I come from a family of OFWs. My father was an OFW Seafarer for most of his life, so were some of my uncles from both sides of the family, some of my aunts used to work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong and Singapore, and as an office worker in Bahrain. When I was growing up, friends and family asked me if I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a seafarer like him. My answer was always no. I had no desire whatsoever to work overseas or be away from my family. Fast forward many years later, here I am- an OFW.
I first became an OFW in 2004. I arrived in Dubai on November 30 with some other guys from Batangas. I wasn’t really too keen on going to the UAE at first, specially on tourist visa to look for work but, I guess the lure of adventure and exploring a different country got the better of me. Little did we know of the life that waited for us.
As soon as we arrived, our welcoming committee, a kabayan and her cohorts took our passports. They said it was for security reasons in case we decided to abscond or overstay our visas. We were after all, under their sponsorship. They drove us to a villa in Abu Hail. The place was a lot different then from what it is now- obviously. There were many of us in that place, more than a dozen if memory serves me correctly. We were temporarily housed in the second bedroom. That place was packed! All the bunk beds were occupied so some of us had to sleep on the floor. There were no extra mattresses so we had to sleep on a carpet.
A few days after we arrived living conditions were becoming challenging. Our shrewd kabayan landlady and holder of our passports told us that she will be constructing a new room for us newcomers in the compound. Off she went to buy the supplies and materials in the morning. The bags of cement, truckload of sand and cinder blocks arrived in the afternoon, as well as some beams and metal sheets for the roof. For the first couple of days she had a couple of Pakistani laborers work on the construction, but they eventually left before any real work could be done. Left with the option of sleeping outside on a 9 degree Celsius winter evenings or doing the work ourselves, we opted for the latter. Luckily, one of the guys who came with us was a Civil Engineer so he drafted the plans and we started work on it. It took us only a couple of days to get all the work done, but because supplies were not enough and the landlady wasn’t willing to spend more, we ended up with an incomplete house. Sure there was a roof, but it had no ceiling. Our floor was the very ground and sand we stood on, and we had no proper window or door. We had to improvise or risk getting sick due to exposure. We took the extra carpets and used them as cover for the window and door. We weren’t given proper beds so we used the folding beds, and used a spare blanket as some kind of bed warmer. Two blankets and thick clothing weren’t enough to keep out the cold at night and dawn back then. We would wake up in the morning with very stiff fingers due to the cold. Dubai’s winter was a lot colder then that it is nowadays.
Living in a foreign country whose currency is worth 15 times more than your own at that time can be very expensive. All of us had to find jobs before our money ran out. Our landlady knew some people who needed cheap labor, and because we were desperate people in need of money and jobs, and on a tourist visa at that- we were the perfect guys for the job. We took menial jobs like cleaning up someone’s villa. Even worked as part-time laborers for a day. Any paying job would do as long as it meant that we can stretch our budget for a few more days or save up for another visa extension. My family back home didn’t know about my situation. My father was a highly paid seafarer and if he knew what I was doing in Dubai, he probably would have dragged my butt all the way home. Like many other people on a tourist visa looking for jobs, I too, had my fair share of spending hours writing a nice CV in computer shops back then and going door to door looking for jobs and submitting my CV. I even submitted my CV to one of those kiosks that you see in the malls now selling steamed corn. Any job would do. After all, I was just a college dropout back then and didn’t really have any useful experience. I landed my first real paying job in Dubai a week before my tourist visa expired. I was lucky because unlike so many others, I didn’t wait for months or years and spent more money on visa extensions and exits before finding a job.
It was around January 19 2005 when I was hired as a Customer Service Associate (Salesman) in one of the biggest retail outlets back then, Royal Sporting House, ME. (RSH Middle East), also known as Studio R. Nowadays, they’re called STADIUM.
