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Indian labourers see rewards of life in UAE back at home

The 2.2 million Indians living in the UAE send home about $15 billion every year and often return to start new and prosperous lives. Samanth Subramanian reports from New Delhi.

NEW DELHI // When Ahmed Arif first left his village of Gambhirban, in 1994, his ambitions were simple: to work in the UAE so that his parents and four siblings would not starve.

After nearly a decade, in 2005, he returned to Gambhirban, located in Uttar Pradesh, and opened a novelty shop that sees roaring business. Today, he marvels at that 19-year-old version of himself that first left home.

“I didn’t know that I could build an entire life for myself out of my work there,” Mr Arif said. “That I could earn enough to not only send my brothers and sisters to school but even to buy this shop.”

Mr Arif’s story is not uncommon. Each year the 2.2 million Indians living in the UAE send home about $15 billion (Dh55 billion), making up more than a fifth of India’s received remittances of roughly $70 billion annually.

In Dubai, Mr Arif worked as a carpenter and a mason, securing spots on work crews through his brother, who had moved there before him. “It was hard work, because you had to learn a lot quickly,” Mr Arif said. “I learnt to drive. I learnt to fix motors.”

With the money he and his brother sent home, Mr Arif said, his parents were able to fix up their house, buy better food, and even start a savings account.

“When I came home, that account was waiting for me,” he said. “It had around 300,000 rupees [Dh17,700] in it.”

Mr Arif used the money to rent a storefront on Gambhirban’s main road, selling gifts, toys and cosmetics. He knew what to stock, he said, because he had seen so many similar shops in the UAE.

“Many of my customers also have relatives in the UAE, so they have money to buy good products,” Mr Arif said. “This would never have been the case 20 years ago, I think. Nobody had any money at all then.”

Migrant workers, especially in developing countries, provide an essential boost to their local economies back home, said R Mahadevan, a Chennai-based researcher of migration patterns.

“Unquestionably, families back home are better off, and these billions of dollars of remittances improve their way of life in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” Mr Mahadevan said.

In the village of Naganakulam, in the state of Tamil Nadu, Latchumi Vijayan misses her husband every day, but she understands why he choose to take a job in Sharjah.

“There was no work for him here, which is why he left in 2004,” Ms Vijayan said. He only studied until the eighth grade, and when a distant relative suggested that he join a construction crew in the UAE, he jumped at the chance.

Thanks to the money she receives every six months from her husband, Ms Vijayan keeps her children in school and cares for her ailing mother.

“It’s difficult, though, and I wish he would come home soon,” she said. “We miss him.”

It was different for Pial Jayasena, who travelled to Dubai from Colombo, in Sri Lanka, when he was barely 20. He was unmarried, and his parents were not in dire financial straits.

He went to the UAE, he said, out of a sense of adventure, and to see something of the world beyond Sri Lanka.

“I was a young man,” he said with a big grin. “It was exciting.”

When he came back to Colombo in 2009, he had worked overseas for 12 years, first in the UAE and then in Oman. He found employment as a mechanic and then became a chauffeur.

With the money he saved, he bought an autorickshaw upon his return to Colombo — a roomy, parrot-green vehicle with a deck of speakers behind the passenger seat. He plays loud Bollywood music as he drives, having acquired a taste for it from his Indian colleagues in the UAE.

“I liked the UAE, and sometimes I miss it,” he said. “There was such camaraderie among us migrants. We were a big, tight community.”

He could never have been his own boss, as he is now, without the financial independence that his savings from the UAE afforded him.

“I’d have been working for somebody else, toiling away, not being able to pick my daughter up from school or any of that,” he said. “This is a much better life.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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