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UAE then and now through the eyes of Filipino expats

In the run-up to the 49th National Day, The Filipino Times brings you rare photos that mirror the UAE’s journey to success and the life of earlier batch of Pinoy expats here

Before the laudable rapid urbanization of the UAE, where you can gaze at skyscrapers that speak volumes about its feats, the country looked drastically different as captured in old snaps by earlier batch of overseas Filipinos, who witnessed its remarkable accomplishments as a young nation.

A series of rare photographs handed out to The Filipino Times has caught our attention. In one of these photos, two children were standing on the desert of a seemingly familiar place. We followed the trail of when and where this photo was taken, and wondered how life has been for the two kids in the photo.

Vivien Napenas’ two kids in 1991, at a huge barren space of sand in Mussafah

The search has led us to 70-year-old Vivien Napenas, who has been in the UAE over the past 29 years. The two little kids in this old photo that intrigued us are her children. She vividly recalled that it was taken in 1991 in the Mussafah area, Abu Dhabi—at a time when most of that area was practically a barren landscape. At a distance, there were very few structures built on dunes.

Vivien related that, at that time, she followed her husband, Ricardo (now 69 years old), who first came to the country in 1988 to work as an electrical engineer. The Filipina, on the other hand, had another plan in mind; she wanted to work here as a broadcast journalist.

“I landed in Abu Dhabi… Along the way at the center islands and roadsides are palm trees. Ang Abu Dhabi Island capital noon ay napakalawak,” she said.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority’s data, there were only 21,000 migrant Filipinos in the UAE in the early 1990s. Over the years, their population grew thousand-folds, becoming the third largest single nationality living and working in the country. Next to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE has one of the largest concentrations of Filipino workers in the world. And for many years now, while OFWs, along with many expat communities, contribute to the continuous progress of the UAE, they are also among top remittance senders back home. This, in turn, helps the Philippine economy to stay afloat.

Taken in 1989, taxi coming from the island area where Marina Mall stands today. Photo from Vivien Napenas.

Back to the old photo of Vivien’s children, a huge part of Mussafah has transformed into what is now called the Industrial City of Abu Dhabi (ICAD), where towering commercial centers have sprouted right from the ground where Vivien took the photo of her children almost 30 years ago.

“The transformation of the UAE is overwhelming. The country is only in its 49th anniversary, yet they have drawn the attention of the world with their Burj Khalifa, the visit of Roman Catholic Pope, and many other international events that were held with ease and success.

“All these and more are witnessed by Filipinos here who were contributors to the journey in achieving these goals. Ang Pinoy ay kasama sa pag-unlad ng mga sector ng health at wellness, construction, education, tourism, media and communications, businesses and others,” Vivien said.

Beach area back in 1989 where the Emirates Palace hotel stands today. Photo from Vivien Napenas.

Life in the UAE has been very kind to their family, said Vivien. She and Ricardo are still residing here up to this day. “While Ric still wants to work, kailangan samahan ko siya,” she said, adding that her own salon business also keeps her busy these days.

As for their children, her eldest Mark Joseph has his own family now and they all live in the UAE, while Vivien’s daughter chose to live in Quezon City.

For Vivien, the determination of the country’s leaders, from the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father, to the ones who came after him, has made a legacy of transforming the country with all the laurels that comes under its name at such a short period of time.

“I have great admiration to the leaders of this country in propelling this place to prosperity and progress. No country in the world can be compared to the speed of transformation it has gone through, thanks to the strong will and determination of their wise leaders,” Vivien said.

“Salamat sa pagtanggap nila sa ating mga Pilipino. Salamat sa pagbibigay nila ng pagkakataon na makasama ang sariling pamilya kaya marami sa atin ang tumagal at namumuhay dito na matiwasay at mapayapa,” she added.

Such stories as Vivien’s are among the quieter accounts of how Filipino expats feel every UAE National Day. It’s more than their second home. Through the successes it has achieved, as well as the challenges it has triumphed over the years, the Filipino community stands as one with this nation since the first batch of OFWs arrived here.

Vivien Napenas’ husband, Ricardo at the Volcano Fountain before it was demolished in 2004.

Meet at Volcano Fountain, anyone?

Go back to your memory lane. If you can recall the so-called ‘Volcano Fountain’ in Abu Dhabi, it only means you also belong to the earlier batch of expats in the country.

Before it was demolished in 2004, it was once a favorite meeting place for Filipinos, because it was a landmark that’s easier to remember for its popular ‘volcano’ shape.

Jethroefel Ramboyong, 48, who first came to the UAE in 1998 as an electronic engineer, fondly recalled that it was a popular hangout place for Filipinos, mostly after sending their airmails or engaging in a long distance overseas calls with their loved ones in the Philippines every weekend.

