In the eyes of his coworkers at InterContinental Doha The City, Hezron Jeremiah Onyango is an unsung hero.
In the aftermath of last year’s devastating typhoon in the Philippines, the 24-year-old Kenyan expat quietly donated his entire month’s salary to a fundraiser to support the families of the hotel’s employees directly affected by the disaster.
Onyango, a laundry attendant, said he was motivated to help due to his own good fortune in life, namely leaving a troubled Nairobi neighborhood and landing work with an international hotel chain in Qatar.
“I’ve been through hardships and some situations. I needed to do something for my Filipino colleagues,” he told Doha News, after his employer recently shared his story with the media.
For Onyango, who arrived to Qatar in May 2012, each workday comes with a fair degree of routine. He picks up clothes from hotel guests, cleans and irons the garments and exchanges laughter and conversation with his coworkers.
But almost exactly one year ago, Onyango sensed something had changed. One of his normally upbeat colleagues in the laundry department, a man from the Philippines, appeared particularly dour.
“That day was totally different … The expression on his face was frustration and worry,” he recalled.
On Nov. 8, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded – struck the Philippines. More than 7,000 people were killed or went missing in its wake, while thousands more were injured or left homeless.
Many friends and family members of Filipino expats living in Qatar were affected by the storm, leading the country to declare a day of solidarity and sparking several local fundraising efforts.
At the InterContinental, workers were given the option to donate a portion of their monthly salary to help eight hotel employees whose families in the Philippines were directly affected.
When Onyango received the donation form, he quietly pledged QR1,150 (US$316) – his entire pay check.
His payroll supervisor, Hannah Zeta, thought Onyango had made a mistake. After checking with him and confirming the amount, Zeta said she was inspired to increase her own donation.
“I was really moved by his initiative … He’s not directly affected by the typhoon or from (the Philippines), but he felt he had to help,” she said.
In an interview with Doha News at the hotel this week, Onyango explained that he was raised in a Nairobi neighborhood rife with drugs, vandalism and gangs.
He managed to find work at a hotel in Kenya, the Diani Reef Hotel in Mombasa, before passing his resume on to a friend and landing a job at the InterContinental in Qatar two years ago.
He said he considers himself lucky, and felt it was necessary to share his good fortunes with his coworkers affected by the typhoon.
“Whenever you come out of that neighborhood, it’s a positive,” he said. Reflecting on his past and his coworkers’ plight, he said he felt he “just had to (make the donation) for the community.”
While Onyango didn’t tell anyone about his donation, word eventually spread through the hotel.
Kien Arriesgadu is a bellboy at the InterContinental whose family’s home in the Philippine province of Cebu was partially destroyed. Thanks in part to the donations from Onyango and other co-workers, his family is in the process of rebuilding their house.
“Hezron has a huge heart,” Arriesgadu said. “I’m a very thankful to have him as a friend and a colleague. I wish I could say thank you every day for what he’s done for us.”
Late last year, the hotel honored Onyango with its Unsung Hero award for his generosity, positive attitude, strong character and hardworking nature.
“Hezron is the epitome of an unsung hero as he is continually looking for ways to help people yet never calling attention to his good deeds. In fact, we would have never even known about his generous donation if the accounts team hadn’t alerted us,” said hotel general manager Pascal Eggerstedt in a statement.
Late last month, Onyango spent a night in Dubai for the first time and attended the Hotelier Middle East Awards with several colleagues. He was awarded the runner-up award in the Unsung Hero category and was sought out by several executives from the InterContinental Hotels Group who wanted to meet him in person.
Now that he’s back in Doha, Onyango has returned to his regular routine in the laundry department with his normally upbeat outlook.
“I always come to work happy … I’m just happy working here, and happy to be in Qatar.”