Special report: The inspiring story of four migrants looking to create a better life in Dubai
Four migrants share how financial literacy and learning English has helped them get ahead
Millions of workers who come to the UAE plan to buy a small plot of land in their home country, build a house or pay for their childrens education. They come to the UAE with dreams. Not huge ambitions, but modest hopes, and more so for their families back home than themselves. But sometimes along the way they flounder. The fancy restaurants, big shops, latest products and easy credit cards can derail even the best laid plans. Life in the UAE teaches some tough lessons to workers trapped in debt, and it can take more than a decade for them to get back on track. Others in small rooms and labour accommodations turn to people who can help them start a slow transformation to a better life, with drivers, supervisors and office workers attending financial planning classes and ferreting money into savings accounts to enjoy a peaceful retirement or start a new venture at home. Then there are those who set aside time every Friday to learn English and new skills. Spending their one day off a week in a classroom to better themselves and improve their opportunities. Many speak at least two languages, but realise that with more than 150 nationalities in the UAE, English will help them to step up. In simple phrases and halting English, they describe their journey and their aspirations in their own words. Here we tell the stories of a Ugandan woman who started as a bus supervisor but worked her way up to office manager; a Pakistani man who went from being a construction worker to a driver who can carry an English conversation with his boss; an Indian man who earns just Dh2,000 a month but with the help of a financial literacy radio show has managed to buy a small house in his Indian village; and a Filipino who fell into deep debt but through the help of Pinoy Wise managed to work his way out and up in life. All these people make up the fabric of the UAEs workers who have left their families behind because they dream of a better future.
Every Friday afternoon in big dining halls and small rooms tucked within the sprawling labour accommodations in Dubai, drivers, bus attendants and office assistants studiously read aloud paragraphs from English textbooks to better their job prospects. After lunch on their day off, the dining hall in an Al Quoz camp is cleared and workers huddle around wooden carrom boards, the occasional shout echoing across the halls. Oblivious to the nearby clatter, about 30 regulars across the hall pull up white plastic chairs to hear a volunteer teacher explain the work they will cover in a two\-hour reading session. Only a year ago, many in the class were too nervous to speak in front of their peers. Having never spoken in public before, workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Uganda were uneasy speaking in a foreign language. Over time, hesitation gave way to reserved confidence and students began cautiously raising their hands to read out sections of the short stories from the English pages handed to them.
Margaret: her dream is to build a school in Kampala and work with children
Ugandan national Margaret Nabatanzi stands out as an example of how the classes helped shore up her confidence, shape her personality and earn her a promotion at work from bus attendant to office support staff. A relative newcomer to the UAE, Ms Nabatanzi had a meltdown on her first day in her new role when she was overwhelmed at the thought of speaking to senior officers. The first day I cried and my boss was like, You can do this. I had to talk to myself. I thought my powers cant go just like that. This is my chance to be something, so I went back the second day, the third day until I got better. I was scared because I had only worked with students before and never with administration staff. I thought maybe they will be rude to me or maybe they wont like me because of my colour. In Dubai for less than a year, she worked her way up from being a bus attendant to an office messenger and the demands of her new job are challenging. But the native Luganda speaker has learnt that she can handle the pressure. There are people who others fear to approach. Most staff in my category cannot work with them because the administration staff, they are fast speakers, their English is so fast. Im the only one who can handle them. You have to be bold enough to say, Excuse me, what did you say? But they dont like it if 10 times you say excuse me. Her new job requires that she moves between departments with documents that need to be delivered. She is keen to get her friends to join the Friday English class so they too are promoted because she believes everyone should get a chance. Right now Im bold enough to speak what I think and express it without any fear. I used to be so scared. I was the kind of person who would wait for others to speak. I would just shake my head and couldnt speak out. The course has taken me a step ahead, it has really helped me a lot. Describing Ms Nabatanzi as the class star, volunteer teacher Sweety Lulla said making all students confront their fear by addressing the group fostered composure and poise at work. When Margaret joined she was very shy, an introvert, too shaky to come forward and read or take any initiative. But we saw a shift as we continued the sessions because she has a lot of thoughts and ideas. Now she is like a star of our class and she also helps others. While Ms Nabatanzis success has thrilled her family back home, she says most people do not appreciate the power of learning English.
