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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

UAE's visa amnesty residents describe new life after years living in the shadows

A Filipino nurse and an Indian widow tell of their joy at being allowed to remain in the UAE after being conned about jobs and run-ins with police

Priscilla Aden sits with a photo of her late husband at her home in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National
Priscilla Aden sits with a photo of her late husband at her home in Sharjah. Pawan Singh / The National

Women across the UAE have described the joy of finally rectifying their visa status in the country after years of suffering and hardship.

Residents told of how they wanted to hug government amnesty officials after finally being granted the legal right to remain in the Emirates.

Their stories of both anguish and now elation emerged as a four-month-long visa amnesty in the UAE drew to a close.

The scheme was initially intended to run for three months from August but was extended at the last minute to run until the beginning of December.

“I wanted to crush the lady with a hug of relief,” said Priscilla Aden as she recounted the moment an official recently told her she would be allowed to stay.

“The gift the UAE government has given me is immeasurable. I pray every night for the good of the UAE’s rulers.”

The latest UAE’s amnesty programme began on August 1 and was set to run through until the end of October.

It applied to anyone in the country who had overstayed their work visa or residency permit prior to August 1, and thousands of people came forward to take advantage.

Under the initiative, the government agreed to waive often substantial fines owed by those who had not been entitled to stay and who now wished to return to their native countries.

Six-month temporary visas were also made available to those wanting another chance to find permanent, legal employment in the country, and in some cases flights home were even paid for by respective governments.

On Tuesday, Ms Aden, an Indian national who first arrived in the UAE in 2001, described how her life risked spiralling out of control following the sudden death of her husband three years ago.

The 55-year-old said her right to remain had depended on being sponsored by him, and that his death had left her with mounting debts and an uncertain future.

Desperately wanting to remain close to her 26-years-old son - who also lives in the UAE on a valid work visa - she chose to live in the shadows rather than face authorities. She said she had rarely left her home in Al Qasimia, Sharjah, other than to pray at a nearby church.

“I can count the number of places I’ve been to these last few years on one hand because of the guilt and fear of living without proper papers,” she said.

“I never even went out for a walk near our home in case a policeman stopped me.

“There were days when we did not have food and I forgot what living without fear feels like.

“It was three years of hunger, depression and tears. But I feel safe in the UAE and I have no one other than my son so why should I go back to in India?”

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Read more:

Thousands apply for new passports to extend UAE stay as amnesty deadline deferred

After 22 years living in the shadows, woman finally gets passport

Visa amnesty: a new chapter begins for thousands of UAE residents

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Philippine national Sharon Mendez, 30, also told how the government’s latest visa amnesty programme had proved nothing short of a “miracle” for her.

She first arrived in Dubai in 2015 on a tourist visa after being promised by her employer that they would quickly provide a valid working visa.

That never happened, however, and when the elderly patient she was brought over to care for was hospitalised she was made to work as a maid.

Now, thanks in part to the amnesty scheme, she has found a new job as a nursing assistant in an Ajman hospital.

“When I heard the words ‘you are hired’ I wanted to cry,” she told The National. “I knew then I could start a new life in a job related to my training.

“My fine [for overstaying her visa] was around Dh300,000 but because of the amnesty this was waived. I only spent Dh1,500 to get a new visa and passport.”

Ms Mendez described years of apprehension and worry over being caught out by authorities.

Unwilling to work as house help, she revealed she and another maid had escaped from their jobs as their employers slept.

With a small backpack containing one set of clothes and a month’s salary of Dh2,500, she walked for two hours before a kindly taxi driver took the two women to the Philippine Consulate in Dubai.

From there she moved into a villa in Ajman with 20 other women, and took on short-term jobs in a shoe store, a health clinic and a children’s nursery.

She was almost caught by police during crackdowns on illegal overstay cases when officers raided villas in the area and conducted spot checks of identity cards on the city’s roads.

“I had to keep hiding,” she said. “I was too afraid to go anywhere so we went to work, back to the house and to work again. I felt like I was an alien.

“I knew 50 other girls who were without papers [valid visas]. Now they’ve also been able to find jobs and are more stable.”

Priya Pinto, a Dubai resident who spends her time as a volunteer providing emotional support to widows coping with grief, said there was no doubting the government’s amnesty had given countless UAE residents a chance to leave the shadows and live a happier life.

“For Priscilla, it was like living in a jail,” she said. "She was scared of the law and couldn’t take up a job but wanted to be there for her son.

“This [amnesty] is a new lease of life for many women like her. They didn’t want to be here illegally but were forced to due to their circumstances.”

“I have decided no more tears,” said a beaming Ms Aden. “Yes, we are in debt but we have survived.

“This new visa has taught me that I must now pick myself up and get a job. People trusted me and I want to pay back my debt and create new memories with my son.”