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The Sassiest Mama: Saher Shaikh

Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life - Post Category - That MamaThat Mama

The Sassiest Mama Awards 2015

What this mama has done for the labourers who toil to make our city a home is quite literally unbelievable and completely awe inspiring. With ‘4 kids plus 53,000 adopted kids’ it’s no wonder that her day is busy busy busy and her phone constantly ringing – seriously we take our hats – and coats- off to this mama miracle worker.

Who’s The Mama?

Full Name: Saher Shaikh
Occupation: Founder & Director, The Adopt-a-Camp Foundation.
Founder & Director, Care Packages for Labourers.
Children: Shazil (10), Shazain (8), Sasha (4) & Shiraz (1)
Nationality: British Canadian of Afghani & Pakistani heritage.
How long have you lived in Dubai? 10 years.

1) Tell us about your business/businesses and why you started them.
The Adopt-a-Camp Foundation & Care Packages for Labourers started 10 years ago as highly personal initiatives. I was grocery shopping at my local supermarket with my chubby nearly 1 year old in my arms. Whilst in the checkout queue, I saw a construction worker struggling to pay for his lunch in front of me. He was trying to buy a small bread roll & a tiny bottle of laban. It couldn’t have been more than 5 dirhams in total. But forget dirhams, he didn’t even have enough fils to pay for it. I was watching him fumbling with is coins, counting and recounting them, as though if he were to count them enough times, they’d magically become the amount he needed and it just felt so unfair.

My gaze kept going between his little bread roll and my bursting basket of yummies and I couldn’t just let it be. So I took a chance that he’d understand my mother tongue, Urdu, and spoke to him saying that it was my son’s first birthday and would he be so kind as to let us treat him to share in our happiness.

The cardinal rule my parents taught me about “giving” is that it must always be done whilst maintain the receiver’s complete pride and dignity; hence, the first birthday story. The guy was so sweet and unopportunistic. I had to convince him that he’d be doing us the honour by celebrating with us and I told him to choose as much more as he wanted from the supermarket and consider it part of the treat. He could have filled trolleys worth of stuff but all he chose was a tiny bottle of strawberry milk, another dirhams worth. I was deeply touched by his dignity.

Next to that supermarket, there’s also an ATM machine. I’d often see labourers struggling to understand the buttons as so many of them are illiterate, so my son and I (I just had the one child at the time) would help them out and chat with them. By the way, chubby babies are a great ice-breaker! Over the course of a few weeks, we became friends with groups of them and they had started calling me “Baji” and “Didi” (sister in Urdu and Hindi). We’d talk about life, family, work & how they liked it here.

One time, they told me that I’d never be able to understand their lives until I visited their camps so we made a plan and I set off in a taxi one day with my little guy to visit them. It was a very special visit. They could have easily used this as a chance to complain about life, ask for money, anything. Instead, they were running around trying to give me stuff. It blew me away. Here were these guys who had absolutely nothing but they were putting their money together to treat me juice and give kulfi ice cream to my child. They even treated the taxi driver because they said that he was their honoured guest too. When we were driving away, my son and I turned back to wave at them. I guess, if one were to use the cliche of a life-changing moment, that would have been it for me.  It really hit me that I got to leave, to return to my beautiful apartment, to my perfectly comfortable life but that they couldn’t leave. This was their life. It was in that moment that I knew I couldn’t just drive away, I had to come back. I had to do something.

Since then, thanks to the support of the U.A.E. and especially Dubai’s amazing community, we’ve come a long way. The Adopt-a-Camp Foundation is an internationally recognized and registered foundation. Our mission is meaningfully improve the lives of the men who build our beautiful cities and through them, top reach out and aid the diverse communities they come from. There are now 57,000+ labourers, families and communities under Adopt-a-Camp’s umbrella so we’ve been unable to count the exact total number of lives impacted, but it’s in the hundreds of thousands. 

We care about our adopted men and their families the same way a parent cares about their child. It’s a holistic approach combining educational, health, social and emotional aspects. Our work extends beyond our adopted camps here. We have micro-loan programs, we sponsor their children’s and sibling’s education, pay for their family member’s medical operations, rebuild their villages after natural disasters, everything family would do for each other.

2) What do you feel have been your biggest achievements both in your personal life and career so far?
Haha,  I can get my four kids’ homework done, a home-cooked meal with no TV and all four in bed by 8pm with their teeth brushed, I consider that to be an achievement! I guess the fact that they’re four really sweet, kind, curious children. They are our my wonderful husband and I’s biggest achievement and our greatest blessing.

Career-wise, the big one would probably be when we became registered as an international foundation and recognized by the UN. However, every day, seeing how our adopted men’s children and younger siblings are getting on in the schools we’re sponsoring them in, hearing about how our men are moving onto higher-paid jobs due to the free classes we provide them and when I see our community come together time and again to reach out to help those less fortunate – all of these instances and others like them give me a greater sense of joy and satisfaction than the highest honour.

