Last week, an extraordinary eight-year-old who overcame serious illness brought happiness to 56 labourers toiling in the heat outside our desert compound. This is the story of Hannah’s incredible spirit
Standing in bright sunshine, outside a dusty, hastily erected camp, a very special little girl brought beaming smiles to the faces of the construction workers gathered around her. “Thank you,” she told them, speaking off the cuff to at least 30 men in hard hats and overalls, “for making our road.”
It’s not every day that labourers in Dubai – most of whom have their own children living in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan – get to meet a blue-eyed, blonde haired little angel like Hannah. The workers at the back craned their necks to see, and everyone listened intently, even if they didn’t fully understand the English, to hear what Hannah, aged 8, had to say.
After her impromptu speech, delivered with the confidence of a child much older, there were more smiles as Hannah handed out gifts, 56 in total, to the crowd. The bags, crammed full of goodies, were the culmination of an initiative she had dreamt up and organised herself. Quite extraordinary. Except we already knew that about Hannah – who, five years ago, beat cancer.
Hannah, from Munich, Germany, was almost three when her mother was given the devastating news that she had a childhood cancer called Wilms’ tumour. A type of kidney cancer, it affects 500 children a year in the US. “I took her to the doctor because she had a swollen belly,” says her mum Kate Mestermann, a midwife. “It wasn’t all that noticeable, but my mother kept telling me to get it checked out.”
And thank goodness she did, because within days cancer had been diagnosed. “The doctors sat me down and told me,” says Kate, recalling the shock. “My husband, a pilot, was away, upgrading to become a captain. I didn’t tell him that day because he was about to do his final check ride. When he called afterwards to let me know he’d passed, I had to tell him our daughter had cancer.”
Hannah had chemotherapy for several weeks, followed by surgery to remove the kidney. As her other kidney showed signs of developing the same tumour, she then underwent another 20 weeks of grueling chemo. “She lost all her hair and suffered from sickness,” says her Dad Marc. “It became daily life for us, to be honest, but anyone with us who saw her suffering the chemo side effects was quite shocked.”
Five years later and now living in Dubai, cancer survivor Hannah is a healthy, happy little girl, who knows that having beaten this illness, she’s got what it takes to tackle whatever life throws at her. “The saying, ‘God won’t give you more than you can handle’ definitely applies to our daughter,” says Marc. She also displays a remarkable and highly developed sensitivity to others – personality traits that led to her shoebox project idea.
“We were driving along our compound road, and she looked out at the workers, who for months have been building a new access road through our patch of desert, and said, ‘We should do something to thank them.’ It was all her idea,” says Kate.
Shortly after that, Hannah’s shoebox project started taking shape. She started with a mind map, showing how she’d raise money, then, with her parents’ help, set about fundraising. “She approached the managers of our local stores to ask them to donate raffle prizes, and sent emails,” says Kate. “Hannah also went door-to-door around the compound, selling cookies, brownies and cupcakes that we’d made. In total, she collected 3,800dhs.”
It was then time to hit the retail store Carrefour, with a lengthy grocery list. Items she purchased to put in each bag included rice, lentils, sunflower oil, sugar, teabags and other food items; toiletries such as razors, shaving cream, toothpaste, soap and deodorant; and pillow cases and sheets.
If you don’t live in Dubai, you might wonder why people here would need basic items like this, but the truth is Dubai’s labourers are paid a pittance. They pay employment agencies to get here – to escape the poverty of their home countries – and instead toil for low pay in the extreme heat of one of the world’s richest economies. All, or nearly all, of the money they earn – which can be as little as £150 a month – is sent back to their families. They live in crowded labour camps, where facilities are basic, and work long shifts (you can read more about this here).
Whilst it’s clearly very wrong that their employers think it’s okay to bring them over here and pay them so little that charity drives are needed to provide essentials, you only have to see the radiant smiles on their faces when strangers show them kindness to understand how appreciated charity boxes are.
“It was wonderful to see the different reactions and expressions on their faces when we did the handover,” says Kate. “And Hannah took it all in her stride – that’s just how she is. Her next project is already on her mind.”
I’m sure I speak for everyone in our compound when I say we’re all moved by Hannah’s story. As one resident put it, “What a great thing! I wish more people in the world could be as super sensitive as you sweet angel.”