The Passport Dilemma
After receiving my job offer, my employer asked me to submit my passport to them to process my visa and have it stamped on my passport. As soon as I got home, I spoke to my landlady and asked for my passport back. She told me she couldn’t. Apparently, the evil woman used our passports without our knowledge to borrow a large sum of money from some Asian guy. She promised that she will get it back in a week. After two weeks and a hundred promises of returning my passport, I got nothing. It was at this time that I was filled with so much anger that as soon as she came inside the villa I threw a chair at her. She managed to dodge it. Three of my housemates had to restrain me from getting to her because at that time, I just completely lost all self-control and was ready to do some serious damage. Let this serve as a lesson to future OFW’s to NEVER surrender your passport to anyone for any other reason that to have your visas stamped. A few days after that incident, she managed to return my passport and I immediately left that place. My harrowing experience in that villa made me dub that place as “Abu Hell”.
From DCC to Mina Al Salam
On my first day of employment, I was first assigned at the branch in Deira City Center where I was in charge of the UMBRO and Rockport products. Standing for more than 8 hours a day, fixing the merchandise, tagging the items and talking to customers day in and day out with only a 30 minute break. My feet were tired after each shift. After a month, I was re-assigned to the new store in Bur Juman mall. Back then, Bur Juman was busier and had more stores. After an argument with my manager I was re-assigned once again to another branch in Mina Al Salam. This branch was quiet and had almost no customers. We hardly hit our targets each month.
Go for Broke
My salary during this time wasn’t very high. In fact, it wasn’t even high at all! I was making AED 1600 (PHP 24000). Budgeting was an unknown concept to me at the time so I always lived paycheck to paycheck and in most times, I was always broke. Every time I ran out of money a few days short of payday, I would resort to eating cheese triangles mixed with sugar cubes, and drink chai for dinner just to have something in my stomach.
After a year and a half of working in retail sales, and dealing with Dubai’s scorching summers, I’ve had enough. I said to myself back then, I am never setting foot in this place again. I tendered my resignation, packed by bags and cut my hair into a buzz-cut. With no savings and just the same old clothes I arrived with, I flew back to the Philippines and never dreamed of coming back to Dubai again.
2014 and four years later.
Around August of 2014, I received a message on LinkedIn from my current employer. He introduced his company and asked if I would be interested in pursuing a job opportunity with them. I was apprehensive at first. I didn’t want to go back to Dubai and work in retail again. I was however, actively looking for another job during this time so when I received his message, I figured, what do I have to lose by hearing out what he had to say, right? I replied to his message, and it was followed by a Skype interview with him. I found out during the interview that their business wasn’t in retail. Phew! What a relief. After an initial interview with him, I also had other Skype interviews with his two business partners- one week later; I was given the job offer with my visa and plane tickets to Dubai in the mail.
I got hired as a Resource Consultant and joined the company in September 21st 2014, working with clients that had operations across the Middle East and North African region. It wasn’t easy. The job was hard. I felt like quitting and going home so many times during my first six months. I felt that I was in way over my head. Like a fish out of water. Four years and 4 months later, I got promoted to a more senior position within the same company and doing a lot better than I did when I was just starting out. No longer living paycheck to paycheck, and broke. Not just surviving, but really living, traveling to new places and looking forward to an exciting and bright future by God’s grace. Did my job get any easier? Hell no! I just learned to accept that some things are not in my control, but things will work out as long as I did my best- and it did.
I didn’t want to come here. I didn’t want to work here. I wanted to be in a cold country, not a desert. I had many plans. But God had something better in mind. He wanted me here; so here I am, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
A man’s heart plans his way,
But the Lord directs his steps.
We don’t always get dealt the cards that we like in life. We want something but what we get is something entirely different. Our situations aren’t always ideal, but in the end it’s not the situation that you’re in that will matter most, but what you do about it. You can either let your circumstances sink you, or use that as a stepping stone to go higher and go further. Don’t give up. Never give up. Keep hustling, and do what’s right. You can’t control what life throws at you, but you are in control of how you respond to it.
This is my OFW Story. What’s yours?