January 6, 2010

The Teeny Tiny Apartment

More photos here at least until I can get them on Flickr, which is blocked in the UAE.

January 3, 2010

A Tale of Two

There are two interns who sit across from me at the paper.

One is Bangladeshi and one is Indian. They were both born here and neither is Emirati.

Their parents came here in the 1970s in search of a better life for their families. The grandfather of the Bangladeshi girl came even earlier, and would split time between Abu Dhabi and his home village. Both girls have two countries and none at the same time. Neither has spent any considerable time outside of the UAE, yet it is unlikely they will stay here. Each holds a passport for her ethnic country.

The UAE has no policy to naturalize citizens. It is happy to welcome immigrants to work, and even their families. As long as they leave.

There is a mandatory retirement age of 60 here and it applies whether you are Emirati or not. It is possible, from time to time, to get an extension of perhaps two years. But in the modern world, most people don't retire at 62. And while most anyone is welcome to work here, that's where the hospitality ends. Once a person has no job, that's the end of the line. Thirty days to leave town before the visa expires.

So imagine that you are one of these girls. You have friends and a community here You have attended college here. You would like to find a job, but as all over the world, jobs are a little more scarce than they used to be. You would like to plan your future, but you have no idea where that future will be. You are Emirati, but you're definitely not. Once the fathers of these girls retire, the girls must leave too.

They contemplate their options and try to think of places they could go. They are tourists, strangers really, in their "home" countries. And soon they will not be welcome in their adopted country, the only one they have ever known. There is a two-tier system here even for those who contribute to the society, who helped build it up. There is Emirati and there is not. Two families can live side-by-side, working at the same jobs at the same rate of pay and if you look closely you can see the discrepancies. Until recently, only one could own property. One will have a generous retirement. One will have free schooling for his children. One will have access to a marriage fund. And the other has to leave when the work is done.

Thoughts Get in the Way

I get several good blog ideas every day, but rarely when I actually sit down to write.

In the last few hours alone I've thought about young people who live in the UAE, Indian food, the lifestyles of people here who work very hard and where I might like to vacation. I'm sure I've covered Indian food (and have I mentioned how much I like it?? How and I can't imagine tiring of it?? Oh, yeah. I have). And nobody but me cares where I'd like to go on vacation. So that leaves me to dwell on the other two topics.

In a sense, they're related. So let's see where this takes us.

Most people who come here do so for money. For a job. For a better way of life for themselves or their families. The lucky ones, I suppose, get to bring their families with them. They are certainly in the minority. Most of the people who live here are foreigners; about 85 percent. The idea for so many is to leave their small villages to come here and work very hard and live very frugally and send home as much money as they can. It is not an exaggeration to say that entire towns and villages in the subcontinent are supported by those who work in the Gulf.

We run lots of stories about this. How there are more than 300,000 Filipinos here legally, and another 200,000 maybe not-so-legally. Sixty percent of them are skilled or professional workers, 25 percent are in the service sector and 15 percent are household workers. Our taxi driver and our housekeeper are Filipino.

Works from the subcontinent, though, outnumber all the others. And as bad as their jobs may seem to me, with bad pay and worse conditions, these jobs are better than what they can find at home. And this is something I try to keep in mind. I am far from my friends and family, much the same as they are. But I have Paul with me. And we have a small home, but we are not living six to a bedroom, or 24 to an apartment. The weather here is miserable nine months of the year, but we work in an air-conditioned office. We, too, are trying to save our salaries and send money home. But not like some of these workers.

It is not unusual for an immigrant worker to make around 2000-4000 ($544-1088) dirhams a month. And to send home all but 200 dirhams. We plan to stay for maybe 18 months. These workers plan to stay for many years. To stay long enough to put their children -- whom they rarely see -- through school. To feed their families. To build a home for when they must go back; one big enough for several generations. To provide dowries for their sisters. And when you consider that making $500 a month working six (or seven) days a week with one month off every two years is better than what you can do in your home country, you've got to wonder about the conditions in those home countries.

So this is its own land of opportunity. People come here for their own little slice of the economic pie, no matter how small. And we are all the same, but all different. I try to remember this every day, and I don't always succeed. I try to be grateful for this opportunity and for my good fortune.

It's probably not a bad way to start the year.

(To be continued)