“Sa Abu Dhabi naman, halos magkakakilala ang mga Pilipino kasi wala pang mga mall noon. Madalas magkita-kita ang mga Pinoy sa Cooperative para mag grocery at kumain, malapit ito sa Le Meridien at Hamdan Center. Ang Corniche noon ay pasyalan ng mga tao kasi masarap mag-jogging, picnic at barbecue. May Volcano din noon na tagpuan ng magkakabarkada,” Jethroefel related.

The area is now part of a bicycle track extending toward the Corniche beach area. Although get-togethers in this area are long gone, Jethroefel is happy about the face-lifts that the UAE has undertaken—from infrastructure to transportation. “Naglipana ang mga buildings ngayon at mas matataas na skyscrapers. Every street at area ngayon ay may mga mall at naglalakihan pa. Marami nang pasyalan ang mga tao. May mga maayos na public transportation ngayon, like the Dubai Metro at buses,” he said.

More than providing all the citizens and expats alike with these astonishing developments, what Jethroefel appreciates about the UAE are the many opportunities it continues to offer for foreign workers like him.

Reflecting on how the UAE has changed the lives of many, he said: “Isang malaking pasasalamat sa bansang UAE sa pagkupkop at pag-aruga sa maraming Pilipino na gustong magkaroon ng maayos na buhay. Maraming opportunity ang naibigay ng UAE sa mga OFW hindi lang sa trabaho, sa pinansyal, kundi sa maayos at tahimik na buhay. Maraming OFW ang umuwi na maunlad at naibigay ang pangangailangan sa kanilang pamilya.”

Jethroefel Ramboyong at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in 1999.

A pillar of tolerance

Aside from its sterling record of always aiming to be the best in everything for the benefit of all its citizens and residents, the UAE is also known for embodying religious tolerance.

The historic UAE visit of Pope Francis in February 2019 sealed the country’s position as an open and tolerant society in the heart of the Middle East. It is the same reason that more than 200 nationalities live here in perfect harmony.

This culture of tolerance did not just emerge in recent years; it has always been part of its psyche as a nation, which emanates from the principles of Sheikh Zayed.

For instance, St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Abu Dhabi, which is visited by thousands of Christian faithful every week before the pandemic,  has been part of the country’s history since the Abu Dhabi Presidential Court granted land for its construction at the Al Mushrif area in 1977.

Vilma De Mesa in white dress and shoes at the old church in UAE back in 1985.

Vilma Mendoza de Mesa, who has been in the UAE since 1981, serves as a witness as to how tolerance has long been observed by this nation and its people.

The full-time church worker at Filipino Christian Church in Abu Dhabi said, “It is my privilege as a senior citizen, who has lived and worked here for more than three decades to witness the rise of the UAE and the Emiratis to make their mark globally, while being mindful of other peoples and countries.”

The 66-year-old Filipina added: “The country had always been traditional in their view of spiritual matters since its inception as the Union, but their commitment to be in the cutting edge of contemporary globalization led them to this tolerance without jeopardizing their own faith.

“Mabrook, UAE, for all the commendable progress, despite some inevitable setbacks [due to the global pandemic]. This event, however, also proved the stability and resiliency of the country and its government.”

Ma. Elenita Arojado, who landed in Abu Dhabi in 1996 to work as a nurse, recalls that Abu Dhabi was already a melting pot of cultures that celebrated diversity.

“Nung una akong dumating sa UAE, parang ang lahat ng nationalities nasa Abu Dhabi na. Kaya ang tingin ko mayaman talaga yung bansa dahil bukas sila sa lahat upang makapag hanapbuhay,” said Arojado who was among the early batch of Filipinos who came to the Volcano Fountain and the Corniche Beach to meet fellow OFWs at a time when social media hasn’t even started yet.

She thanks the UAE for not just for providing OFWs with the opportunity to work, but more important for acting as a humanitarian nation at a time when the Philippines needs aid.

“I am so grateful to this wonderful nation, for extending your help for the Filipino people in times of calamity for giving us opportunity to make a living to stay comfortably in this place for the freedom to practice our faith and made us part of this country
May this nation be continually blessed and our Almighty God shower His abundant grace that UAE remain a peaceful land and more joyful years to celebrate your freedom. Happy 49th National day!”

Neil Bie

Neil Bie is the Assistant Editor for The Filipino Times, responsible for gathering news that will resonate among OFW readers in the UAE, Philippines, and around 200 countries, where the platform reaches both Filipinos and worldwide audiences. ||| Get in touch with Neil at: Facebook: Neil Bie ||| Email: [email protected]||| or by sending a message to the Facebook page of The Filipino Times at: https://www.facebook.com/FilipinoTimes/

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