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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Portrait of a Nation: Fleeing abusive employer sparked Filipina's journey to becoming a master of Emirati cakes

Charlene Alfonzo brought the Emirati snack into the public domain long before Emirati cafeterias became ubiquitous

Charlene Alfonzo works at the craft shop next to Asayel Café in Ras Al Khaimah. Pawan Singh / The National 
Charlene Alfonzo works at the craft shop next to Asayel Café in Ras Al Khaimah. Pawan Singh / The National 

For nearly 20 years, Asayel King of Juices has been the place to go in Ras Al Khaimah for khanfaroosh.

But few people know that the woman who helped to popularise the Emirati saffron cakes is a former domestic worker from the Philippines, Charlene Alfonzo.

Her khanfaroosh recipe made Asayel one of the most popular Old RAK Corniche eateries and brought the Emirati snack into the public domain long before Emirati cafeterias became ubiquitous.

“I am very famous for khanfaroosh,” says Ms Alfonzo, 44, who now works in the craft shop next door to Asayel. “We have a secret recipe and a lot of our customers ask for it but our boss told me not tell. That recipe is just for my me and my sister.”

Khanfaroosh: an Emirati saffron cake
Khanfaroosh: an Emirati saffron cake

Ms Alfonzo came to the UAE in 1993 as a teenager from a village on Mindanoa island to support her mother, three sisters and three brothers.

“I was young, maybe 14 or 16 but the agency changed my age,” she says. “I wanted to work. We were poor. We don’t have a father. That’s why I came here to work in the UAE. It was my idea because I saw a lot of people come, make a lot of money and they said abroad was a nice place.”

She had heard of violence experienced by domestic workers but wanted to travel nonetheless.

Her experience with her first family in Al Rams, Ras Al Khaimah was positive. When she changed employers and moved to a different emirate, life got more difficult. “I had one year without salary, without food.”

Her employer did not pay her wages. She often felt hungry. Instead of being given a private room with a door, she slept on a mattress in a hall with the family’s cat. “If I [kneeled] in prayer, there was so much cat hair.”

She fled twice. The first time she took a taxi to her agency. They returned her to the employer. The second time, she told her employer that if they tried to stop her, she would seek help from the Filipino embassy. They agreed to let her leave.

She stayed with a friend in Ras Al Khaimah and walked door to door in the local market, asking for work. There, she met her current employer. He gave her work as a sales clerk in a shop before they opened the Asayel King of Juices cafeteria about 18 years ago.

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Business did not initially go well. Other employees slept on the job and they often would make only Dh50 a day. But they moved location to the Old Corniche and Ms Alfonzo’s sponsor taught her how to make luqaimat dumplings, thin regag and khameer bread, chebab pancakes, balaleet noodles and khanfaroosh cakes.

Ms Alfonzo perfected the recipes and was the first to sell the Emirati snacks the Old Town became famous for. Asayel now employs a staff of about 10. Three of her sisters, her brother and a cousin have all followed her to the UAE.

“I’ve been here since I was young,” says Alfonzo. “It changed my life. Now I have a house in the Philipines, I took my mother to Saudi to do the Hajj and we eat well.”

Her siblings cannot imagine what would have happened if their eldest sister had not left the Philippines. “Maybe we would have nothing,” says her sister, Darwaiza Dialawe, 35, a school bus warden in Ras Al Khaimah. “Mashallah, she’s very strong.”

However, creating a life outside the country has held other challenges. Ms Alfonzo’s daughter was born with omphalocele, a condition where her liver was exposed outside the body because of a hole in the belly button.

The 2-year-old has had four operations and her medical bills total Dh110,000. The hospital will not issue a birth certificate until the bill is paid.

“Until now she doesn’t have a passport, she doesn’t have a visa,” says Ms Alfonzo.

Prospective workers must have courage, she says. “I would advise them first to trust God and second, they should be brave. They must be strong persons who are not afraid of anything.

“I work hard, hard, hard but I’ve had so many bad experiences. Nobody has helped me. That’s why my faith is very strong.”