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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

After 22 years living in the shadows, woman finally gets passport

Sri Lankan mother has had to teach children at home and is facing mounting debts after husband abandoned family and took her passport

Azliya, (right), with one of her teenage daughters SS at her home in Dubai, is hoping to finally legalise her status in the UAE. Pawan Singh / The National
Azliya, (right), with one of her teenage daughters SS at her home in Dubai, is hoping to finally legalise her status in the UAE. Pawan Singh / The National

A Sri Lankan woman who has lived in the UAE without legal documents for 22 years has finally obtained a passport - as the extension of the visa amnesty gives her fresh hope of keeping her family together in the country.

Azliya, who did not want to give her full name, has been forced to live in the shadows with her four children, aged between 13 and 20, who have never had passports or identification papers despite all being born in the country.

Azliya's husband took her passport to use as security with a moneylender back in 1996, before fleeing the country to Kerala to escape creditors in 2005.

Azliya had to pick up the pieces for her fractured family - left with her husband's crippling debts, mounting loans of her own and the constant fear their illegal status would be uncovered.

In order to keep her family afloat, she worked as a home tutor for children in Jumeirah, Dubai, an area where she shared a villa with other families.

“I must keep working for my children and to survive,” said Azliya.

“Sometimes I think it’s better my husband is not here because he created our financial problems. He kept my passport with a moneylender so he could borrow money. He sold my jewellery, took everything.

“After he left, he never called to find out about the girls. People would come to the door asking for his money. I had to insist it was not my debt. I had to be strong for my children.

“I was scared, always scared that someone would ask for my papers. I could not send my children to school but I taught them at home. We lived a decent, respectable life.”

While Azliya has worked tirelessly to ensure her children have had some education by teaching them at home, their health continues to be a major concern for her.

One of her children needs medical attention for recurring pain due to kidney stones while another has discovered a lump on her chest. A third suffers debilitating anaemia.

Her children were vaccinated when younger and have been for medical check-ups. But since the emirates identity card became mandatory two years ago, they have been unable to book appointments with doctors.

The family’s illegal status was uncovered last year when an anonymous tip to the child protection services department brought police and government social welfare officials to her door.

Azliya, 46, finally received her passport on Monday, a day before the UAE amnesty visa scheme was extended, after receiving support from the Sri Lankan consulate to finalise her status in the country.

She has begun the process of applying for a six-month visa and aims to find a sponsor and a job as soon as possible.

She has also been asked by immigration authorities to submit a statement about her daughters.

Despite the amnesty extension, Azliya worries there may not be enough time left for her children since they still have no identity papers. She could only begin their legalisation procedure after getting her own passport.

George Hettiaratchy, who works with the Sri Lankan Welfare Association, has worked with consular officials to help the family.

“This case will have to be approached on a humanitarian basis," he said. "It is a very complicated case because they stayed here illegally for all these years. It will take time because they have no identity proof."

The family is also deep in debt after struggling to pay their rent.

Income from Azlyia’s tuitions dried up when they were forced to moved to an apartment in Al Quoz where few families with children required teaching.

She paid her rent by asking relatives for loans, then borrowed more money from money lenders when credit from the family ran out.

A note from a sketchbook of one of Azliya's daughters, showing her love for a life in Dubai she does not want to lose. Pawan Singh / The National
A note from a sketchbook of one of Azliya's daughters, showing her love for a life in Dubai she does not want to lose. Pawan Singh / The National

Under UAE law, if a complaint is made against parents for not sending their children to school, authorities are entitled to investigate.

The family was interviewed and Azliya was advised to obtain birth certificates and identity documents for the girls.

“I explained that I was not abusing my children by keeping them home. I told them my story. They guided me, said I should get birth certificates made for the girls.”

Today, Azliya's apartment is filled with furniture donated by families of children she has helped teach. Items include sofas, a bunk bed, a television and maths and English textbooks.

Her daughters have largely kept to themselves to avoid any questions about why they were not in school. They can read, write, speak English, Hindi, Malayalam, understand Arabic and have been taught math.

As children they followed a schedule of studying during the day and playing outdoors in the evening.

They have never been out of the UAE, only making a few short trips to Al Ain and Ras Al Khaimah when they had the funds.

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Read more:

UAE visa amnesty proves a lifeline for homesick family

Couple kept captive by rogue employment agent return home to Sri Lanka after UAE visa reprieve

Hundreds turn out as UAE's three-month visa amnesty begins

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“From childhood I saw my mum suffering," said Azliya's 19-year-old daughter, who did not want to give her name.

"I have seen how my father used to beat her. He would drink a lot. He would beat us also.

“Yes, we would have liked to go to school. But we never asked why because we have seen the bad things she has been through.”

Now the daughters are able to pitch in to help. The eldest bakes layered vanilla sponge cakes with cream icing in the shape of Barbie dolls, Minions and footballs for anniversaries and birthdays.

The family has also approached the Indian consulate as the girls want to find out if they are eligible for Indian citizenship because their father is Indian.

Consular officials said it could take months to obtain new passports for people with no identity papers who have never lived in Sri Lanka.

With Dh65,000 in loans, Azliya hopes a good Samaritan will come forward to rescue the family just as officials and volunteers helped legalise her status.

“There is a lot of tension because of the money I owe to pay rent and electricity bills," she said. "I explain to my children that this is our fate now.

"I feel I am in the same state like years ago when my husband left. But my children have a positive mind and tell me that I must too. I can work hard. I believe the future will be different.”