The UAE attracts workers from around the world, eager to create a better life for themselves and their families. A new documentary, airing on Thursday night, explores the lives of five of these expatriates, Mitya Underwood reports.
Documentary sheds light on expats in UAE and families they leave behind
Kalam Noor moved from Bangladesh to Dubai in 1989, a newly-married man with a wife many miles away back home.
Kalam, 56, has since built a successful tailoring business and offers employment to men from his home village.
The story of his time in Dubai, where he was later joined by his wife and where two daughters were born, is one of five told tonight in the documentary, A Place Called Home.
The hour-long film commissioned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also publishes The National, was shot this year across five countries.
“We were interested in going behind the normal, top level examination of what it’s like to be an expatriate working in the UAE, and actually going to people’s homes and meeting their families, and going a little bit deeper into their lives,” says director and executive producer John Sammon, of Saluki Media.
“We threw a really wide net. We were looking for people from diverse social, ethnic and national backgrounds, and finally we came up with our core cast of five.
“The reason we chose these people is not because of where they’re from, it’s because they have interesting, amazing and aspirational stories.”
Kalam, from the island of Tarabunia, visits his hometown every four or five months to see family and to help his local community.
His success allows to him to help people financially and in other ways, such as making sure the town has medicine and that poorer families can arrange their daughters’ weddings.
“Kalam is saving the lives of hundreds of people there,” says Sammon.
“He has built schools, he has built mosques. He pays for people’s weddings and helps people to pay their debts. He is an incredible man.”
Like Kalam, Bikram Singh, a crane operator for Arabtec, moved to the Gulf to provide a better future for his family.
Bikram, whose wife and two children remain in the Punjab region of India, earns Dh1,500 a month, most of which he sends home to put his children through an “expensive school”.
His daughter Harpreet is in her final year at school and wants to become a judge.
“I always said I will educate my children,” says Bikram.
“I moved here 16 years ago and I am a zero. I want my children to be something.”
Saluki Media travelled to the homes of the five subjects to meet their families and to see how they handled the absence of husbands or daughters. In one scene, Harpreet tells the crew she wants to be a judge because India has such a high crime rate against women. She hopes to get into one of the country’s most prestigious law schools.
“His entire family live in one room and they can’t afford a refrigerator,” says Sammon.
“So even though they can’t afford a refrigerator, he is putting his daughter through law school.”
The American director made the film with his wife Nancy Saade, the executive producer.
“We were on 23 flights in three-and-a-half weeks,” says Sammon. “It was incredible. We carried an insane amount of equipment around the globe, including a drone.
“In many instances we were certainly the first film crew to come to town. None of the places were tourist destinations, except maybe Belgrade.”
Another character is teaching assistant Evelyn Mayormita, 27, who has been in Dubai for four years. Her story focuses on her daughter Shane-May, 5, who lives with Evelyn’s mother in Pagadian City, in Zamboanga del Sur province, the Philippines.
Her mother, who gets emotional when talking about her daughter’s absence, explains that Evelyn did not have enough money to feed her daughter before she left for the UAE.
She also sends money to her brother when he struggles to find work. Their father died before she left the Philippines.
“I came here to support my family and to save for the future for my daughter,” says Evelyn. “I will stay here until I have enough. I want to pay for her to go to college, so when I have enough to do that I can go home.”
Evelyn, who lives in shared accommodation, works at the Jumeira Baccalaureate School on Al Wasl Road.
“You’re like a mother,” she says of her teaching role. “You need to be patient and to be friendly, and to communicate well. They are the same age as my daughter. She is already 5 and in KG1. I can imagine they are the same and I really miss her very much.”
The film shows Evelyn preparing care packages for her family, including small gifts for Shane-May and an Easter chick made from yellow pompoms.
The other woman in the documentary is Mina Mirasevic, an Etihad cabin crew supervisor. The Serbian, 29, left her parents in Belgrade to move to Abu Dhabi two-and-a-half years ago. She was previously studying international economics but worried about her job prospects.
“I really love my parents and I really love my home, but this is not the life I want,” says Mina.
Her father, an artist and writer, describes his daughter leaving as “an earthquake for my psyche, for my soul”.
“It’s very emotional for me to see this film,” says Mina. “When they interviewed my dad I didn’t want to be present. I am very close to my dad. He doesn’t speak a lot but when he does, it means something.”
While the UAE is sometimes criticised in the West for employing so many men from countries such as India and Bangladesh, Sammon says there are two sides to this argument.
“I think many westerners don’t realise just how different economy of scales can be, and just how far a dollar or a dirham can go in an economy of a different scale,” he says.
“Amounts that look to you and me like paltry amounts can put three people through university in other nations. When looking at the bigger picture it’s important to consider where people are coming from and where the money is going to, and what things cost in those different nations.”
The final subject, Bethi Malesh, moved to Abu Dhabi nine years ago.He works as a rigger on a construction site.
Bethi phones his wife and son – whom he had not met until this month – every two or three days, and relies on videos sent to his phone to watch his son grow.
He is from a small village called Donthapur, in the Dharmapuri district of India. The population is 3,400, but about 800 work in the Gulf, says the village leader.
Bethi thinks working away from home is his only option.
“I came to the Gulf so my son’s life could be different from mine,” he says. “Maybe he can work in a private school and teach. I have to work another four or five years here then I can start farming back home. I want to start farming and stay there.”
Sammon, who spent a decade working in Hollywood before setting up in the UAE, hopes to make more documentaries on other lives in the UAE.
“If you just keep exploring that idea of expats living in the UAE and going to their home countries, it’s a good way for so many cultural stories that we would never otherwise hear,” he says.
“Out of everything I have done in my career I am most proud of this. It was a life-changing experience for my wife and I.”