The Satwa Diaries: Dubai’s Filipino Domestic Workers

I was seven years old when Mary was welcomed into my family. Mary was there to help. I remember her sincere kindness and loyalty to a family that wasn’t her own.

She cleaned, she fed, she bathed, she did it all. Mary was the fifth member of our family. She stayed with us for a total of three years, and vivid memories of her still remain.

Growing up in Dubai, I have never come across a family that did not have a housemaid, and every single one of them has left their own homes to join a family of strangers to provide for them and adhere to their every need.

She is given duties that are often neglected by families that either don’t have enough time to tend for their households, or simply to maintain an upscale lifestyle that comes with living in a city deemed as a luxurious paradise.

Fifteen years later and my family still lives in Dubai with Sheila Mae Fernandez. Sheila entered our humble abode in 2014. I was 15 years old, and I wanted nothing more than to understand who this stranger was living in my house.

I tried to understand why she chose to leave her family for us; she picked us over her own family. Sheila has become somebody who is extremely dear to my heart and life. She is a sister to me and my brother, and a daughter to my mother and father.

In a city known for its hyperbolised luxurious elements, everything is given to you on a silver plate without even lifting a finger. A city that is deemed as a paradise but lacks so much warmth and life.

It lacks life above all, a desert that was birthed to become one of the world’s leading cities, and that would have never happened without the help of the endless streams of labourers brought from abroad, specifically India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Some may call it a discrete form of slavery, but they are brought to Dubai under the Kafala system. The Kafala system was created to organise migrant workers specifically within domestic services and construction.

The system begins with either an Emirati, a resident of the United Arab Emirates, or an institution that sponsors migrant workers attempting to enter the country.

The controversial system first emerged during the 1950s when the Gulf Cooperation Council countries began hiring migrant workers at a very rapid pace in order to accelerate the development of their newly created cities.

The Kafala system gives employers a large amount of power over the workers. Migrant workers need to sign a no-objection letter, meaning they are tied to their sponsor by any means.

Some “kafeels” (Emirati sponsors) withhold their worker’s passport and any other travel documents. This means they cannot quit or change their jobs and leave the country. Essentially, Dubai is what it is today because of this elaborate and intricate system that induces large amounts of labour on individuals in need of money.

The Filipino community is the third-largest expatriate community, and their presence is obvious across five different sectors: architecture, engineering and construction, tourism and hospitality, customer service, health and medical fields, and domestic household services.

More than 10 million Filipinos work globally, and around 750,000 of them are in the UAE, making it the second leading GCC destination for them after Saudi Arabia.

The Filipinos that choose to leave their country and work abroad to provide for their families are known as the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). There are two million of them in the Middle East, while household workers make up 10% of Filipino migrant workers.

I went on a weekend excursion to Satwa, where every Filipino housemaid goes on her day off. I spent the day with Sheila and five of her friends to understand and listen, and all I can say is I have never witnessed such resilience from a group of individuals.

And so the Satwa diaries begin.

Shiela Mae Fernandez in Satwa standing in front of the road

Shiela Mae Fernandez in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

Every Friday, Sheila wakes up at 6:00am, gets ready and heads to Satwa, where she meets up with a group of her friends. I had told her to take me with her one day, because I was always curious to know where she went and how she spends her weekends.

To my knowledge, everyone in Dubai either spent their weekends at an extremely overpriced beach club that is too hot to handle, so everyone settles for the extremely cool pool infested with god knows what, or at one of Dubai’s most hyped restaurant of the week. This one also tends to be extremely overpriced and not even that good. If you’re a tourist, you’ll go to downtown and stare at the tallest building in the world whilst a bunch of fountains dance around it to an extremely overplayed song.

My curiosity ate me up, and I was set on finding out where every migrant worker heads to on their weekend. Sheila took me with her to Satwa.

For those who don’t know anything about Dubai, Satwa is the side of Dubai that you will never see or hear of because they don’t want you to see it, because Satwa is the only place in Dubai that truly exudes a sense of life, culture, and a soul.

Satwa is where every Filipino worker resides; it’s their home away from home. From food, fashion, alcohol, cigarettes, everything in Satwa is meant to ease the fact that they are working for another family to provide for their own.

Sheila took me to Jollibee, a Filipino fast-food chain restaurant known for their taste-quenching fried chicken. As I walked into Jollibee I was met with many stares because I was the only non-Filipino.

I’m an Egyptian female walking into Jollibee with Sheila, curious to see a side of Dubai I had never seen. Shortly after, I was met with an extremely warm hug from AnneLin, one of Sheila’s best friends, telling me that she had been practicing her English just for today.

I had previously told Sheila to tell her friends that I was interested in knowing their story. We ordered a twelve-piece bucket of fried chicken with a side of fries, gravy, and Filipino spaghetti, and the talking began.

Portrait of AnneLin in Satwa standing in front of the road

AnneLin in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

As we sat down, ready to indulge in the crispiest fried chicken I had ever had, I was introduced to Rose, Terry, Anne, Yasmine, a.k.a Scarlet, and AnneLin. Each and every single one of them slowly started to tell me their story one by one. “I wanted to be a police officer,” was the first thing that Sheila told me. “But my family didn’t have enough money and I wanted to be independent and earn my own money, so I moved to Singapore to become a housemaid when I was only 19.”

Sheila grew up in a small village with her grandparents. Her parents were separated, and her mom had left early on in her life to go work with a family in Saudi Arabia. After moving to Singapore, she continued to work with different families from Lebanon and now in Dubai. She built her family a house in the Philippines with the money she made, bought three lots of land, and supported her brother to complete his college degree.

