Month: May 2014

Maid in Arabia

 

“I had a dream last night that all your family was dead,” said Cherry. My jaw dropped; I tried not to show too much emotion, but deep inside, I was petrified.

I looked at my three little girls who were ages five, four and two at the time.

How on earth could I leave them in this woman’s care?

I was now living in Dubai and working on the 2010 FIFA Club World Cup. I was schedule to travel to Abu Dhabi to prepare for the opening match. I rang my colleague and told him I was ill and could not attend.

I called Tarek, who was in Saudi Arabia, and told him what Cherry had said. “Get her out of the house,” he responded. He was right. We had heard far too many frightening stories over the few years we had lived in the United Arab Emirates, such as children being abused by maids as a form of revenge against their employer. I wasn’t going to risk it.

Cherry lasted a month. After she left, I vowed never to hire another live-in nanny.I had employed Cherry through an agency in Dubai. She seemed lovely during the interview—very energetic and excited about her first job in the UAE. Cherry was from the Philippines, in her early 20s, and had just completed a nursing degree in her home country. It’s what had attracted me to her in the first place. We talked more on the way home about how she was in the country to save enough money to continue her studies. Her dream was to become a midwife.

Throughout the drive, she had appeared to be normal until I needed to reach out to stop her from falling out of the car. I had asked her whether she could shut her window, as I wanted to turn on the air conditioning—she reached for the door handle and opened the door. Whether it was a complete misunderstanding or words lost in translation, I was alarmed. Cherry apologised, and the incident was forgotten.

On the way home, Cherry and I picked up the children from the nursery and school. Moments after we had arrived home, Serene came to me and told me she didn’t like Cherry. Serene was just four, but at such a young age, she had good intuition. For the first week, I sat back and observed Cherry’s behaviour with the children. She was playful and seemed to genuinely enjoy being around the girls. Janah and Alisar appeared to like her, but something continued to bother Serene. She was unsettled, and that bothered me.Cherry’s personality changed after her second week with us. She would start work late, and on many occasions, she was rude and verbally aggressive. Hygiene was a huge problem; she would never wash her face in the morning, and if she had a runny nose, she would just wipe it on her sleeve. On numerous occasions, I had to ask her to shower. I was repulsed. It was the third week into her stay when she awoke in the morning and proceeded to tell me about her dream. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next morning, I called the agency to explain the situation. I asked Cherry to pack her bags, gave her taxi fare and sent her back to the agency.

Cherry was my second live-in nanny. She had replaced Rose who had been with me for 18 months. I didn’t realise how good I had it with Rose until Cherry walked into our life.

Rose was also from the Philippines. She was a mother of three looking to improve her family’s lifestyle back home, build a house and pay for her children’s education. Apart from being extremely emotional, crying all the time, upset at the slightest criticism, she was great with the children and adored the girls. I’d hired Rose through the same agency I used to hire Cherry.

This was my first ever experience with employing a live-in housemaid. I’d given in to pressure. I had three children under the age of three, my husband was commuting to Saudi Arabia and I was waking up six times a night attending to the girls. I had reached the point where I could no longer function on my own. I needed a break. Even if it was 30 minutes alone at Café Macchiato, just some time to gather my thoughts, it was enough.I was completely against having a stranger move into my house. At first, it was just hiring a part-time helper a few days a week. Diane worked for a cleaning company during the day and was looking for some extra work in the afternoon. Tracey had recommended I give her a go. Di was sweet and loved playing with the children. Having her with me a few days a week was a relief. She made it easy to explore the idea of finding a permanent helper. “Madam,” she would call me. I never felt comfortable with it. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t treat Di as a servant. She was a blessing in my life, and she gave me the break and peace of mind to leave my kids alone with her if needed. We used her a great deal for babysitting in the evening when Tarek and I wanted to see a movie or have dinner nearby.As time passed and Tarek’s work situation changed after the financial crisis (more on the impact of the crisis later), I had no choice but to begin the search for a permanent housemaid. It was unusual for me considering that I had grown up in a country where servants only worked for the rich and famous.

Stay Tuned for the next instalment of “Maid in Arabia.”
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Lifelong mates formed over an Arabian coffee

Arabian Coffee 1

When I arrived in the UAE in 2008, its population was around 6.7 million. Today, the World Bank estimates the Gulf nation’s population to be 9.2 million. In 2011, a study by a Kuwait-based diplomatic centre revealed that 84 per cent of the United Arab Emirates’ population were expats – at the time 8.5 million people were living in the country and over 7 million were foreigners.

