The Life of an OFW in UAE

Written by Marianne Gonzalez for the #KwentongKababayan Campaign

I remember the brick home our grandparents lived, the boarding-house where I met university students who used to take care of me when my mum and dad was working. I remember playing patintero with the neighbour’s kids and always loosing. I remember all the barangay festivities every year and the amounts of food my mum would cook. I remember all of them but most of all, I still remember the day all my uncles and aunties left to move overseas. I was very young with little understanding what it meant moving across the world. I thought they would come back, only going for a few weeks away, but weeks turned to years and eventually I understood what it meant; they weren’t coming back anytime soon. I accepted the change in the family, but nothing prepared me more than when my uncle, my father’s youngest brother, moved overseas. He was like a second father-figure to me, especially when my own father passed away, he stepped up and became one for me. He even attended my graduation ceremony and placed the medal around my neck on behalf of my parents. I still remember the day and for that, I’m so thankful. 

I had the privilege interviewing my uncle which he chose to be anonymous as his job was government-based. For this interview, I will be calling him ‘Joseph’ to respect his privacy. It has been a few years since I spoke to him over the phone but most especially, it has been years since we had a proper conversation especially since he moved decades ago. My uncle is a stoic man with a sophisticated speech and a sarcastic sense of humour mixed in. My auntie, his wife, was the first one to move to UAE and he followed soon after, so he was able to meet with other OFW in UAE which helped his transition when he first moved. Through UP UAE, an organisation for UP alumni, they were able to help with any new OFW working or moving overseas especially with a change in routine or a new job. In terms of knowing of CMA, he advised no as UP UAE was more popular in their community and was the surest way of meeting other Filipinos in the same position. Additionally, because of their shared interests especially as all of them graduated from UP, they were able to build connections quickly and thus, finding a job easily. 

The interview started with the question, “How has the pandemic impacted your life in terms of social, personal, work and family?”.

“Well like everyone else, in Australia as well and even UAE and all around the world, your social life actually stops for a while especially with the lockdown placed by the government. Here in UAE, we have been stuck inside our home for months with a curfew from 8pm to 6am. I feel those are the impacts on my social life. In terms of work, shifting from working in an office full-time to working only from home. However, your work time increases because of the sudden transition from office to home especially when you wake up, you go straight to your computer, check your emails and start working. Even up to 8pm to 10pm, you’re still working because it is just a continuous part of your workday”. He continued, “then adding on top of those challenges, it creeps up to your personal life as well since you are not going out and because you have nothing else to do then you just work”. 

I followed his answer with a question, “Has this pandemic affected your emotional and mental wellbeing?”.

“No because the lockdown here is a curfew-based lockdown compared to the hard lockdown in the Philippines so I can still go out and buy groceries or go to the office if needed as long as it’s between the non-lockdown period”. 

UAE has been vigilant with the lockdown with one of the many 70 countries who has easily controlled clusters in their community. Although Dubai was still open for air travel, UAE on the other hand still had to do the two weeks quarantine and testing before leaving for UAE and once arrived in the country. My uncle explained that it only took 3 months before everything went back to normal in UAE except for the usual crowds of tourists. Everyone was allowed to continue with their daily lives again. His experiences with the pandemic haven’t changed except for his work and with that, he was thankful that he wasn’t affected by job loss prevalent in some areas of work and countries. Some, he explained, had been affected significantly by the lack of income coming in especially from tourists but overall, the people he knows has not been affected by the lockdown or curfews imposed. 

 When asked about the narrative of ‘cash cows’ and how some see OFW as easy bank, he explained that he had never had to go through it since most of his siblings were also working and living overseas so they took turns helping the family in Philippines. There was never a pressure to send money home and he was not obligated to, but he did especially for his mother who at the time was sick. He also had plans of opening a business with my father prior to his death and had started collecting and buying pieces to sell for their shop but the plan never came into completion. He was closest to my father and his death affected him considerably. 

Although he never felt the pressure from his families in the Philippines, the opportunity to travel and develop skills that can be of benefit if he ever decided to go back to the Philippines was difficult to pass. For some, moving overseas regardless of their financial status, was still an opportunity and having the experiences during that transition was an important factor in our growth as people of society. My auntie was also working as an OFW and so he wanted to be there for his wife as well. In addition, all throughout his adult life, he was surrounded by OFW, thus he’s always had that influence in his life which motivated him to follow as well. His wife’s father was an OFW, two of his older siblings were OFW and most of his friends were too. In my own opinion, although the Philippines has a variety of employment options, moving overseas meant opportunities worthy of stability, financial freedom, medical aid and government support that you may not get in the Philippines. Some may move across the globe to be with their families. For some, it may be an opportunity to raise their children with cultural values that are important in surviving countries like the US or UK. It can also be a learning experience, an opportunity to see the world or perhaps, to enjoy the opportunities given. For my immediate family, my mother and I decided to move for the sake of my education and my future. There are many possible reasons why someone who is financially stable decides to work overseas if it was not needed. For Joseph, there were many reasons but perhaps it was an opportunity he wasn’t willing to say no to. 

We also spoke about the differences in how Filipinos communicate with their OFW families. He explained that back then, before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all social media was popular, it was only through emails, calls or letters. The calls were the most expensive one as a few minutes can cost 20 dollars or more. Comparing to how he communicated with my auntie til now, there are more options to choose so it wouldn’t be as hard to speak with family and friends back home. 

The comparisons between my first interview and my last was significantly different from each other. Perhaps its due to the financial stability itself or the solidity of a job during crisis or maybe it takes time to find stability in a new country. It can also be due to bad timing and with some still be figuring out their place in the world. That’s what happens during a transition of routine and of environment—there is no guessing what happens next. My uncle lived in UAE for decades, so he already has the experience and foundations laid for him and his family whilst on the other hand, Natsu has only moved in 2012. It is still considered a long-time but emotional and financial stability doesn’t come overnight and I believe that it took my uncle more than a lot sacrifice before he could be where he is now. However, it doesn’t excuse Natsu struggles. OFW makes sacrifices worthy of a saint, however their troubles are unacknowledged due to the narrative perceived about them. At the end of the day, we all have one common goal, and that it is to succeed in order to help our loved ones.