Having completed secondary school in Kampala, she did not have the finances to go to college. My mum is so proud of me because she knows me as a very quiet person. But when she heard I was taking a course in English, she asked what I would do with it. I thought I would at least get a certificate and it may take me somewhere, says the 27\-year old, whose long\-term ambition is to start a school for girls like herself. My dream is to work with children and start up a school. I want everyone to get a chance to be enlightened by education. Now I see education is everything you need, with education you can never fail in life.
Learning has opened up Ms Nabatanzis world. She is grappling with the concept of karma in a book she is reading. In a book, I learnt that what goes around comes around. So now I know that if you do bad, sometime in the future it will come back to you. It is better if someone can do some good not expecting something in return. For me Im so eager. I want to score 100 per cent, so I will put in a lot of effort expecting 100 per cent back. The reading programme Ms Nabatanzi attends is among a handful of regular classes ranging from skill training to English language for workers organised by companies and universities in the UAE. The teachers have witnessed a transformation in their charges and the goals they set for themselves. There is a transition they undergo and we see a confidence boost when they come forward and try to communicate. I have seen the change in them because they were apprehensive about reading in front of everyone in a group, says Ms Lulla, who works with a green energy company but volunteers as a teacher in a reading programme run by non\-government organisation SmartLife.
In its second year, the SmartLife project is conducted in workers accommodation in two Dubai labour accommodations and in a Jumeirah Lake Towers office. About 130 students attend the classes, up from 80 participants from last year. We first made them comfortable by explaining that this was their space to speak, that it was fine to make mistakes. That was the first lesson and then it got easier for them. Once they realised their mistakes would not be scrutinised, they started to open up, they started sharing and became part of the class, Ms Lulla says.
Ishtiaq: hopes more education will help him continue to grow in his job
Another conscientious student studying with SmartLife is Ishtiaq Hussein, who asks teachers to explain words he does not understand and promptly jots down the meaning in his brown book. Fragile, hastily, adversity are a few among hundreds of words carefully written in his notebook. Enclosed within the pages are words to satisfy his thirst for knowledge \- horrified, appropriate, imagine \- which are methodically penned next to potatoes, eggs, coffee, tea and other words he comes across in daily usage. I sometime get words from a newspaper. When my teacher reads a difficult word, I keep it in my diary. The teacher writes it on the board. I ask the meaning and write it down, says Mr Hussein, frowning in concentration to understand words he has copied in English alongside the Urdu meaning. Starting out as a labourer in a construction company 15 years ago, he saved money to take driving lessons and now ferries the senior management team to meetings across the country. His belief that English will open doors runs so deep that he even speaks to his two young sons, ages 8 and 6, in English when he calls home in Lahore, Pakistan.
English is must, Urdu my basic language. I try to 20 per cent use English when talk to my children, he says after a test on a recent Friday when his reading and sentence construction skills were tested in a weekly class he attends. After joining the reading programme in February, he convinced 15 friends to sign on. He now engages senior managers in conversation while he drives to improve his language. My boss is British guy, he is English\-speaking, so I speak English, I try to speak better English, he says. Learning English also helps him find out the locations he will be driving to the next day, so he is aware of the route. His teacher Chalapathi Srinivasan, a volunteer at the SmartLife reading programme, wants Mr Hussein and other students to be self\-assured at work and confident enough to check their childrens schoolbooks when they go back on vacation and chat with teachers about their wards progress. They can stop asking questions like, Have you passed the exam? Instead they can open textbooks and cross the children on some questions. They can go and meet the class teacher because this will change the behaviour to their children, says Mr Srinivasan, director of an insurance company and volunteer teacher. People like Ishtiaq who are dedicated say that they want to go back home and read their childrens schoolbooks. They want their children to know that they know English. Mr Srinivasan began volunteering during the global downturn in 2008 when labourers lost jobs and he, along with friends, pitched in to pay the airfares to get the workers home. My father used to say the biggest thing you can give anybody is education and when we were kids we would take that very lightly. I understand how important it is when I see these students who are very focused and come on their one day off, Friday, to listen to us, Mr Srinivasan says. All the advice on education that Mr Hussein absorbs during the Friday classes, he then passes on to his sons in Pakistan supporting his family with the lessons he is learning. I get chance to learn. I tell our family, no education, no learning, no future. Have education, better job is available for you, he says.
