Ever wondered why the Filipino community in the UAE is so cheerful and accommodating?
Award-winning Filipino educator and author Dr Rommel Sergio has a plausible explanation. “It’s part of our culture,” says the 48-year-old professor at Canadian University Dubai.
“The way we were raised and the environment where we’ve been are just some of the factors that make us hospitable, calm under pressure, and happy.
“We cannot change many things in the world, but our attitude to carry on with life makes a difference,” he adds.
Dr Sergio should know. As a widely respected community leader and founding board of the Psychological Association of the Philippines-UAE Chapter, he has his fingers on the pulse of his fellow kabayans (compatriots) who make up 21.3 per cent of Dubai’s population.
There are nearly 700,000 Filipinos in the UAE of which around 450,000 are based in Dubai alone.
Contrary to popular belief, they are represented across all major sectors and only a minuscule percentage work in domestic and household services.
A study conducted by communication consultancy EON Group revealed that 64 per cent of Filipinos in the UAE work in five key sectors — engineering and construction (17%), tourism and hospitality (16%), customer service (13%) and health and medical fields (10%) and marketing and advertising (8%).
The 2019 survey also found that 20 per cent Filipinos are at mid-senior manager level, 27 per cent at associate or supervisory levels and 31 per cent at entry level.
What's more, Filipinos working in the UAE send up to Dh4.74 billion to the Philippines in cash remittances annually.
Filipinos also have the largest share of migrant nurses in the UAE. According to the Filipino Nurses' Association in the Emirates (FNAE), there are more than 20,000 Filipino nurses in the UAE, representing 60 per cent of the overall total. Key drivers of the country’s robust healthcare system, their contribution has not gone unnoticed.
In May 2020, Jessa Dawn Ubag, a Filipina nurse at Rashid Hospital had the rare opportunity to talk to President, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, (then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces).
During the three-minute video conference, Sheikh Mohamed first enquired how she was doing, and then asked her to share her experience as a nurse.
Ubag told him about the time she took care of a 20-year-old Covid-19 patient during her prolonged recovery.
The President then asked her about her family back home. Ubag, who hails from Dumaguete, a city on Negros Island, in the southern Philippines, said: “My mother is worried back home, but I constantly reassure her that I am perfectly fine.
To this, Sheikh Mohamed said: “Give her my best regards. Tell her you are with your second family.”
Ubag says the conversation has inspired her to become a better instrument of hope.
She says the UAE’s idea of tolerance and accepting people of all nationalities have created a social environment that resonates well with her professional values of compassion, empathy, and care.
“I got this opportunity despite being a foreigner. I am a Filipina and I felt it was a recognition to the Filipino community in the UAE along with all frontliners,” she adds.
But Angel, 31, a nurse at a private hospital in Mankhool, says the term Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is not an apt description of their job. “Overseas Filipino Warriors is more like it,” says the 31-year-old, who was also a frontline worker during the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
“Most people view us as barbecue and karaoke-loving people with a penchant for fashion brands. Yes, we love our food and music and enjoy shopping, but there's a lot more to us.”
Angel lives in a shared villa accommodation at Al Hudaiba Street in Satwa, dubbed by Filipinos as “Little Quiapo'' after Manila's old Downtown.
The bustling strip from Iranian Hospital to Al Maya Supermarket offers a slice of home for thousands of Filipinos, complete with dedicated Filipino stores and restaurants like Salt n’ Pepper, Papa’s, Kabuhayan Café, among others. Even the message boards here are awash with advertisements for bedspace or shared accommodation for Pinoys, a tagalog term used by Filipinos to refer to their compatriots.
“Satwa is where we live, dine and socialise,” says Nathan R, 27, from Manila who came to Dubai in 2008 and works for a money exchange company.
At the other end of the spectrum are veterans like restaurateur Rainier Vibar. Now 60, Vibar moved to Dubai from Manila in 1986.
“I started off as a graphic designer and then went on to open my own graphic design agency. Choithrams was my client,” recalls Vibar, who lives in a Jumeirah villa and currently runs a restaurant called Sweet Pepper in Karama.
“I have three sons, aged 27, 26 and 17, respectively and they were all born in Dubai. The elder one helps manage the restaurant,” Vibar says.
He points out that despite their sizeable population, Filipinos in Dubai remain a close-knit community. “This is largely because of the St Mary’s Catholic Church which also serves as centre of social cohesion and helps us connect and bond with each other,” he explains.
Filipina mental health advocate and yoga teacher Nerry Toledo says Filipino workers in the UAE continue to improve their lot.
“We have transcended cultural boundaries by breaking down stereotypes and creating a strong presence in almost every sector, including information technology, the sciences, business, and the arts,” she says.
Recognised as one of the 300 most influential Filipinos in the Gulf, Toledo moved to Dubai amid the economic downturn in 2008. “I’m living the life I want, according to my own choice. Similarly, several other Filipinos are making waves in creative fields, and many have their businesses,” she adds.
However, the numbers tell a different story.
Barely five per cent of Filipinos have executive or director roles, and a mere four per cent own a business in the UAE.
Among the few who broke through the glass ceiling is Dr Mary Jane Alvero-Al Mahdi who arrived in Dubai nearly three decades back armed with a degree in chemical engineering.
She started off as a quality control officer at a textile company in Jebel Ali with a modest salary of Dh1,000. Today, she’s the group chief executive officer (CEO) of Prime Group of Companies that has partners and branch offices in Europe, India, China, Japan and back home in the Philippines.
Dr Mahdi was recently named as one of seven Dakilang Bayani (Noble Heroes), as part of Philippine Independence Day celebrations.
A no less inspiring story is the story of single mother, Dr Karen Remo, 38, who began her career as an executive secretary, but rose through the ranks to become the chief executive officer (CEO) of Dubai-based New Perspective Media. Under her, the integrated marketing communication agency has expanded to four offices in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region.
“When I came to Abu Dhabi in 2002, Filipinos were the underdogs. I was offered a job as an executive secretary and told that this is the highest post I can rise to as a Filipina in the UAE,” she recalls.
Dr Remo said she set out to smash the stereotype by “working beyond her role”, driven by “curiosity and an unending thirst for learning”.
Dr Remo, who runs 10 kilometres at the Dubai Marina every few days, says she admires the safety and security in the country as it results in “astoundingly high business confidence, and consequently, continued prosperity”.
She adds, “opportunities abound here for entrepreneurs and expats alike. I’ve been in the UAE for 19 years, and my daughter is 19 as well. Both of us consider the UAE not just our second home, but our home.”
Dr Remo said her advice to Pinoy expatriates is to work smart while also working hard. “Be strategic and create relationships that could open doors. Bring something new to the table that is of value, and something that is of help to individuals, professionals, and companies,” she says.
Dr Sergio, who routinely counsels Filipinos suffering from mental health issues, says most cases relate to stress, anxiety and/or depression. “People should remember that the problems that beset them today will not be there tomorrow.
Remo says Filipinos watch out for each other, and it’s this trait that helps them overcome challenges and remain cheerful in the face of adversity,” she says.
Ferry Joseph Trinidad, a cluster digital marketing manager for Novotel & ibis World Trade Centre and ibis One Central, says the perception about Filipinos needs to change.
“Filipinos are very passionate with what they do. We work not only with our minds but with our heart. This is the driving force of every Filipino working abroad and this is what make us different. This trait allows us to succeed in any field we choose. And yes, we are the royalties of Videoke and Restaurant Buffet but when it comes to work, we strive for excellence not only to have a better life for ourselves but most especially, for our families back home,” he said.
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