Naheil Abu Hamdah
In one of the most expensive countries to live in, a new expat may find himself forced to make a choice between what’s important and what’s necessary, between basic needs, luxuries, and the new obligations and responsibilities that fall upon him.
Choosing either one does not stop him from having feelings of remorse and guilt of neglecting one’s family back home, they all have the stereotype image about expats — especially those living in Gulf countries — that they live in luxury and sitting on a gold mine.
After coming across many cases that are struggling on a daily basis to secure their daily needs, I often recall Maslow’s pyramid that we studied in detail. ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’ focuses on the distribution of basic human needs based on their psychological importance and priority, but in front of the high cost of living, every fils (penny) counts and is needed somewhere.
Ruba Marwan, a 35-year-old Palestinian woman, tells the story of her brother, who has been residing in the Emirates for twelve years, “He did not even send us any allowance for Ramadan, like he used to do. He decided to leave his job some time ago due to bad management, and because he also grew tired of the psychological stress and the precarious living conditions he goes through whenever he moves from one job to another. He decided to open a private business with a friend of his, and so he was sucked into an endless vortex of financial troubles, which later forced him to send his wife and three children to Gaza to ease the burden of their living costs.”
Sympathetic to her brother and his situation, Ruba says, “When things were going well for him, he would send money without us even asking, because our mother has cancer and her illness requires big sums of money. He was always the kind, reliable shoulder for everyone to lean on, but his circumstances took a turn for the worse, and no one in the family spared him from the ensuing criticism and accusations.”
Ruba says that this criticism comes along the lines of, “They say that he has become stingy, only thinking of himself, and that he did not even pay zakat (almsgiving) from his money to his mother and sisters in Ramadan. As a result of this criticism, it caused him great psychological distress and our contact with him lessened with time. I understand the grim situation he’s in. If he wasn’t in any financial distress, he wouldn’t have sent his wife and children back to Gaza.”
Ruba’s brother is one of the many expatriates who live day-to-day behind the scenes in a way that only those who experience it know about. In a country that is considered a center for attracting talent and skilled workforces from every corner of the globe, living conditions differ from one individual to another. It’s not necessary that every person who is living in the country is actually living in luxury. There is plenty of fake wealth, piled up bills, debts, as well as the need to pay for living costs.
Dana Abdel Moneim, 34, has lived in Dubai for a year and a half. She works as a saleswoman in a women’s clothing store for a salary of two thousand dirhams (550 US dollars), half of which she pays as rent, while she uses the other half for transportation as well as to meet her needs when it comes to food and other necessities. And by the end of the month, she has nothing left to save.
Phone calls with Mama have become a heavy burden. I miss her, but she hints at my selfishness every time and says words that stay on my mind for days. If she saw where I live, she’d come herself to take me out of here
Dana experienced a nervous breakdown after her siblings, via incessant messages on Facebook, accused her of being greedy and of dereliction of her duties towards them, while reminding her of her past along with everything that took place during her divorce and how they stood by her. After taking a seat on a sofa in the apartment she lives in, Dana tells Raseef22 while crying, “They think that I am cheapening out of helping them in order to save up money for myself, but I do not have anything, and I am not obligated to help them. I do not say this out of ingratitude and lack of consideration. What they did for me after my divorce falls under duty, not as a favor.”
In the end, the young woman didn’t find any other solution than to ban them from being able to contact her, until she could calm down and forgive them, or until they would reflect on themselves and actions, as she put it.
As for Mona Jamal, a thirty-something year old from Sudan, things went differently for her when she arrived in Dubai. She got lucky and found an administrative job after only one week of being there, even though finding a job in the Emirates usually requires patience. As a result she began sending money to her family, despite them not really needing it.
She says, “I used to send a sum of money that I’d deduct from my salary, which was 3,000 dirhams in total. I would have about 1,000 dirhams left to pay for my monthly needs, and I was only able to save up very small amounts of money, but my conscience was clear, for I thought that I was doing a service to myself and my family. as well as achieving a balance in my life.”
She continues with sorrow in her voice, “When my residence permit expired, I couldn’t find any employer that would renew it, so I stayed in my current job without residency for a long time, and then the company that I work for fell into financial trouble, which resulted in it not being able to give the employees their salaries.”