Like most students, he lapses into his native language Hindi to convey important thoughts and ideas. I made sure my children study in an English medium school because without this language there is no option in life, there are no paths that will open up, says the 35\-year\-old. They were excited to know Im also learning English and are happy to speak to me in English on the phone. I feel good. I have explained to my family that for our improvement we have to take all chances and opportunities we get to learn and speak English. Much like Mr Hussein, improving the lot of her family is also crucial for bus attendant Biji Mol. Five years in Dubai have helped her and her husband \- a plumber in Indias Kerala state \- put their eldest son through a masters degree in tourism. Learning to speak English is high up on a list of goals she has set for herself. Before I could not speak English. Now I have improved so much. Before I didnt know what to say to parents or to students. Now I can ask them where their ID cards are and to check their bags. A year of attending the class has given her the courage to pick up the mobile phone and inform parents when a bus is delayed in traffic. English is important. Now I use a mobile phone and tell parents, Please wait, there is traffic on the way, thats why we are late. Ensuring her younger son goes to college is another goal she has set herself, as well as working her way up to the school reception, where she must field parents queries. When poverty stood in the way of her childrens education, Ms Mol \- then a housewife applied for her passport. She knew working overseas would pay her more than a farm job in Mavelikara village in southern India. We are a very poor family. When my son told me he wont study because we have no money, I got a passport made and came here. I was a normal housewife. Now my family is better and my son has finished college. Beyond the aspirations of her children, the 41\-year\-old mother has plans for herself too, which include a second attempt at an exam that she failed 25 years ago. How old you are is no problem, you can try again. I will pass this time. Her determination forces her hand up to answer when a teacher asks the class to explain what they would see if they went to a bank. Along with other students, she then attempts to understand the meaning of the words such as ATM, bank teller, manager and bank balance that have been written on a white board. In another class at the same workers camp, a teacher realises her class do not understand the meaning of the words skinning his knuckles from a passage they have read out. She calls on a student to demonstrate how to change a car tyre.
Amid laughter, a chorus ensues, naming body parts from ankles and knees to elbows until the students discern that the character in the story had grazed his hand. Using a mixture of reading and interactive sessions with everyday examples, the teachers keep the weekly sessions interesting to ensure the students return every Friday, their one day off a week. In the dining hall, the men playing carrom and lounging on maroon couches move outdoors to sip tea and chat in groups along paths between the camps residential quarters. Pakistani school bus driver Dilshad Khan shakes his head at the men. He is focused on attending class with an eye on becoming a supervisor. I tell my friends to come. But they rest, sleep in room, wait outside. It is their decision to come or not. Before I couldnt speak the way I do now. If you dont know, if you dont understand, you cannot progress. I learn more, I grow, I understand, he says. Indian technician Ajesh Chandra faces jibes from co\-workers in Abu Dhabi when they hear he travels by bus or shared taxi all the way to Al Quoz to attend the classes every Friday. The landscaping company where he works transferred him from Dubai to their headquarters in the capital three months ago, but he wouldnt let the distance deter him from attending class. He spends a precious Dh90 every week in taxi fares for the sake of education. It is expensive for me. But to go to bank, to go to doctor, to go to airport, English needed. Now I can 100 per cent fill forms in bank, railway station, electricity office. I feel proud, he says. People make fun of me sometimes. They laugh, they say, Why are you going to Al Quoz? I reply: I am reading, speaking English. Im interested. Im going. I know they are lazy, Im not lazy, I go to class, he says simply. For Shabir Ali Sarkar, who works in a jewellery workshop, speaking clearly on the phone to sales staff and grasping the intricacies of a design are vital to his job. I have to speak to all nationalities so I improved my English\-speaking skills. Sometimes customers need a specific design that needs clear explanation on the phone, the Indian worker says. This realisation that they will drive their own development is perfectly described by Ms Mol when she explains why she regularly attends the classes. English is important. Anywhere you go, speaking English is important. If you know English, you will go up, up, up. If you dont understand English, you are going down, down, down.