You’d think these statistics would help ease the burden of making friends. Expats outnumbered the Emiratis, meeting people was easy but forming friendships was challenging. As I said in my previous post, everyone seemed to have their own circle of friends and many women weren’t interested in making new friends or welcoming new arrivals.

“When the girls start school, you’ll find friends,” one mother told me. Very comforting, considering my children were three, 18 months and I had a newborn. I remembered her words when Janah began attending the local Abu Dhabi Montessori Nursery. It’s there I met Anna and Octavia. Their sons attended the nursery with Janah during our first year in Abu Dhabi. Anna was a fellow Aussie from Melbourne, while Octavia was American.

Café Macchiato became a meeting point for friends and the place I’d go to have coffee with my new group of friends. It was here, in this little coffee shop tucked away in a small community shopping centre, that I met Tracey and Stan. There was something comforting about saying ‘hello’ to a complete stranger in the United Arab Emirates. I spent a lot of time in cafes back home in Sydney, but I’d never have thought to turn to a complete stranger and start a conversation.

Here in the UAE, it happened everywhere I went. Even in the bathrooms, while washing hands at the basin, conversations would begin and numbers would be exchanged. I imagine that it’s because all expats are in the same situation – everyone is trying to settle in, make friends and have as much of a normal life in an unfamiliar environment.

Being an Aussie I knew about Stan and Tracey’s popularity, and although I was a little star-struck in the beginning, as time passed our friendship grew. We’d have family outings; Tracey and I even co-hosted a radio sports show. When Janah had an allergic reaction and I had to rush her to the nearby medical centre, it was Tracey who dropped everything and raced to my house to watch Serene and Alisar. On numerous occasions, Stan even recommended I apply to work at CNN in Abu Dhabi.

Months after meeting Tracey and Stan, Suzie, a beautiful American woman, entered my life. Suzie had moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband and two daughters, Aaliyah and Thalia. Our friendship blossomed and when she and her family moved to Dubai we weren’t far behind. Today Suzie lives in Canada where she says making friends hasn’t been as easy as in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Unlike the UAE, Canada is home to millions of Canadian residents and citizens, whilst the driving force behind the UAE is its expat populations. Although we live in a foreign country, we’re not made to feel like outcasts.

I had also met Jodie and her family at Macchiato – her daughters were the same age as Serene and Janah. The girls connected at the café, playing together while Jodie and I learned more about our Australian connection. Playdates for the children were just as important as the adult conversation for their mothers. It’s how we managed to stay sane in a city where there was little to do despite the rapid development.

They’ve all left now, but we continue to stay in touch on social media. I’ve made new friends since moving to Dubai but it’s these women who I met early on that continue to stay with me. We’ll always have the memories we shared in Abu Dhabi!

Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai
Enjoying their first Halloween in Dubai

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Behind my Vogue Australia article

The June issue of Vogue Australia
The June issue of Vogue Australia
On set with Vogue Australia
On set with Vogue Australia

Seven years ago, I vowed never again to write about Australia’s Middle Eastern community. But recently I felt compelled to write again following a family tragedy. If I could help one family save their son from the underworld and raise awareness about the problems driving young boys into joining gangs, I will have achieved my objective.

I was excited to have my girls featured in the article.
I was excited to have my girls featured in the article.

I had spent more than a decade of my career engulfed in the community’s problems, including youth issues, crime and lack of leadership. However, during that decade I never alluded to my own family’s problems.

My brother was caught up in the underworld, joining notorious bikie gangs. He was jailed for three years for his role in a serious assault. In July last year my brother was gunned down outside his home – his past had finally caught up with him. Miraculously he survived the shooting and today he bears the scars of his choices.

I left Australia in 2008 for my own personal reasons. It wasn’t until I arrived in the United Arab Emirates that I stopped searching for my identity. I had found a place where East meets West, and where people of all nationalities live peacefully together and respect one another’s cultures and beliefs. This was something I had never felt back in Sydney.

Read more in June’s issue of Vogue Australia……

Some more behind the scenes images

Having fun with the girls
Having fun with the girls
My little beauties getting ready for their first magazine photo shoot.
My little beauties getting ready for their first magazine photo shoot.