“I always put my family first. Once I feel like they are secure and settled and they can maintain a proper living with the money I provided, it’s time for me to do something else and settle my own life,” said Sheila.

When asked why she chose to go live and provide for another family, Sheila gave me the most selfless answer: “As long as people need my help, I will help as much as I can.”

Portrait of Terry in Satwa leaning against a street light

Terry in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

As we went around the table, stories were shared. Stories that spoke of such resilience and strength matched with a quirky gossip element targeted at the inevitable infidelity of their husbands. Terry, a 47-year-old housemaid who moved to Dubai in 2012 to support her two kids, said: “In the Philippines, we aren’t fortunate in life, so I decided to move to Dubai to find a job.”

She now works with an Italian family. Yet, she is filled with sentiments of a longing to be back home with her kids, “It’s tough being away from your family and kids; every Filipino here has problems regarding their family back home. So we need to fight, fight, and fight for the future of our kids. You have to be strong and patient. You always need to think about what’s best for your kids. See, you’re looking at us now, and we’re all smiling and laughing but on the inside, we are in deep pain, all of us. It’s so difficult for us to see a future for our kids with our lives back home, so we are here to make sure that they have one.”

Portrait of Rose in Satwa standing in front of the road

Rose in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

When asked the question why they chose to move to Dubai to become housemaids and provide a family that isn’t their own, 47-year-old Rose explained: “Because it is the easiest work for us to find here, and the salaries are higher than any other jobs available for us. For example, if you work in a mall, you would have to pay for rent, transportation, and many other expenses. Dubai is not a cheap place to live in. There are many benefits of working as a housemaid: You are provided with everything from food, accommodation, WiFi and a good salary that I can send back home. In other words, the benefits are much better and all the money goes to our families back home, not on other useless expenses. You receive your salary in full. It’s freer, we get freedom.”

Rose has four kids and says this is the only job that would send them all to school, as she is adamant that they receive a complete and full education.

“I am a country woman. I grew up in a village where we didn’t have any electricity, water. We had nothing. We used to go to the river to wash our clothes and would wait for it to rain so the water tank could fill up for our water supply. That was our supply for food, drinking, for everything. If there was a drought we would go to the river to get some water to survive,” she says.

“We would walk two hours from our village to go to school. It was hard. We worked day and night on the farm, and we always dreamed of getting out of there, and we did. I am now in Dubai, one of my sisters is in Hong Kong, and the other is in Kuwait.”

Although Rose spoke of freedom, when she first came to Dubai, her first employers believed in the opposite of freedom.

She suffered for two years while living with a Jordanian family that would not let her leave the house, even if it was just to take the garbage out. She was locked in the house and not allowed to go anywhere.

“Life is not easy for most of us. On top of all that, every single one of us had to deal with our husbands cheating on us. My husband cheated on me and we have now been separated for fifteen years.

“When I found out my father died, I called my husband to see what’s going on and he accidentally left me a message that was meant for his girlfriend. I confronted him, and he told me the truth. Fuck him, he cheated twice. When I went back home, I slapped him four times.”

Rose speaking of her husband’s infidelity sparked reactions from the rest. Terry passionately adds that when she found out her husband cheated on her, “I chased him with a knife.”

Portrait of Scarlet in Satwa smiling and making a peace sign with her fingers

Scarlet in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

We were halfway through the bucket at this point, and the stories are slowly coming to an end. Yasmine, also referred to as Scarlet, was hesitant to speak the whole day. However, after some courage from the crunchy Jollibee chicken, she started telling me why her reasons to come to Dubai differed from everyone else.

She came to Dubai to escape a marriage that was going to be the end of her: “I got married in 2006, and I have two kids. I didn’t want to get married, but I had to because I was pregnant at the time. My husband is not good; he’s a sadist. He would beat me up for his pleasure. Without any reason at all, he would punch me, and beat me to death.”

Scarlet pulled up her shirt to show me a cigarette burn mark that he left on her body. “I would be left with bruises everywhere. That’s why I decided to go abroad, to get away from him because he would beat me every day.”

Scarlet has two kids that still live with him in the Philippines. “Even when I came here, he still continues to torture me emotionally and mentally. Every day he sends me messages threatening to kill my kids. He’s always asking for money, and if I don’t send it to him, he’ll continue to threaten me with my kids. He blackmails me with my kids.”

Scarlet built a house for her family, her husband included, thinking that the house would instil a sense of responsibility in him and things would change. She believed that the fortunes she has been sending home will make it better, but “it’s useless,” she said.

“He’s an extremely horrible person and husband. You see, this is the culture of us Filipinos. Even if you are tortured and battered, for the sake of our kids, we’ll do absolutely anything.”

Portrait of curly haired Yasmine in Satwa standing in front of the street and a car driving by

Yasmine in Satwa [Zeina Saleh]

Each and every one of these women sacrificed their own lives, putting their needs aside to keep their families safe and secure. They moved to a foreign country to live with foreign people, who treat them like the Other to make sure their families can survive.

By the end of the day, after tears have been shed, hugs have been given out, and stories have been shared, Sheila tells me: “You see Zanzoon (my nickname), we are all laughing, and in the back of our minds we have so many problems, but we laugh and we will continue to laugh. We are together. Every Friday, we meet up, get together, change our attitudes, recharge, and then go back to work. Life must go on. We have six days of daru daru (hard work) and on the seventh day, we let out all our stress, so we have the strength to daru daru always.”

By the end of the day, they left me with the word laban, which means strength in Filipino. When describing the Filipino community in Dubai, laban is an understatement because no matter what, you will always be met with a smile and a warm hug, utmost warmth.


All images by Zeina Saleh.
Edited by Annika Loebig and Charlotte Griffin