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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 14 August 2018

Domestic workers who take care of our families and homes are 'silent heroes' 

I learnt countless lessons from Teresa, who was our live-in housekeeper when I was growing up in Abu Dhabi

A domestic worker takes a child out for a stroll in the Nad Al Sheba neighborhood in Dubai: this week, columnist Saeed Saeed discusses how the people who work in our homes should be treated with the utmost respect. Amy Leang / The National
A domestic worker takes a child out for a stroll in the Nad Al Sheba neighborhood in Dubai: this week, columnist Saeed Saeed discusses how the people who work in our homes should be treated with the utmost respect. Amy Leang / The National

When I read stories about domestic workers facing struggles, it triggers a deep-seated memory in me from when I was six years old and my family lived in an apartment on Airport Road.

Once, during the school holidays, I woke up to find our live-in housekeeper Teresa subdued. Her usual perky demeanour had been replaced with a forced smile. As she watched me eat my cereal she confessed that it was her mother’s birthday.

“Where is she?” I asked innocently. “Philippines,” she replied. “I will call her later. I miss her.” And that was that. A few moments later she was back to her usual jovial self.

This memory came back to haunt me this week as I read testimonies in The National from domestic workers who had turned to the UAE’s new visa amnesty after overstaying or absconding from their employers.

These stories, which included one from a woman who had worked as many as 17 hours a day, were heart-wrenching and made me wonder: how can people treat those who work in their home with such a lack of humanity?

These residents should be treated well, and are even sometimes viewed as part of a family. That was the way it was during my childhood. The domestic workers in my house looked after me and my siblings. To me, they were the silent heroes who afforded my hard-working parents time to relax, and they provided us kids with the extra parental attention we craved.

The personal lessons I gleaned from Teresa and her colleagues were invaluable, too. They gifted me with an appreciation of how the world is a multicultural place and that various religions can coexist.

This knowledge held me in good stead when we relocated to Australia when I was nine – I was thrust into an eclectic population with varying faiths, but Melbourne didn’t seem strange at all, and the fact that there were churches in our neighbourhood didn’t shock me. After all, church was where Teresa went every Sunday, no big deal, right?

Despite the powerful stories in the pages of The National this week, I take comfort in the fact that outdated perceptions are changing. This was most notable with regard to the response to comments made by Kuwaiti blogger Sondos Al Qattan.

She was widely – and rightly – condemned for lamenting how Filipino workers in her country now have the right to keep their own passports and have a day off. In my social circle, friends and colleagues treat those around them with kindness and empathy – as everyone should.

Perhaps there is another reason my memory of Teresa hit me hard this week. It might be 30 years on, and I may be in relatively the same position my parents were – I am working abroad to build a better future, but I too have sad mornings when I miss my mum. It took me a while, Teresa, but I get it. Thank you for playing your part in making me who I am.

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Read more from Saeed:

Part-time work in the UAE: What working at a video store when I was 15 taught me about life

The WhatsApp council of candid friends that keeps me grounded

Chinese soaps on TV dubbed into Arabic? Bring it on

With the World Cup about to end, the UAE summer is really about to beg

Soundtrack your relationships through a playlist

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