Merely wiring money home should not be the only goal of workers, say dedicated volunteers and consular officials who visit workers camps and offices to build other skills that will add value when they return home. Workers also sign up for classes or tune into radio programmes on financial stability that first teach them to break out of the debt trap and then to secure their future. It is easy for workers to lose their way in the glittering, neon\-lit world of the Gulf when they move here from humble villages and towns. Many rack up debt, splurging on expensive electronic gadgets or clothes way beyond monthly salaries of between Dh2,000 and Dh7,000, others send home almost all their wages to pay for house loans and their childrens education. Since they do not save for their retirement, they have little to fall back on when they return after working in the Gulf for 20 years or more. Officials say credit card liabilities remain the No 1 problem affecting workers in the country, although the number of cases has decreased since the 2008 global downturn. We tell them the more credit cards they have, the more difficult it is for them to manage. We see fewer problems now because its not that easy to get credit cards, unlike before, says Ophelia Almenario, labour attach at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi. So while the number of problems regarding credit cards has decreased, this is still the No 1 problem among our overseas workers. Some pay on time, but the problem arises if they get terminated from their job and they dont have a source of income to make the payments.
Albert: doesn't want his children to make the same mistakes he did
This is the story of Albert Sabado who maxed out 13 credit cards by racking up purchases of electronic goods and dining in expensive restaurants. Living way beyond his means landed him in trouble with the law and in debt that he is still paying back 12 years later. The Filipino printing press supervisors debt spiralled to Dh50,0000 with six banks in four years after he first signed on for a card in 2005. He finally paid back Dh27,000 to the last bank in 2015 after borrowing the money, without interest, from friends. Now a sales officer, Mr Sabado still owes Dh8,000 to the friends who helped him clear his major bank debts. The loans I took were not for a house or any project in Manila, it was only for pleasure here. Eating in good hotels, buying stereo, cameras, video cameras, electronics, because I love gadgets. It looked like Im a big man or something. I didnt have a plan. I just experienced how to become rich with the credit cards, Mr Sabado said. He sent home most of his monthly Dh5,000 wages and used about the same amount he earned in overtime to pay credit card fees. Like most defaulters, he did not realise the interest was building up when he did not clear the full amount. That time it was very easy to get 13 cards because with each bank you get two cards at least. I just signed a form and got a credit limit, it was simple, the 52\-year\-old said. His fantasy world began unraveling when disaster struck with the global recession in 2008 during which thousands of workers across the Gulf lost their jobs. Our overtime was much less and sometimes there was no salary for two or three months. Then people started calling, threatening me that I would go to jail if I did not pay back the cards. But what was the use of threatening me because I was not getting my salary? When I got some money, I paid for the cards, but the fees kept coming more and more and I could not pay. Then a bank filed a police case against him when Mr Sabado could no longer make payments and his employer filed an absconding case when he accepted another job offering higher wages. Although the absconding case was later withdrawn, he had hit rock bottom. With three children in the Philippines, he needed to keep sending money home because his family depended on him. Unable to go home for two years after 2006 because of the legal case, he initially did not let his wife know about the trouble he was in. The Abu Dhabi resident reached his lowest point when he was forced to eat only bread after paying Dh1,200 for rent, water and electricity in a shared apartment. The money inside my pocket was Dh50 for a whole month. I could eat one paratha \[flatbread\] a day. I had to pay my house bills in Philippines because I cannot stop sending home money. I didnt want my family to suffer also. My friends would say, Come, we will all go to the mall to eat. But Im ashamed. I have Dh30 to Dh50. How will I go and eat? Attending workshops with Pinoy Wise, an organisation that advises Philippine nationals to manage their finances, was a lifesaver and the lifeline he used to extricate himself from debt. He also came clean to his wife and worked part\-time jobs until 2am. My wife got very upset. She cried and said she told me not to take credit cards because it would be a big problem for us. She blamed me a lot and I tried to make her understand that I would change. I had to tell my wife the truth \- that is why we are together for 23 years. After faithfully attending seminars, he stopped using credit cards, learnt tips on how to save and talk to banks.
