DUBAI // When Huda Ismail came to Dubai from Port Said a little over a year ago, she had few remaining options. Her husband had undergone an operation to remove his left eye and a portion of his vertebra. He could barely see through his right eye, which had a detached retina. He held a nominal job work set aside for people with disabilities as a technician at Nasser Hospital that paid 250 Egyptian pounds (Dh167) a month.
Her eldest son, Waseem, who is eight years old, was born with two holes in his heart. Ms Ismail not only had to come up with money for her children's education, but also her ailing spouse's mounting medical bills and costly surgeries for her son. "I came here because my situation there was difficult," she said. Ms Ismail is staying with her children and a sister-in-law in Hor al Anz, mere walking distance from the private clinic where she works as a nurse for Dh3,600 (US$980) a month.
Her husband remained in Egypt because it would cost too much to pay for his hospital visits and an airline ticket for him to visit his family. The sister-in-law had been working in Dubai and sending back money sporadically before Ms Ismail decided to take matters into her own hands. "I told her if you can take me with you then you've helped me, so I can work and spend on my children." That is just what she did. Shortly after arriving, Ms Ismail enrolled her children, Waseem and Fahd, at the Grammar School in Dubai because she worried that Waseem might get roughed up if he went somewhere with lax discipline.
"I worried that he might get hit in the chest or in his back," she said. "If something happened to him I would suffer for it all my life. It's a private school but it's the cheapest one I could find in Dubai." Though she pays a little over Dh6,000 for her children's school fees every term, including bus fees, she sends home about Dh500 a month in remittances for her husband's doctor visits. She has also sent back 5,000 Egyptian pounds in July for an operation to replace her husband's right eye with a glass one.
"I can't send more than that. I have my own fees to pay," she said. Sending money back home has left her strapped. "In the morning I have breakfast at work, and I'll get [the children] lunch, but in the evening it depends. If I get supper I get it, if not, that's the way it is." But her biggest challenge came when Waseem became increasingly ill from one of the holes in his heart. A cardiologist in Egypt told her the operation would cost 22,000 pounds.
Ms Ismail scraped together some cash from her meagre salary. Her co-workers at the clinic pitched in. She also had to borrow some money. "I borrowed the school fees for this term. My salary for this month and the next will go to repaying that debt." She took the money back to Egypt and witnessed the successful operation last month. Greater difficulties lie ahead. She has to fund a second, more invasive surgery to close the second hole; a much costlier intervention that Waseem's doctor estimates will cost 50,000 pounds. And it needs to be done within a year.
"The doctor told me: 'If your situation improves it would be better for him if you do it early, but if not you can wait for a year'," she said. But for now, she is simply happy to have got by so far, despite having to borrow so much money. "Thank God I was able to do the operation for him. God stood by me." Despite her troubles, Ms Ismail values the independence and opportunities that life in the UAE has brought her.
"I thought I'd come here so I can save up some money and get a house for me [in Port Said]. But even if I do ... I wouldn't be able to live there," she said. "What can 250 pounds do with two children, food and drink, school fees? At least here I have an income. I borrow, and I pay back, but I can live more than I can in Egypt."