x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

How Eman came home in the land of her birth

At an emotional ceremony earlier this month, one young woman finally achieved her dream of Emirati citizenship and her place in a country she has always called home.

The day after the ceremony, Eman Ahmed says that her younger brother was asked by his university lecturers why he had missed a day of college. He replied simply: "The Government asked for me."

Watched by her family, Eman, a 25-year-old student at Zayed University, this month became one of the first 53 children of Emirati mothers married to foreign fathers to be formally given UAE citizenship.

She recalls the "great news" when Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, issued the decree in December that would allow her at last to become an Emirati. "I can still remember being congratulated by all the family and friends," she says. "It was the same day as Zayed University's National Day celebration and our joy was greater and greater."

Eman, whose father comes from another Arab country, says: "Both my parents were thrilled. My mother was always worrying what would become of us if anything happened to her. Where would we go? Especially as we knew no other home. What would become of our future, and jobs? How would my elder brother establish a house and get married? How would he get married? She had many worries, but after the decision, I think she became content."

Eman says the Government officials involved in processing her citizenship papers were "extremely polite, helpful, and very kind. They comforted us and exactly told us what to bring and where to wait. They treated us very well, and made us feel that we were their highest priority".

She has particular praise for her caseworker, Muaath Al Nagbi.

"He would call us even if it was late at night if any paperwork was missing, arrange an appointment early in the morning and give us so much comfort. It was as if he was doing it for himself. For a month and a half, he never hesitated to answer any question we had and was patient with us."

Eman says that even before the change in the law, she and the other children of foreign fathers still enjoyed rights such as free education and health care "and for that we were thankful".

Still, it was clear that they were not Emiratis. She was unhappy when the health authority issued her with a different coloured medical card to citizens.

Further education was another problem. Until Zayed University agreed two years ago to accept non-locals, she feared being excluding from state universities. "Before, we only had the option of private universities," she says. "And not everyone could afford it."

Waiting for citizenship, she remembers, was "like our future was on hold. We were waiting day after day. It was a dream to have the name of the UAE on our passports".

"It was only the official papers that remained, because in our heart and souls we were [Emirati] since the days when we opened our eyes in this land.

"Every Ramadan, Eid, and National Day we waited," she says of the citizenship decree. There were rumours that a change in the law was coming. "Some people said it was impossible, others gave us comfort and belief that it was coming."

Such an important milestone in her life, will not change her, Eman insists. "A person who changes is a person who moves from one state to another.

"We didn't. We grew up with the Emirates. It is our land and this is what we know. Logically, how can you feel a sense of belonging to a country that you have never lived in, that you never visited; a nationality that never gave you anything and you are only attached to because the paperwork says so?"

At university, Eman sometimes considered entering international competitions but always decided against it because "I always thought to myself where this success will go and under whose name? It will be attributed to another country, although the Emirates is the one who deserves it, because she raised me, educated me, and supported me to succeed".

"To me and my brothers the UAE is our motherland because it is the place that provided us with a decent life, health and schools and a home."

Despite living in Abu Dhabi all her life, Eman says being categorised as a foreigner created difficulties in her family, something which has now been put right. "Half of us were citizens and the other half were children of citizens. As children, we were teased a lot by our cousins and we were hurt."

One of the questions she asked herself was why foreign women married to Emirati men were given citizenship, especially those from overseas who knew little or nothing about the UAE. "Why is a random lady with a random nationality entitled to a passport … and we who were born and lived here all our lives are not?"

The day of the ceremony, hosted by the Ministry of the Interior, when she finally became an Emirati, "felt like a wedding", Eman says.

"I will never forget their speech when they said, 'We are happy for you to get this, and happy for you to be among the Emirati society'. They made us feel welcome. We swore to God to be loyal to the Emirates and the President and to serve them. It's an honour and a responsibility."

Eman says she wants to personally thank Sheikh Khalifa because "it was only because of Allah's will and his decision that this has taken place. Many doors are now open for, and it is up to us now to prove to them that the trust they put in us will not go to waste".

balhashemi@thenational.ae