Filipina domestic worker Jennifer Berzon was deeply touched that her employers treated and accepted her so well. The reason, she decided, was their faith in Islam … and she converted.Bushra Al Hashemi reports
Maid's life changes forever after conversion to Islam in the UAE
Jennifer Berzon is counting the months. In a year she will leave her job as home help for an Emirati family and finally return to her own children and husband in the Philippines.
And to that joyous reunion she will take something in addition to the hugs, kisses and gifts - a new religion.
Jennifer, 31, converted to Islam from Christianity last year, in the middle of Ramadan.
She has already chosen her Muslim name, Salma, and while this is not yet official she plans to change her official papers and passport when she goes home.
She credits her life-changing decision in part to her close relationship with the Abdouli family for whom she works, and the woman of the house, Umm Ahmed, her friend and employer.
Jennifer has spent three years with the family in Al Shamkha, Abu Dhabi. Working together in the kitchen, they spent many hours talking about the small details of life.
"I see a lady with a truthful good heart. I learnt so much from her," she says. "The respect and treatment of the family I was blessed to live among has touched me deeply.
"It led me to wonder about the reason they were all so sweet and genuine to me, even though I was just the maid."
She says it was a blessing from God that she has been among the family. "Life has changed for me forever."
Jennifer says listening to the words of the Quran "mesmerised me. I felt a light enter my heart and soul and staying there. I couldn't resist, tears came to my eyes every time I heard it."
The decision to convert was not easy for her. Her family have found it hard to deal with and are divided in their response.
Her eldest brother, to whom she was closest, has threatened to physically hurt her and says he never wants to see her in a hijab.
Another brother, who lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, is trying to persuade their mother to accept her daughter's choice of faith.
"It was very difficult to take the step," Jennifer admits. "My family now will not accept me. I don't know how I am going to deal with that and face them when I go back."
Fortunately, her husband has supported her decision.
"When I entered Islam and I told my husband and he respected that," Jennifer says.
Under Sharia law, a marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man is not recognised. The husband must also convert.
Jennifer says her employer helped out, explaining the principles of Islam to her husband in a phone call. He recited the shahada with her, in Arabic: "There is no god but God, Mohammed is the messenger of God."
Jennifer is extremely proud of her husband and says it makes her happy that the father of her children realised how important her new faith had become to her.
After entering Islam, she says, he went to the Muslim community in the Philippines to learn more about it.
Mariam Arcena, another Filipina convert, is now a preacher working with converts from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Russia
Living in the UAE for 24 years, Mariam gives lectures on Islam and helps converts in the spiritual but practical areas of their lives, sometimes even helping in their release from prison.
She estimates there are an average of two converts a day from domestic workers.
"There is a lot of growing interest and many have opened their hearts to learn more," Mariam says.
Jennifer says one of the things that moved her closer to Islam was the acceptance and respect for non-Muslims.
"I have found there is more acceptance in Islam and that really surprised me," she says.
The key to her conversion, Jennifer says, is her close relationship from her employer, who treated her with kindness, respect and an equality that affected her deeply.
Umm Ahmed says she is very proud of her helper.
"I always like to talk to her, especially when we are in the kitchen for hours. We are lucky to have her, she is very kind and good with the kids.
"And to me, the greatest gift was her conversion in my house. It made us all, my children too, extremely happy."
This is not the first time a home helper in Umm Ahmed's house has converted. The first time was when she was a newlywed.
Umm Ahmed says Jennifer seemed hesitant at first to talk about her interest in Islam, but "it meant the world to me when she did".
Jennifer says: "I was scared that she would be upset if she knew that I wanted to know more about the religion and wanted to convert".
So she talked to a friend of her employer, who told her Umm Ahmed would be thrilled.
"I sat with my madam and told her what I felt and what I wanted, and she was so happy," Jennifer says.
"Until the end of my life I will always remember my time with this family. I never felt a stranger. Madam is a great friend, a mother, to me and to those around her. I see it.
"Her personality affected me and when I observed closer and listened to her I knew it was because of her religion. And that is why I want to become one of them, and learn what makes her and her family act the way they do.
"Every Ramadan I observed in Abu Dhabi with the family was very meaningful. It made me wonder about the reason of life and the purpose of it."
Ramadan this year is one of the pillars of her new faith. She will go home to the Philippines, she says, with great memories and a religion that has changed her life.
In tears, Jennifer says: "For the first time in my life I felt that maybe this is the right time, in the right home, in the right country that I was meant by God to be in. And for that I am thankful."