I realised there was no other approach but to freeze all my credit cards and pay the big amounts first. I kept the cards in my room. I would save money and ask the bank what amount I could pay to close all my problems. I took money from my friends without interest to pay back the cards. Then khalas, it is almost over. With the bulk of his debt paid, he is resolutely making pension fund payments and saving for an apartment in Manila. Im saving for my condominium but Im also paying my colleagues and my friends. I tell them to please bear with me and they understand that I will not let our relationship go. He now has one credit card, which he rarely uses, linked to his salary account. When recently told the credit limit would be increased, he promptly declined, asking the bank to cap the limit. Mr Sabado has also stopped gadget shopping. I carry an old Nokia and Samsung, no iPhone for me. My children have iPhones, but this comes from their aunties and uncles, not from me, he says.
Acknowledging his mistakes to his eldest daughter, who completed her accountancy exams recently, he wants his children to learn from his errors. When I went on leave I told my daughter, little by little, about my experience. I asked her to study hard, get high grades and a good salary in a good company. I told my children that they have to be the boss of their salary. Teaching Filipinos like Mr Sabado to chalk out their objectives is the aim of Edgar Bacason, partner of a lifestyle company and co\-ordinator of the Pinoy Wise Movement, launched in 2012 by a non\-government organisation to provide support to Filipinos working overseas. Filipinos went overseas with the purest of intentions, to provide for their families, but they ended up going back to the Philippines without any savings. They have problems with the police and the banks for buying things they did not need. We took them back to the basics. We made them realise that we are migrants and there are two sides of migration \- going home happy with more money; or, on the negative side, some families break up because they dont have common goals. Ensuring his countrymen understand the true meaning of savings is vital. We made them understand that they can spend only what is left after they save. We teach them to differentiate between needs and wants so they are able to control their expenses. And we talk about entrepreneurship to plant a seed and arouse their interest in investments and in business, Mr Bacason said. Expatriates are also advised by Barney Almazar, head of legal aid at the Philippine embassy and consulate. We help them come to a settlement with the bank because at the end of the day the banks want to get paid. They would rather get monthly settlements than put you in jail and get nothing. But if people dont change their lifestyle, then nothing can happen. Mr Almazar said the problem stemmed from abuse of credit. To me, its not a problem about having a credit card, because that is an access to a credit line. Its the abuse that is causing the problem. Its a false sense of entitlement. This is not money they have earned but they are already using it up, said the director of Gulf Law. When they are new here, they want to buy and experience everything. They see offers here and sales there and get into trouble. But they want their family to think they have made it big in the UAE. They eat in a fancy restaurant so friends and family will see they are having a good life. But their family does not know they are sleeping at a friends place and dont even have money to buy food for tomorrow. I tell them it is a matter of communicating what they really earn. I ask them, Is it your goal to just have a Facebook status with an LV bag? Is that what you want, or do you want a house back in Manila? Mr Sabado has learnt the hard way. He now acts as a conscience for others, reminding them of their goals when they first reached the UAEs shores trailing a suitcase. I see other Filipinos crying in immigration because of cases against them. I tell my countrymen that you come abroad to work and not for pleasure. I still want a good car and good house. I will retire in four years when Im 56. So before Im 60, Im still strong, can go to Hong Kong and travel for a little while. As long as youre alive, there should be a goal. I dont stop dreaming.
Of the 45,000 individuals the Philippine legal aid section has assisted over the past four years, at least half the cases were related to debt and bounced cheques, with the remainder covering labour issues, drinking and pregnancy out of wedlock. Consulates and non\-government organisations guide workers in seminars, workshops and one\-to\-one meetings, convincing them to rein in spending and place them on a path to saving for the future instead. The embassy conducts financial literacy programmes to help our overseas workers with management of their finances. There are reintegration programmes by the Philippine government that help with ventures they may want to start when they go back or if their contract here ends or is terminated, says Ms Almenario, the Philippine labour attach.
They are profiled depending on what livelihood they want when they get back and depending on what training they get here. The training in centres can be in salon and beauty care, food processing, information technology. The aim is for them to start a venture and have a source of income when they return. Exchange\-house officials also visit labour accommodations to try change mindsets and foster a culture of saving. Its a problem of many workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines that they get into a situation because they dont reveal their actual position here to their family, so the expectation at home is very high, says Sudhir Shetty, president of the UAE Exchange group. Persuading workers to invest in savings, pension schemes or systematic investment plans is another goal. We are trying our best to make them understand the need to save, but the loss of a job is not at the top of their mind so the tendency is not to save, says Mr Shetty, of UAE Exchange. We go to labour camps to talk to them about saving at least 10 per cent of what they earn. Companies also must engage in continuous dialogue with their workers on this. If you expect them to put aside a lump sum, that will not happen, but if you ask them to keep some portion aside, that is feasible. They have a long way to go but we must continue to make it attractive for them to do so.
