ABU DHABI // After 20 years in the UAE, Ulhas Vazhappilly fears that he and his family may have to return to India if his daughter is to have an education this year. Mr Vazhappilly, an oil worker, said he had to consider going back if he could not find a place for 15-year-old Sisira within the coming days.
He and other parents are frantically searching for places for hundreds, possibly thousands, of Indian pupils in Abu Dhabi who are without a school, with their new academic year due to start on Sunday. Despite measures announced at the weekend that supposedly created more than 1,000 new places, Mr Vazhappilly, who also has a son and daughter aged eight and nine, finds himself in a dilemma. Some parents are keeping their children here, at the risk of missing out on a year of education. Others are sending their children back to India, where the school year starts in June, leaving their long-time homes and friends in the capital.
All cling to a fading hope of a breakthrough. "Next week, school is starting and there is no information whatsoever. I don't know where to go," Mr Vazhappilly said. He has ruled out sending Sisira home alone. "She is a grown-up girl and we cannot send her alone back to India," he said. "We are in the village and she would have to go study in town. Only my mother is there and she cannot take care of my daughter."
The family is exploring the possibility of Sisira going to school in Dubai, but it does not appeal. Mr Vazhappilly said: "It is tiring [to commute] and you don't have the peace of mind, working there 10 to 11 hours and coming back, and you can imagine how much money the transport costs - and she's a girl." The population growth in Abu Dhabi had caught the authorities by surprise, said Mr Vazhappilly.
"They think it is temporary. They think it is only an intermittent surge because of people moving in from Dubai. It is not really the case." Last Saturday, the Abu Dhabi Education Council said it was implementing short- and long-term solutions, such as expanding class sizes, slowing the phasing out of villa schools that are due to close, and allowing the use of old government school buildings. But that is little consolation to many parents.
"Why are they keeping it to the last minute?" said Mr Vazhappilly. "Give some peace to the parents. We have nothing else to talk about except this." Murali Aravind, who has a 14-year-old daughter, Divia, said: "We thought something would happen, but time is running out." Mr Aravind, an insurance manager, said Divia had applied to all schools with a Grade 11 class unsuccessfully, despite her high scores in mathematics and English. "I'll have to send her back to India," he said. "It's very painful. She has had all her education here since kindergarten."
Such a solution leaves him uneasy and Mr Aravind, who also has an eight-year-old son, may send his whole family back. "I can't have my daughter alone. It's a very worrying situation. All the family's life would be disturbed." Some children may have to skip an entire year of their education. AK Sadik, who runs a chemical trading company in Abu Dhabi, will not send his five-year-old son back to India. "I can't send him there, he's a small child," he said.
Mr Sadik said he hoped the Government would allow some schools to run evening classes that could accommodate his son. Dr Natasha Ridge, a researcher at the Dubai School of Government, said the shortage of classroom spaces could affect not only the children, but their families and society. Students who missed a year of school were "missing out on content", in addition to the "social aspect of school" in which they left the house and socialised with friends.
It also raised the question of how they would spend unsupervised time when their parents were at work, and they might feel neglected by society, said Dr Ridge. Parents who sent their children back home could be placing an additional burden on extended family, while parents here would be "less focused at work, constantly want to call home and taking more time off", she said. If families chose to relocate, the UAE would lose many "middle-tier professionals" with expertise and knowledge about the country, and raised the question of whether enough attention was being paid to families who had "clearly invested in the UAE", said Dr Ridge. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org