3) As a child what did you dream of being when you ‘grew up’?
I wanted to make my first million (which I ended up doing as an investment banker) and use that to open up an orphan, seniors and animal sanctuary in Pakistan. When I was 14, I even saw the land I wanted to build on in the foothills of Kashmir. Beautiful green space with rolling hills and fresh, fragrant air. I wanted a sanctuary, a place where every unwanted child, helpless elder and animal would have safe home and someone there to love them. I ended up getting married, moving where my husband was, having kids, etc. but it’s still a dream I’d like to come true, Insha’Allah.

4) If you had 3 wishes, what would they be?
I only need one. For all the innocents of the world to be protected. Actually, I’ll make it two. That and to spend a lazy afternoon reading a good book in a rocking chair with a fat cat purring in my lap.

5) What does being a Sassy Mama mean to you?

That I’d make a mama bear look like a mouse if anyone tried to harm any of my 57,004 kids and I’d do it whilst wearing my fave Louboutins.

6) What’s a typical day in your life like?
Wake up at 6am with the 1 year old bouncing on my head. Who needs alarm clocks right?

Get the 4 year old ready for school (the process of which includes lip-sync battles to Let it Go – Every. Single. Morning).

7am – wave off hubby and older three kids to school (whilst doing inward jig of joy).

7am-8am. Work out. (Running around in a circle 20 times chasing the little guy counts as a workout in my book.)

8am-1pm. Adopt-a-Camp Foundation work. Meetings, emails, labour camp visits, phone calls, municipality visits, paperwork, planning.

1pm- 3:30pm. School pick-ups.

3:30pm-6pm. Lunch and homework.

6pm-7pm. Cook dinner whilst listening to kids reading & board games.

7pm:7:30pm. Eat dinner at the table together.

7:30pm  Quiet reading time with the older two in their bedroom whilst hubby puts 4 year old to bed if he’s home early from work; otherwise watch an episode of Mind Your Language with the kids. (It never gets old!)

8pm. Lights out.

9pm. Time with hubby. Either in our jammies watching tv shows or catching up with friends.

11pm. Sleep.

I have one telephone line which is solely for my adopted guys and their families to call me on. It’s with me 24/7 in case of emergencies. So throughout the day, there’ll also be phone calls ranging over a diverse array of topics.

To give you real examples: regarding Ravi’s toothache, Habib’s argument with his father-in-law, Khan Baba’s daughter calling from Peshawar that she wants to study beyond fifth grade and please tell her father that, Azeez and Ramachand fighting over a bag of rice, Mohd’s homesickness, etc. The days are busy.


7) What’s your guilty pleasure?
Eating whatever I want whenever I want. But I refuse to feel guilty about it. Life’s too short. Plus, there’s nothing else I can do with 4 kids hanging onto me at the same time that gives pleasure, haha!

8) What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given in your personal life and career?
Be grateful for every second of health. Everything else falls into place.

9) What do you most enjoy doing as a family in Dubai?
Riding ATVs in the desert.

10) What is the ‘best-kept’ secret in Dubai, something fellow mamas should know about?
That inner zen is achievable by day-dreaming of Bertin’s pain perdu; even whilst baby throws up all over the new shirt you finally found time to pick up from the mall, in front of the mama who always comes to school pick-ups with a fresh blow-out.

11) Which three words best describe your personality?
Maternal, loyal, irreverent.

12) What advice would you have for a new mama?
Dream bigger, be stronger, dance wilder. Your children grow up absorbing this mystery called life by watching how you lead yours.

13) What advice would you give to a mama who wants to go back to work or start her own business but is worried about juggling family and career?
If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel guilty every moment you’re away from your kids. Heck, I even feel guilty if I’m putting two of them to bed and the other two are in another room. So, be sure that whatever is causing this guilt is worthwhile enough to make you do it anyway. It can be self-fulfilment, couples time,  working to put food on the table, trying to make a difference, but whatever it is, you should be able to answer your kids with your head held high and conscience clear when you tell them that you were busy.


14) If you were on an island and could bring only 3 things (family not included) what would they be?
Sunscreen, books and GoCoCo coconut juice.

15) Top 3 books?
Ooh, that’s the hardest question for a bibliophile!

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy.

16) Describe your style.
Laidback and classic. I hardly get time to go shopping for myself but love timeless pieces with unique detailing.

17) If there were a movie produced about your life, who would you choose to play you and why?
I can’t even imagine it!

18) Tell us something funny that your kids have said or done.
They say the most adorable, innocent things every few minutes. I treasure those moments though they feel like liquid gold running through my fingers. Sasha, our four year old daughter, always refers to her daddy as Mama’s One True Love (yes, been watching far too much Disney). The other day she was trying to say “lawfully” but ended up with: Mama’s “woefully” wedded husband. He thought that was hilarious, haha.


Thanks to The Studio for the gorgeous pics! Book your photography experience on (+971) (0)4 347 1745.

Special thanks also to Sassy Mama Dani for coordinating mamas and photographers while juggling 3 little ones too!

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