Pradeep: saves money to give his children a better life
Putting aside money has been the refrain of Indian driver Pradeep Kumar from the time he began working in the UAE 17 years ago. He constantly reminds his family of their humble background. A former taxi driver from Malappuram in southern Kerala state, Mr Kumars father was a woodcutter and his wife works in a flour mill back home. I give my children training. When I speak to my children on the phone, I remind them that we are poor. Other people can go to hotels and eat, but we must stay in control, said the 47\-year\-old driver who works in Sharjah. It was by tuning in to a weekly radio show that he was able to change the course of his life. Paying close heed to investment advice has helped him save for his daughters nursing degree, invest about 10,000 rupees \(Dh570\) a month in two mutual funds and buy a small house in his village. All this on a salary of Dh2,000. Mr Kumar also encouraged his son to buy a hen that provides the family with about 20 eggs a month. The family consumes half the produce, sells the remainder and uses the earnings towards paying for the boys school expenses. This roused his 11\-year\-old sons business appetite. The boy used his savings to buy a small aquarium in which he breeds fish that he then sells at five rupees a piece. Mr Kumar learnt about systematic investment plans on a weekly show _Financial Planning and Investment Opportunities_ on the Asianet channel. When I came here to UAE I had no house, then I bought land and slowly built a house, Mr Kumar said. I always listen to the radio programme. It gives me ideas, plans. Readying a nest egg for retirement has long been the advice of KV Shamsudheen, whose popular show attracts 1.4 million listeners in the GCC in the southern Indian Malayalam language. I tell people to keep in mind: This is not a permanent place. You must have something in your hand to live happily. This is my message that I pass on, he said about the 50\-minute programme that is open to callers. Mr Shamsudheen aims to convince workers into regularly setting aside at least 20 per cent of their monthly earnings to gain a return of more than twice that amount if they go home in 10 years. They are not aware of the magic and benefits of compounding interest. The earlier the investment, the higher the return. Every month, by adding money, the return will be compounded. That is the charm of this investment, said the Sharjah resident and chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust that offers free financial advice to low and middle\-income workers. If they dont do this they would just spend the amount. Instead this goes into mutual funds so even if the market fluctuates they will get more units when the market is down. He also hosts public meetings in the GCC and India. His most recent were four programmes in Dubai, Sharjah, Al Ain and Saudi Arabia in May and three in India in July. Recalling the dire straits indebted workers were in years ago, Mr Shamsudheen says the situation has improved since 2008\-2012 with a fall in the flood of cases. Up to 2012, every day I would get one or two calls or emails from people with loans of Dh50,000 and higher. It was such a bad situation. Last year there were two cases a month. His tips include first clearing high\-interest loans and selling off assets at home to clear the debt. Via the radio, he engages workers before they wade into debt. Im trying prevention. Most people dont take a loan for a reason, they take a loan because the banks are giving it. Or they take loans to build a home, for their marriage or for their childrens marriage. But on all these occasions, they never think of how they will pay it back. An individual must understand his financial capacity, his responsibility, and based on that he can spend money. Financial discipline and financial planning is very important. His audience is a large group of low\- and middle\-income workers from southern Indias Kerala state who speak Malayalam. Indians are the largest foreign community in the UAE with more than 40 per cent of them from Kerala. For those who say it is difficult to save on low wages, he simply says, Everyone has money problems but if you save every month it will become a habit. If I didnt save every month, when I go to my village I wont have anything. Slowly, slowly the money will grow if I dont touch it.
Credits Words: Ramola Talwar Badam Photographs: Antonie Robertson, Christopher Pike, Reem Mohammed, Pawan Singh Images courtesy of: Margaret Nabatanzi, Pradeep Kumar, SmartLife, KV Shamsudheen and Ishtiaq Hussein Graphics: Ramon Penas Video: Willy Lowry, Emmanuel Samoglou Editor: Juman Jarallah Copyright: The National, Abu Dhabi, 2017
Updated: August 20, 2017 08:15 PM