Mona found herself trapped in extenuating circumstances and under severe psychological and nervous strain, that only the “small amounts of money” that she was saving up were able to save her from. She didn’t tell her family about what she was going through, but she stopped sending them any money. As a result, she started receiving hints such as “You forgot your own family, and now only save up money all for yourself… What a loss of time and effort your family spent on raising you.”
She concludes her story with, “Phone calls with Mama have become a heavy burden on my ears and my heart. I miss her, but every time she’d hint at my selfishness, and she tells me words that stay on my mind for days, making me feel constant guilt and remorse, even though if she saw the place that I am living in, she would have come herself to take me out of this foreign land, but I stay silent, and I say to myself: Allah alone knows everything.”
Sending money home
Sarah Ahmed, 27, is an Egyptian woman who lives with her husband and three children in Abu Dhabi, and, according to her, her husband’s salary is “good”.
She tells Raseef 22, “My husband has three sisters who are both educated and employed, and his father is deceased. He sends them money to keep his conscience clear because he sees himself responsible for them. But this way he doesn’t save up any money for the future, and when I confront him with the fact that we are living without any financial security, he tells me that life itself has no security, and that he sends money to his sisters because that is his duty. And this made me go to people outside the family to convince him that his own children are more entitled to his salary than his sisters, because education here requires astronomical sums of money.”
But these demands were not met with much approval, according to Sarah. The people she went to rebuked her, and warned her of God’s punishment and of how something might happen to her children, causing the money to be used for treating a disease or some misfortune that befalls them, “That is why I no longer argue with him over this issue, and the priorities of where his salary should go.”
She describes what she is going through by saying, “As a result of my husband’s behavior, I live in constant psychological apprehension and fear of the future and the unknown, since at the beginning of every month, we live in bliss, and at the end of the month we are almost completely bankrupt despite his excellent salary.”
When things were going well for him, he’d send us money because our mother has cancer. He was always the reliable one for everyone, but things took a turn for the worse for him, and no one in the family spared him from their criticism
From a different angle, Hind Ahmed, a 29-year-old Egyptian young woman who works in customer service in a private company in the emirate of Ajman (UAE), talks of her personal struggles when it comes to managing her expenses, “When I came to the UAE, I found a job after nine months, and every time I renewed my visa, I would be on a race against time, because me living abroad was done at my own expense, after I challenged my family and rebelled against their wishes. This is why I did not ask anyone for money.”
She says, “The cost of living was high, and my money ran out at some point, and I had to take a loan from some relatives of mine, hoping to pay it back when I find work. During this period, I managed my expenses around the need to pay the rent, which cost one thousand dirhams ($270 US dollars), leaving me with nothing but 150 dirhams to live on for an entire month. I used to apply for jobs and positions advertised online, and if I was accepted and the location of the interview was far away, that meant taking a taxi whose cost may exceed 150 dirhams, which is the cost of my food for a whole month.”
She explains more, “I would limit myself to buying bread and hot dogs or noodles to overcome my hunger. I also often craved food and found that I didn’t have enough money to buy anything, but I would thank God because I have at least enough space for a bed to sleep on.”
Hind finally found a job in the emirate of Ajman, which she had to borrow a sum of money for to pay the taxi to transport her and her luggage. She began working, but is once again stuck in the same way of living because she is currently paying her debts.”
Junior salaries not enough to survive on
The local salary scale in the UAE starts at $450 US dollars for those who have not previously worked in the country, and then increases gradually with every experience an employee gains in a field within the same country, and it also increases from one period to another even if by a small amount.
The difficulty lies in making a living right at the beginning, since the salary most of the time does not cover the costs of housing, food, and transportation, but many accept this harsh reality in order to start their career path, thus leaving them living under great psychological stress.
In the end, it seems that it is common for those who have not left the region they grew up in to believe that the world outside is easy, that making money is always successful, and that everything runs like water abroad. However reality and living conditions, wherever they may be, require both a psychological and a daily struggle. They also require a person to organize their priorities and make many firm decisions, since even those who we now see are enjoying some degree of success or prosperity must have gone through a challenging and difficult phase, where every day was just an escape from the crashing waves of life.
Naheil Abu Hamdah – Palestinian writer and journalist based in Istanbul.