The Other Expat
When we think of an expat, we usually think of the typical white-collar Westerner moving abroad for work. Mariam Ottimofiore attempts to show you the voices, struggles and challenges of the “other” expats in Dubai: the Pakistani gardener, the Indian construction worker, the Bangladeshi cab driver and the Filipino maid, and what expat life means for them.
Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 26, Winter 2017
He comes in my garden and starts working without saying a word. His routine is always the same: first the leaf blower, then the rake, and finally he waters the grass and plants. Sometimes he rings my doorbell after finishing his work and asks for some cold water. It’s usually then that we have a chat in our native tongue, Urdu. I enquire about his family back home in Pakistan. He tells me his wife is very sick, but he cannot afford to go back home. His children are doing well in school, but the money he sends every month is barely covering their rising education costs.
We both agree, being an expat and feeling homesick is hard. Being away from our loved ones in times of need is even harder. I realize we have so much in common, and yet we are worlds apart. His expat life does not come with the added bonus of bringing his family overseas as mine does, or learning a new language, or being able to travel.
For him expat life is not a choice; it’s a matter of pure survival.
His voice and experience are not unique. In the United Arab Emirates, unless you belong to the small 11% of local Emiratis, you are an expat. Many of Dubai’s activities, attractions, nightlife, etc. cater to the traditional expat: the German executive who moves from Munich with his family or the British economist who moves to work in the shipping industry. Expat magazines, expat forums and expat groups are all catered towards these expats. But what about the “other” expats? The gardeners, construction workers, laborers, taxi drivers and maids who come to work in Dubai are usually from poor economic backgrounds and developing countries.
According to Gulf Business, 53% of the entire UAE population are South Asians, some of whom earn as little as AED700 (USD 190) a month. This is a far cry from the average salary of a Western expat in the Gulf, which in 2013 was more than 12,000 USD per month.
With such vast economic differences, it’s no wonder that our expat lives have similarities, but major differences too. So what motivates many South Asian workers to leave their homes to go work abroad?
Choudhry, the Bangladeshi cab driver, tells me in Urdu: “We earn much more here than in our home country. Sure, life is tougher here, but I’d rather be here than be unemployed back in Dhaka.”
His sentiments are echoed by the Indian construction workers I chat to, who are building a roundabout in my community. Srinath, from Bangalore, tells me in Hindi: “Our biggest challenge is to work outside all day, in the soaring heat. It’s not easy, especially in the summer. Our living conditions are cramped; sometimes we are 20 men sharing one room and one bathroom. We miss the comforts of home. But still, it’s better to work in the UAE. At least this way we can support our families back home.”
Maryanne, a Filipino maid, tells me she misses life in the Philippines and that it has taken her time to adjust to a new culture. She reminisces: “I wish I had more time to explore this country and travel. But work is my number one priority.” Her husband is the “trailing spouse” who stayed behind in Manila to care for her two sons. She spends a lot of time on Skype, since visits back home are rare.
So what do traditional expats think of the “other” expats? Do the two ever mix? Or do they exist in two different worlds?
It’s a question I asked American expat Stephanie Sutherland, the founder of the social group Dubai Mums Helping Hands, which works towards supporting the labor community in Dubai. Their Free-Food Friday initiative sees volunteers and many expats who line up to distribute fruits and vegetables to labor camps to encourage healthy eating and nutrition. When I joined her and her hardworking group of volunteers, I realized these initiatives are vital towards bringing traditional expats and the “other” expats together, and to instill a joint sense of community by providing the chance for some direct interaction.
As Stephanie explained: “Since starting in 2014, we have helped tens of thousands of workers. It is our goal to show gratitude and create a connection between us. Most of the workers are supporting large families in their home country and the education of their children, so we bring our family to them, knowing the pain they must feel not being amongst their own.”
Across Dubai, there are several such initiatives. The expat-run company IT at Home refurbishes and reconditions laptops and smartphones, and gifts them to workers so they can be in touch with their families. The Ramadan Fridge project saw hundreds of expats stocking up fridges placed in different communities with drinks and food for the laborers to help break their fast. The Shukran initiative screens free film nights for workers so they can enjoy a night out.
As Stephanie explained: “You don’t have to go far to find someone who would be grateful for a smile and a cold bottle of water. It’s small acts of kindness that propel expats to act locally and think globally. A community isn’t a community until everyone is included.”
This seems to be the key for having a more fulfilling overseas experience – to recognize that all of us living away from home share a common bond. We may not call the gardeners, laborers, construction workers or maids “expats” – but at the end of the day, that’s exactly who they are. They have chosen a temporary life away from their home countries for economic reasons, just like most of us “traditional” expats, with the added hardship of being separated from their immediate loved ones. While in many ways they may appear much less fortunate, they are hard-working, diligent and proud to be working and supporting their families. They deal with homesickness, culture shock, transitional pain and all those other feelings familiar to expats in much the same way. They have chosen this life not for all but many of the same reasons we have: better opportunities, better prospects, better pay, and offering a better life to our children.
[Photography courtesy of Mariam Ottimofiore]
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