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Friends in Arabia

I met Shaima and Shorouk years after I moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai
I met Shaima and Shorouk years after I moved from Abu Dhabi to Dubai

I do apologies for not posting much sooner. Juggling three children and working on a popular international family entertainment brand here in the Middle East have really taken their toll on me and have left me with very little time to write. Janah and Serene have also started swim squad training, which is taking up four afternoons a week. Janah even competed in her first swimming competition.

I found myself gravitating towards the back of my local café; I could hear a familiar Australian accent over the Arabian music playing in the background. In the distance I could see a couple sitting at my regular table with their children; their accent reminded me of home. As I lifted the pram over the step, I looked over at the female and then turned and glanced at the male sitting opposite her. My jaw dropped.

“What are you doing here?” I uttered, as though I had known them my entire life.

They were not just any ordinary Australians – I had just taken my seat beside two iconic Australian television personalities who I had admired throughout my career as a journalist.

Over the few months that I had lived in Al Muroor, I had become a regular at Café Macchiato. Each morning, after dropping Janah off at nursery, not far from our home, I would push the ‘train’ – the double-pram – Serene sitting in the front while Alisar lay quietly in the back, to the small shopping centre opposite my apartment block.

For the first six months I found it difficult meeting people or going anywhere with three small children. My morning walk to the coffee shop was the highlight of my day. I was living in an area predominantly made up of Emiratis. Occasionally I would see expats but everyone seemed to be doing their own thing, living their life, with no interest in making new friends. I was okay with that, I was fairly comfortable in my own skin and had never relied heavily on friends in the past. But living away from family was different; in this part of the world your friends become your family. It was during the religious holidays when Tarek and I really began to feel our family’s absence. In Tarek’s situation, he was working and instantly forming friendships through his job but for me it was much harder.

Before we moved into our apartment in Al Muroor, I had attended a local mother’s group in Abu Dhabi. When I arrived at the British Club, I was surrounded by women who had been in the country for many years and had formed their clique – they were mainly British women who were regulars at the club. I thought many of them were pretentious, caring more about replacing chandeliers in their oversized water front villas in Al Raha than engaging in conversation with new arrivals.

Celebrating Janah's 3rd birthday in Abu Dhabi
Celebrating Janah’s 3rd birthday in Abu Dhabi

I stood around with my oversized tummy, playing and laughing with the girls. I wasn’t there to make friends, I told myself. I was there to give my daughters an opportunity to stretch their legs, run around in the large ballroom, which had been made into a makeshift playground. I attended the Abu Dhabi Mums group for several weeks until I gave birth to Alisar. There were the occasional conversations, which usually started with ‘How long have you been here? Where are you from? Are they twins?’ (Referring to Janah and Serene). But within minutes the exchange would end when we looked over and realised our children had taken advantage of their mums being distracted; rushing to the confectionary stand and often turning on the water dispenser, flooding part of the room.

I'll never forget the first time I met Lisa
I’ll never forget the first time I met Lisa

The women who were interested in making new friends were, like myself, new arrivals who had children approximately the same age. I remember running around after Serene, when I looked over at a young blonde woman talking to her son – he was roughly the same age as Serene. We laughed together.

Lisa and I were drawn to one another – the Australian accent was impossible to miss and there was the simple fact that neither of our children looked like us. Our kids had Arabian traits while we were both blonde and fair. Although I have a Middle Eastern background, my children had inherited their father’s dark features. Lisa, who grew up in an Italian household, in Sydney, was married to a young man from a Lebanese background, and her son Isaac had inherited Joe’s skin tone and hair colour.

Our friendship blossomed away from Abu Dhabi Mums. We attended Isaac’s birthday party at their home and we would often have them around to our house for lunch. Joe and Tarek even offered to babysit the kids together while Lisa and I attended the first Capitala Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi and later the George Michael and Alicia Keys concerts.

I attended my first concert in Abu Dhabi with Lisa
I attended my first concert in Abu Dhabi with Lisa

I was devastated when Lisa and Joe left Abu Dhabi, shortly after she gave birth to her second son – they were unexpected victims of the global financial crisis (more on that later). Lisa and I stayed in touch over the years through Facebook, where I’ve watched her and her family settle back into life in Sydney.

Looking back now, every friend I had made during my first year in Abu Dhabi has now left the United Arab Emirates.

Coming up (Lifelong friends formed over Arabian coffee)

Lifelong friends in Arabia
Lifelong friends in Arabia

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