ABU DHABI // Just in time for Ramadan, Rhea Nieves has embraced Islam and registered as a Muslim at the Abu Dhabi Sharia Court. The 25-year-old Filipina, who lives in a women's shelter in the capital, made the official move on August 5. "I was enlightened by the beauty of Islam," said Ms Nieves, who arrived in the country in October 2008. "Islam is the right path."
She was introduced to Islam by an Ethiopian housemaid who worked with her for an Emirati employer. "I watched her pray and also read the holy Quran, which had an English translation," she said. She was hesitant, having been born and raised as a Catholic. She attended a Catholic school in Agno, Pangasinan, about 210km north of Manila, and was also a member of a church choir in high school. Last November, she and the Ethiopian maid fled their employer's home. "On that day, while we were cleaning the house, she got really angry and hit us both with a wiper and the cord of an iron," Ms Nieves said. "One time, she even hurled a knife at me. She would often beat me and the Ethiopian maid."
At the women's shelter, the Filipino Workers Resource Centre, in Abu Dhabi, she met many Filipina Muslims. She also visited the home of a female relative in the capital. "The entire family converted to Islam several years ago," Ms Nieves said. "I got to know their way of life as Muslims and how they prayed five times a day." She read books on Islam and listened to discussions between her aunt's family and visitors.
"I asked them why they embraced Islam," she said. "They told me that in Islam, I will find all the answers to my questions." Back at the shelter, Chemjoy Bungcag, 23, showed her a guide to performing Muslim prayers. "I converted to Islam at the Sharia Court last April," Ms Bungcag said. "Last week, Rhea sought my advice whether she should embrace Islam or not. I told her that it was something that she had to decide for herself."
Ms Nieves said she was hesitant. "I was worried that my family back home would not accept me if I changed religion, since my siblings and I were all raised in the Catholic faith," she said. "When the right time comes, I will explain everything to them and let them understand why I chose to convert." Ms Nieves has earned the respect and admiration of others at the shelter born and raised as Muslims in the southern Philippines.
Suaiba Kailani, 27, a Filipina Muslim from Zamboanga City, about 883km south of Manila, praised her for so quickly memorising the five daily prayers. "We're so proud of her," she said. "It would be her first Ramadan as a new Muslim and we look forward to celebrating it with her and the rest of the Muslims here." Another Filipina Muslim, Nadzwa Abdul Fattah, 38, from Basilan, 901km south of Manila, said: "I was in tears last Thursday when she arrived here from the Sharia Court. She's now one of us and she's like a daughter to me."
Of 138 women at the shelter, at least 40 are Muslims, according to Nasser Munder, the labour attaché in Abu Dhabi who is also a Muslim. "We are planning some activities for both Muslims and Christians here for the whole month of Ramadan," he said. "Sadly, we will not be celebrating Ramadan with our families," Mrs Abdul Fattah said. "But we will be fasting and praying together. And we will share a simple iftar and perform the taraweeh prayers at night."