Stock Dubai skyline city
Dubai skyline: Illustrative purposes Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Dubai: The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the expatriate life in the region into larger focus because of the uncertainty around jobs. Expatriates head home or to other countries for various reasons including redundancy, retirement or other life changes such as emigration. For most expats who have been here for years, UAE is home even though their passport says otherwise. Here are the stories of some expats who are saying goodbye to this 'home' and returning with hope, dreams and some fear of the unknown.

'More than half of my life in the Gulf'

After 31 years in the Gulf, and over 12 of those in the UAE, Mathew James* spent more than half of his life outside his country. The 57-year-old expat left home state of Kerala in India in 1989 for Yemen and brought wife Susan* along a year later. In 2012, the family moved to Dubai. The year of retirement for the couple, 2020, holds much trepidation, ironically the least of which is money. “I have saved up some money for a small business or something to keep us busy, and I am not worried about that. We have always lived frugally and I believe we’ll be fine in that aspect,” James said.

However, the couple agree that the bigger difficulty would be adjusting to social and cultural norms back home. “As an NRI, there is a certain treatment you get, you lose all that sheen when you retire,” James laughed. This sheen, he claimed, would also excuse you from the rules you are ‘supposed’ to follow around relatives and neighbours. “There is always a certain way people expect you to act, and if you don’t conform, you could face some back handed stuff. Not a great way to feel when you return home to rest,” he added.

File image used for illustrative purposes

Susan, who was employed for over 25 years as a nurse, is stressed about the fact that their whole life would now change. “It is almost like starting over again, this time in your own home town,” she said. James and Susan have never lived for more than 3-4 months at a time in the house they built with their savings. This also meant not having to deal with nosy neighbours or answer pertinent questions from extended family about every place you go and every decision you make.

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“I am hoping that we can settle in easily, and be happy with what we have. With our children educated, we can finally take a back seat, be at home and follow our passions,” James said.

'I love this country'

Indrajit Gurung, from Nepal, had only good things to say about the UAE as he waited in a government COVID-19 isolation facility in Dubai. The 33-year-old had been working in the UAE for 7 years when his circumstances changed and he started considering leaving the country. To add to that, Gurung realised that he wanted to be closer to his wife, who works in Nepal.

“I am going to miss work, this lifestyle and of course, the salary, the entertainment options, being in Dubai has changed our life,” he said. “I love this country, you know, honestly,” he gushed. “But I want to be with my family and go back home to my wife, it’s been almost a year since I saw her and now I have decided to go back.”

Gurung found work 7 years ago at a Starbucks café and continued working there until things changed and he decided to move back. COVID-19, however, derailed Gurung’s plans.

Indrajit Gurung is a 33-year-old expat from Nepal and is leaving the UAE after 7 years Image Credit: Supplied

He had gone for the mandatory PCR test required to fly home when the results came back positive. “I was just unlucky, you know… I am now in a quarantine facility, I have four more days left to be here,” he added. “I can’t believe this is free, this is a really good place and they are making me so comfortable,” he said about the quarantine facility.

“I have learnt so much from working in a café, being around people and everything. I have, by the grace of God, saved some money which I want to invest in a small business – maybe a small café,” the expat added.

Gurung has a clear business plan in mind and has even picked out a location for his idea. “My area gets a lot of tourists, not so much right now, but once all these issues [pandemic] change, tourists will come back,” he said. Up next for Gurung is another PCR test, which if negative, will allow him to book a ticket towards his future.

'Our children were our investment'

Egyptian mom of three, Mona Zaki, has one recurring thought to share, “Age is just a number, and it’s just how you feel that matters.” The 59-year-old and her husband plan to retire and return to Egypt, after 29 years in the UAE, but she said they never really planned for retirement in any sense.

“My husband and I, we complement each other. He is a planner; he plans everything out for the long term. I am not like that. He is always prepared for any eventuality, and in case of a challenge he always makes sure we are covered. But we never used the method of actually saving for a retirement,” Zaki said.

What they did focus on, Zaki said, was investing in their children and their education. “From the day we got married, we said to each other, our children are our investment. We will raise them to be independent, critical thinkers and then they can save and create a future for themselves,” she said.

