Dominique Villafuerte clearly remembers that moment in 2013 when Dubai won the bid for the World Expo 2020. “I was sitting in the cinema when that announcement was made. I still remember looking at my cell phone when that tweet from His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, flashed on my screen. It was a moment in history,” she says.
Today Villafuerte is a part of the diverse workforce of 67 nationalities that’s bringing Expo 2020 Dubai to life. Did she imagine she would one day be a part of this historic event, representing an incredible mix of cultures, backgrounds and worldviews? “Oh no, never,” says the administration officer in marketing. “I came to Dubai in 2010 to save money and get married. My mom has been here for 25 years, so for us Dubai has always been very special. I was working in the hospitality sector when in 2016 I chanced upon the Expo website and just registered my interest to work here. And then life took me on a different course.”
A blessing for my family
It was in 2017 that Villafuerte discovered that her 19-month-old daughter Michelle Grace was severely deaf. With cochlear implants costing Dh175,000 per ear, the Manila native reached out to the local community for help. Soon she discovered the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention’s Help Me Hear initiative, helping non-citizen and low-income families in the UAE. After getting in touch with the ministry, Dominique was swiftly given a disability health card to ensure her daughter received free tests and treatment locally – and September that year, Michelle Grace was fitted with a cochlear implant in her right ear at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah. “When the implant was turned on, Michelle Grace cried and so did everyone else in the room,” she says almost teary eyed.
I feel the Expo is a collaboration of different talented individuals who want to show the world what the UAE has to offer. It is a great honour to be a part of this project and to be part of history. There won’t be another Expo 2020.
The year 2017 turned doubly lucky for Villafuerte when she got a call in November from Expo 2020. “They told me they found my CV in the database and if I would be keen to take up the role in the marketing department. It was now my turn to give back. I accepted the role wholeheartedly,” she says.
Now a staff member at Expo 2020, Dominique is giving back to the country that has given her and her family so much. She has contributed to a wide array of initiatives including ‘Welcome the Future’ and Lionel Messi’s first campaign as an Expo 2020 global ambassador. “I feel the Expo is a collaboration of different talented individuals who want to show the world what the UAE has to offer. It is a great honour to be a part of this project and to be part of history. There won’t be another Expo 2020,” says Dominique, whose husband Aaron Paul works as a pastor at a church in Jebel Ali. “My mom, me and my children – we are three generations living in the UAE. It’s been a blessing for us… I think it’s been a blessing for everyone who has lived and worked here.”
Like Dominique, there are many others who are now part of the Expo’s multicultural workforce. Their lives and livelihoods have flourished in the UAE and together they drive home the beauty of Expo’s theme of collaboration and innovation. As the UAE gets ready to welcomes 192 nations and millions of visitors from across the planet, these individuals with their special skill sets are ready to create the future.
We are all ambassadors
Sasha Kiseleva came to Dubai from Moscow in 2013 to work in the events industry, just two months before Dubai won its bid to host Expo 2020. “I remember the fireworks,’ she says. “Everyone in the industry thought this was huge, a really big deal. I didn’t dare to think anything more, especially something like I would one day be working here. I was then just happy to have moved to a place that was well connected and had a safe and accepting society.” In 2018 Sasha quit her job to take a sabbatical to study yoga.
“And I thought to myself, “If I have to go back to go back to events it would have to be something big like Expo 2020.” As luck would have it, Sasha is now helping to stage the first ever World Expo in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (MEASA) region, and couldn’t be happier to play her part. Her skill sets in events and marketing have offered her a role as a manager in the contracts department. “The UAE has given me so much and I think of it as my home. I met my husband and married him here. We have so many friends here and our children will most likely be born in the UAE as well. I don’t see myself anywhere else.”
The UAE has given me so much and I think of it as my home. I met my husband and married him here. We have so many friends here and our children will most likely be born in the UAE as well. I don’t see myself anywhere else
Sasha is impressed by the UAE’s ability to foster peace and tolerance. For example, she celebrates Russian Orthodox Christmas with friends whose home countries range from Ireland to Mexico. At Expo 2020, Sasha is enjoying the “awesome” experience of working within a vast talent pool comprising people from every corner of the planet. “We are all ambassadors,’ says Sasha. “There are lots of perceptions about this region, lots of misconceptions.
You can watch the news in your home country and have a very narrow view of the world. But when you speak with people from different countries and cultures, hear their views on the same stories, then you get a different picture. I enjoy talking about what I do, about the place I live in and work, and the more I talk, the more it comes as a surprise because people don’t know that the UAE can be this multicultural and cool. The Expo 2020 promotes the UAE as the hub for all things future and all things new.”
There is a saying, says Sasha, that the grass is always greener on the other side. “The Expo is that grass you are standing on. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s like we’re all running a marathon together and we’re going to cross the finish line at the same time. It doesn’t compare to anything else in terms of its scale, significance or legacy. It’s something I’ll tell my grandchildren about.”
Dubai is home
Architecture graduate Rahul Binyani has witnessed Dubai “go from The Flintstones to The Jetsons” and is looking to contribute his own designs both at Expo 2020 Dubai and beyond. Born in Kolkata, India, Rahul moved to Dubai at the age of four, and has been here ever since. He isn’t fond of the expat kid label. “This is home,” he reiterates. “I don’t know anything else.” It was right after completing his bachelor’s degree from the Canadian University of Dubai, Rahul got to know about Expo 2020, almost accidentally on the radio.
“The Expo was looking for apprentices. I was among the 2,700 applicants, and they selected only 27 of us from the UAE, the USA, Kuwait, Europe and the Far East.” At his interview, he was asked what he thought he could achieve during the nine-month programme. “I said I would be ready to face the construction world outside.”
The Expo was looking for apprentices. I was among the 2,700 applicants, and they selected only 27 of us from the UAE, the USA, Kuwait, Europe and the Far East
The Expo, Rahul says, has invested a lot of time and energy to the youth to become better people and future leaders – the UAE’s next generation. After completing the programme as an associate in the Real Estate and Development department, Rahul took up a full-time position at Expo 2020 (his first ever career role) and is now an Assistant Manager in Overlay.
“It means that my role is to design and build all the things that are required for Expo 2020. At the peak of Expo there will be 300,000 people visiting the site. We make sure that there is enough visitor information, rest areas and prayer rooms for them. This will be the temporary architecture for the duration of these six months.” Post-Expo, Rahul is excited about his prospects both in the UAE and beyond. “But wherever I go in the world and wherever my career takes me, I will always consider Dubai my home. And just like me, any visitor who passes through those gates of Expo 2020 with all the wonderful architecture they see around them, should feel like they are at home.”