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Global project gives voice to abused domestic workers

As about 80 Filipinas face severe hardship while they live in hope of returning home, a group of dedicated volunteers is committed to bringing some joy into their lives.

The stash of felt-tip pens, stickers and paints donated by students cost no more than a few dirhams. But to the women who use them to illustrate or write down their innermost thoughts, they represent a lifeline.

Each of the 80-plus Filipinas in a makeshift shelter in Al Bateen, Abu Dhabi, came to the UAE on the promise of work but ran away from employers who they say physically or verbally abused them or left them underpaid, underfed and overworked.

Most of the women were working as housemaids and their only recourse was to escape to the Filipino Workers Resource Centre attached to their country's overseas labour office in the capital.

There, they live under the protection of the Philippine Embassy until enough cash is raised to fly them home. Unable to leave the protected "safe house", as they are liable to be arrested for absconding from work if they venture outside, they live in limbo, waiting for the day they can return to their families.

So a band of volunteers have taken it upon themselves to bring some positivity into their lives. From yoga sessions to henna parties, film nights and games evenings, about 40 volunteers regularly organise activities to lift the women's day from the monotonous cycle of eating and sleeping.

One of the most significant projects they have launched is a journalling scheme to get the women to share their thoughts and feelings. The initiative, part of a worldwide project, aims to give women facing hardship an outlet to express themselves.

Students from New York University Abu Dhabi supplied the stationery and blank notebooks - and soon had pages of handwritten pages returned as the women emptied their hearts. The outpourings will eventually be scanned and appear online.

"These women have often experienced significant emotional stress and trauma," says Pamela Abdalla, who holds weekly yoga classes at the safe house. "Our presence in their lives enables them to begin healing. The most important job we have, well beyond the wonderful work our volunteers do, is to simply let these women know they are not forgotten by their community and that expatriates, locals, diplomatic corps and businesses in Abu Dhabi all work collaboratively on their behalf."

She says the work they do in the Al Bateen refuge - the previous safe house was in the Al Nahyan Camp neighbourhood until last September - is "enormously gratifying and poignant".

"We are able to touch so many lives and that experience is as special for volunteers as we hope it can be for those we serve. Every new volunteer immediately asks: 'When can I come back?'"

A similar scheme operates in Dubai, where an equal number of women are housed by the Philippine Consulate. On average, two women turn up on each doorstep every day; Ramadan is a busy time. At its peak last year, the Abu Dhabi villa housed 240 women, many of whom have been repatriated.

Toiletries are donated by businesses such as the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel. The American Community School in Abu Dhabi runs a weekly programme involving pupils donating fresh fruit. Last Christmas, many gifts were donated so the women would not miss out on celebrations.

Volunteers are also building bookshelves to create a library for hundreds of donated books. The women will appoint managers from among their ranks to supervise as books are borrowed and returned.

Cash donors who contributed more than Dh25,000 earlier this year have also enabled nine women to go home sooner than expected. The long-term hope is to stop the abuse that the women say brings them to the safe house in the first place. Until then, dedicated volunteers do everything in their power to make their lives a little easier.

"It is gratifying to unite various community components to help another human soul," says Abdalla.

To donate toiletries, books, clothes or cash to the Filipina safe house, or to volunteer, e-mail pabdalla5@gmail.com. Donations of secondhand designer handbags are needed for an auction at the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr in October.

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