Jun 21, 2013
Arif Mirza learns skills as scrap yard worker

For as long as he can remember Arif Mirza has planned to retire by the age of 40. At 39, and with an accumulated wealth of millions, he looks set to achieve that goal.

The Canadian-Pakistani, who has lived in Dubai for three years, is a highly successful entrepreneur, making his money through a series of online ventures. He is also a life coach and motivational speaker, has companies in no less than six countries and a staff of hundreds.

Yet he has recently spent 33 days on the streets of Dubai, living as a migrant worker and sharing a room sometimes with up to 12 men. Why? Because he was moved by the experiences of labourers here in the UAE and wanted to experience at first hand what it felt like to be in their position.

“I met a Pakistani man in Healthcare City one day,” recalls Mr Mirza, who first revealed his plans to The National in March.

“He had not eaten for three days when he approached me asking me for money. He had tears in his eyes.”

Then there was a young Pakistani boy Mr Mirza met on a beach, collecting scrap and selling it on. “There are so many stories like these in Dubai. But to help people like this and understand what they go through, I needed to live their life and so I took to the streets,” he explains.

Mr Mirza’s 33-day stint started on May 6 when he left his comfortable apartment in Burj Khalifa that he shares with his wife and two children and took up work as a manual labourer, pledging to live on less than Dh1,000 for a month.

He survived by buying and selling used junk, working on building sites in the searing heat, often for 12 hours at a time and undertaking welding and painting jobs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

“There are people living in Dubai on half of that and sending Dh500 a month home to their families. When you have to, you can do – it’s actually not that hard,” says Mr Mirza, who filmed as much of his experiences – and the people he met – as possible either with a phone or hidden camera.

“A lot of people didn’t want to be filmed. They were afraid they would be sent back to their own countries or busted by the authorities,” he adds.

Besides having his eyes opened to some illegal business practices taking place here, he was amazed at how happy the people he worked with were.

“They have no money but they have such big hearts,” he says. “They shared everything with me.”

His fellow workers also provided emotional support. “They kept me going and were extremely kind, encouraging me whenever I felt low.”

Having now returned to his wealthy lifestyle, what has he learnt from the experience?

“It has definitely made me stronger,” he says. “I no longer take anything in my life for granted.

“These people earn so little and yet they’re so grateful for what they have because in their own countries it would be considered a good salary.”

The businessman is still in touch with many of the people he encountered. He attends a cricket match in a car park in Dubai during weekends and hands out water.

He also plans to back an app, called Mobile Aid, which will enable people to donate money to help people who are struggling.

This is not the first time Mr Mirza has held a menial job. Growing up in Canada, his family struggled to make ends meet. With five brothers, one sister and a father who was a taxi driver, he had a series of part-time jobs throughout college including working at Dunkin’ Donuts and washing dishes in a restaurant. He is very close to his family still and credits his older brother Rocky with encouraging him to take to the streets of Dubai.

To record his experience, Mr Mirza has produced a 45-minute documentary called Streets of Gold, which he hopes will highlight the hard graft undertaken by menial workers. It will be shown for the first time tomorrow.