We’ve all got questions we want to ask about life in Abu Dhabi and one lady is dedicating her time to helping you find the right answers
“I love this city: it’s beautiful and it’s safe,” reflects Freya Jaffar, looking back on her eight years living in the capital.
“When you first arrive, it’s like a big holiday,” she jokes, “but then when you want to find out where to go, or where to find something, you often find a lot of the information out there isn’t the most helpful.
“It’s at that point you can get confused, home feels a little bit further away and you quickly get lost and feel alone with no one to help.”
After moving from the UK to the UAE almost nine years ago and leaving a busy career in fashion behind her, the mother of four faced challenges when arriving in the capital, like many of us do.
Born and raised in London, moving to the UAE was a big change in lifestyle for Freya, and a culture shock most expats can relate to.
Most of all, Freya’s attempts to settle in to her new home were harboured by a lack of readily available information and she struggled to find answers to her most basic questions.
“I found that a lot of the information available online at the time was out of date or if there was a telephone number listed it wasn’t working,” Freya recalls.
“I thought surely there must be some forum where you can get accurate information. There were a few pages out there, but they were full of adverts and that just put me off completely.
“After days and hours of searching, I decided I would just do it myself.”
Frustrated at not being able to get the answers to her questions, from the most simplistic to the more complicated, Freya created a forum where residents of the capital could help each other out.
So it was in 2012 that the Abu Dhabi Q&A Facebook group was created.
Offering impartial advice that’s up to date, free and, importantly, void of adverts, the group closed a gap in the market and quickly took on a life of its own. But in the beginning that wasn’t part of the plan.
“It started with me being a stay-at-home mum going a bit stir crazy and I think it just saved my sanity because suddenly I became very, very busy with the group.
“I began by adding the people I knew in Abu Dhabi and it grew very quickly from there. After 18 months it had crossed ten thousand people.
“I thought we’d maybe max out at about two or three thousand but after a few months I was getting 200 requests to join each day,” Freya recalls. “Even now I get between 3,000 and 3,500 requests a month to join the group.”
“Now it’s more than four years old and we have over 32,000 members.”
Abu Dhabi Q&A has become essential for a huge number of expats in the capital. Whether you’re looking to pick up a specific product, need to ask for directions or whatever else crosses your mind, a horde of helpful members awaits to provide you with answers.
The group has become a buzzing community operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with dozens of questions and hundreds of comments posted every single day.
So how do Freya and her helpful team of administrators – Manzer Qayyum, Sadaf Sharif and Louise Nodger Millington – keep up with the pace?
“I love it to be honest,” Freya confides. “I’m very much a people person and it fits in to my lifestyle. I check in and out all day.”
“I love learning new information and helping people so it pushes all the right buttons for me. I get nothing out of it but it’s good to help people.
“I can’t spend 24 hours a day on it though and when I’m with my family, I turn it off and detach myself from it,” she admits.
“You just need to find the right balance of staying in control while not devoting every second of your time to it and that’s why I’m thankful to have a few administrators who help me keep on top of the page and make sure everything is running smoothly.”
While the group provides a valuable resource to residents at the touch of a button, running it is not without its challenges.
As a melting pot of nationalities, backgrounds, religions and languages, conflict and disagreements are expected, but it’s important that all users remain respectful.
“I think sometimes people forget that you, as the admin, are a person and they treat the group like a paid service,” Freya admits.
“People question you and accuse you but it’s impossible to make everyone happy.
“Because of the social media laws, the mix of languages and cultures, people can sometimes misinterpret the written word and be offended,” she explains.
“I speak Urdu and English, I’m from a British and Pakistani background and I’m a Muslim. I kind of get where all parties are coming from so I’m able to spot things ahead of time so that people aren’t offended by anything.”
As the group continues to be a helpful guide to members, behind the scenes the role of the group founder has evolved and the significance of Freya’s influence has reached new levels.
“I’ve learned a lot about Abu Dhabi from the group. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t share because it’s controversial or very personal,” explains Freya.
“Some things just never make it to the group. I’ve had people ask me to post anonymously on very serious topics such as domestic violence and I’ve had doctors message me privately wanting to help so I’ve connected these people.
“I’ve connected lawyers to individuals in desperate situations and so on. It’s almost like there’s a private group going on behind the scenes.
”There’s the group that we all see and then that private network, addressing issues with often a deeper significance that operates in secrecy.”
Acting as a mediator, Freya can help to privately connect people to solve issues, but it’s a lot of responsibility to have on your shoulders from people you’ve never met, to know the intimate details of a stranger’s private life and their struggles.
“I joke with my friends that sometimes I feel like I’m carrying all the secrets of Abu Dhabi around with me,” she laughs.
“It’s funny, I can see someone out somewhere, and we’ve never met in person before, but I know some intimate information about their private life.
“It’s important to me and to people in the group that I always operate in confidence; I never share details with anyone.
“These people have never met me, and don’t know me but they have trusted me with sensitive information and I want to help them because they’ve got nowhere else to go.
“I feel really honoured actually, being able to do that.
“It’s when this sort of thing happens, and you connect the dots to help solve a problem, you realise the influence the group can have.”
Although she’s built such an influential platform, Freya may not continue as the main administrator forever. There may come a day when she has to hand over the reins, but for the meantime, that’s not a thought that’s crossing her mind.
“I’m still so dedicated to the group. It’s been the most incredible journey and you just don’t know what’s around the corner.
“And to be honest, I can’t wait to find out.”