Takatof.”
The programme has not just given her new experiences but it has positively impacted her personal growth, she said. "I used to be a very quiet person but after joining Takatof, I became involved in many social events and I had to speak my mind and give my opinion in many decisions,” she said. "Volunteering means a lot to me.”
Ms Al Katheeri and her friends decided to become volunteers for the programme in 2007.
"Back then, my volunteer parts were very simple, nothing too serious,” she said.
In 2010 she went to Expo Shanghai, which is when, she said, the experience impacted her on a whole new level.
"Through Takatof, I realised I was capable of giving a lot – way more that I ever thought I could,” she said.
"I never knew I had this huge ability of giving, I thought my capabilities were minor.”
At Expo Milan she found an additional challenge to take on and grow from – the "language barrier”.
"Italian people speak little English,” she said.
Despite that they found a way forward and, like all the Takatof volunteers, she took great enjoyment from representing her country overseas.
"We were all dressed in our finest traditional clothes so it was obvious to the public that we were Arabs.
"So they all approached us by greeting us with ‘asalamu alaykum'.”
Ms Al Katheeri said that as an Emirati ambassador, she focused on "delivering the UAE's culture in the right way”. "I just realised how important it was that you be in your best state when you are carrying the name of your country with you,” she said.
"Before talking about our current achievements, I focused on taking them back to our rich heritage – the old days – and how we took the right steps to what we are have become now.
"Then I spoke of what we are hoping to become in the future.”
Takatof hopes the Expo volunteering programme will "connect [volunteers] with relevant opportunities and encourage public service”.
"Takatof youth are ambassadors of our nation representing a culture of support and the strength of our society's core values. Volunteers from Takatof are acting as UAE ambassadors at the UAE Pavilion to represent the country's culture and heritage positively.”
Source: The National