x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Expats leave as school term ends

Some Dubai schools report one in 10 pupils leaving, which could rise as low registration fees mean some may not formally withdraw.

Dawn Petrella, right, and her daughter Monica are packing up to move back to Florida.
Dawn Petrella, right, and her daughter Monica are packing up to move back to Florida.

DUBAI // Dawn Petrella surveys the debris of her life, dismantled, bubble-wrapped and packed into dozens of neat cardboard boxes. "When I moved here, the sky was the limit," she says. "What a difference a year makes."

As she carefully stows decorations, books and odds and ends - soon to be unpacked more than 12,000 kilometres away in her native Florida - and desperately tries to sell unwanted furniture, she reflects on the enormity of a move she did not anticipate making this soon. Ms Petrella is not alone. Like thousands of other parents, she moved to the UAE in a spirit of optimism, at a time when the economy and industry were still booming.

But like numerous other expatriates with families she is part of an exodus of people - no one knows exactly how many since there are no official figures - leaving behind their lives in the sun this summer because of the credit crunch, which has triggered waves of job cuts. Only the importance of allowing their children to finish the school year has kept them here until now - but with term officially over, the coming weeks will see thousands packing their bags for good.

Ms Petrella, 49, was supposed to leave the Emirates in December to return to the US headquarters of her marine engineering firm when it first felt the financial pinch. Instead, she hung on so her 17-year-old daughter Monica could complete her year at Emirates International School. Although her firm, US-based Applied Technology and Management, has laid off roughly half its 25-strong Dubai workforce, many of the employees with families were given leeway to see out the school year or offered loans to help cover their rent until the summer.

Ms Petrella, the firm's chief financial officer, moved to Dubai in August last year, expecting to stay at least a year to help set up the company's operation in a country where marina development was flourishing. By December, circumstances had changed dramatically. "We made a decision because of the collapse of the economy and the expense of being in Dubai that it would be best to go back home," she says.

"When I took office, the sky was the limit and Dubai was the important place to be. We could not hire people fast enough. "Now we have lost more than half our workforce, including people who had children in schools. It is so disruptive taking them out of school in the middle of a year that many have waited until now. "I would have left sooner, probably in December, but waited another six months so Monica could finish her year."

The exodus has left her company with another problem: how to off-load the rented apartments and furniture provided for its staff. While Ms Petrella was able to negotiate a Dh42,000 (US$11,430) discount on her Dh350,000 four-bedroom apartment in Dubai Marina in March, at least two of the paid-for company apartments, vacated by staff who were made redundant, are sitting empty because alternative tenants cannot be found.

And the executive's attempts to get rid of her unwanted furniture before she leaves the country on Monday have failed miserably. "Because everyone is leaving and no one is coming in, I am going to end up donating my furniture to the church," she says. "My company paid for furniture but because no one is replacing us, we need to get rid of it. Since advertising it, I have had one phone call from a person who did not show up.

"In one of the company apartments, I have got furniture worth Dh30,000 and custom-made drapery worth Dh9,000. I have them marked at 50 per cent off but I am just not selling it." The UAE has been bracing itself for a significant fall in population. A report from the investment bank UBS said up to eight per cent of Dubai residents could leave this year. The Pakistani Embassy said up to 30,000 nationals were thought to have returned to their homeland, mainly labourers made redundant by the stalling of construction projects, while one travel firm, Alpha Travel and Tours, said it had made 3,000 one-way bookings to India and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Philippines Business Group in Dubai reported that up to 4,000 of the 320,000 Filipinos in the UAE had left. Elias Sayah, the vice president of the American Business Group in Abu Dhabi, said he knew of 200 families who were planning to leave once schools closed. "They had their contracts terminated and decided to leave but wanted to limit the disruption to their children," he said. "Some are leaving on the same day as schools close. Another factor is the increase in the cost of living. It is making the UAE a less attractive place to live."

Some schools, such as the Universal American School and The Philippine School in Dubai, as well as Deira International School, have seen up to one in 10 pupils leaving. Others reported "better than expected" new registrations - but warned it may not become apparent until September how many will actually take them up as a negligible deposit of Dh500 is enough to reserve a place until then under rules set down by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority.

When Shahenda Abdelbar, 40, and her husband Zhia Ghanem, 47, lost their jobs they did everything in their power to remain in Dubai to minimise the disruption to their children's education. Shortly after Ms Abdelbar lost her post as head of human resources and training at Empost last October, her husband's property company collapsed. They went from earning Dh30,000 each a month to having to live off their savings. As they hunted for new jobs, Ms Abdelbar was even forced to sell her gold wedding jewellery for Dh15,000 and a Dh22,000 Volkswagen Golf bought four years earlier, for just Dh3,000.

"It has been very stressful," said the mother of two, who waited until her son Shazi, 11, and daughter Sarah, nine, finished their school term before returning to her native Tunisia last month, after 18 years in Dubai. "We did not want to disrupt their education, plus we had paid each of their Dh33,000 annual school fees and our Dh75,000 rent until the summer. We would have lost that money if we left earlier."

* Additional reporting by Tom Spender and Charlie Hamilton tyaqoob@thenational.ae