Illustrative image: Mona Zaki - “I know my husband might get frustrated about the lack of activity but I don’t believe that it should matter at all. You can always find new passions, new hobbies at any age or any time.”.

Her husband planned that by moving the family to Canada for the children’s education while making sure they saved equally for all three children to cover their education. The parents took advantage of the Canadian savings plan that allowed their educations contributions to grow over time giving each child a sizeable college fund.

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Speaking about what the ‘right’ retirement nest egg was Zaki said, “As you get older, medical expenses can rise. So I think the perfect amount can help you live a reasonable lifestyle, with options to enjoy life by a decent amount, you know occasional meals out or night out.”

“The biggest thing is that your nest egg should be able to cover you for any unforeseen medical issues or any emergencies depending on where you live.”

“To be honest with you, I love this country so much. “You know, life is going to be very different in Egypt, we know that. But as you get older, your priorities change. Things come into perspective,” Zaki said. Speaking about feeling bored or frustrated about ‘retirement’ and having no job, she said, “I know my husband might get frustrated about the lack of activity but I don’t believe that it should matter at all. You can always find new passions, new hobbies at any age or any time.”.

“The only thing is that you should not feel that age restricts you from doing anything.”

True to her words, Zaki started a business in Dubai in her mid-50s after arming herself with a qualification in interior design.

It is never too late to start over

Aged 49, in 2008, Lamona Ramos headed to Dubai and beating all odds found an admin job that matched her skills and her experience. “It may sound strange, coming here when I was older to try and find a job but my children were studying, one of them was headed to college. I knew I had to make extra money to invest in their education,” Ramos said. The engineering company that hired her was an equal-opportunity employer, Ramos added and she remained with the firm throughout her time in the UAE.

12 years later, both her daughters are gainfully employed, and the 61-year-old is planning to head back to the Philippines by next year for retirement. It was Ramos’ daughter in Dubai who sent in her details to Gulf News. “I am glad my children can see the sacrifices I made for them. Their education was my priority,” Ramos said.

File image used for illustrative purposes: For other OFWs who want to plan retirement Ramos has one tip – save first after essential expenses. Make use of the pension fund and saving plans, she added

Ramos said she built a home for herself while working in Dubai and she made sure to save for that after the children’s school expenses. “So, when I go back, that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about,” she added. Ramos has some savings which she plans to invest in a business, hopefully a small restaurant she said. She has also saved up in the Philippines’ pension fund for OFWs which can help cover living expenses back home.

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For other OFWs who want to plan retirement she has one tip – save first after essential expenses. Make use of the pension fund and saving plans, she added. “Even a small amount saved counts,” she added.

'My best years were those in UAE'

37-year-old Mary Claire Pike summed up her 9 years of UAE life experience in one sentence, “I have accomplished everything I wanted.”

Calling UAE the ‘promised land’ for her, Pike said she first came to the UAE on a tourist visa sponsored by her sister, and managed to find a job at ADNOC through a contractual agency. Working in human resources, Pike then moved to an investment firm in Dubai after four years. However, she was let go after two years there. “I have been blessed in that I found a job again in just one month after that,” Pike said adding that she got into project management next where she worked for 3 years.

Her decision to leave the UAE came after her husband got an opportunity in New Zealand last year and the family is in the process of emigration as permanent residents there. Pike’s husband is in the nursing sector and they have one child.

“I am going to be with my family there, but I know my heart will ache for my family here,” she said. Pike said her friends in Dubai would be what she would miss the most. “I have so many friends, from all nationalities. My Emirati friends always check up on me and my Filipino friends too,” Pike added. The native of Manila, Philippines added that she would be eternally grateful to the UAE for the years spent here.

“I couldn’t have asked for more, I am making a graceful exit,” she said.

“I can continue that once I head to Egypt as my business partner is here. We can find new clients, new suppliers. Anything is possible.”

'My plans have changed...'

“When I found out that I had to leave my job, it was heart breaking,” said Ismail Khan, a 30-year-old expat from Peshawar, Pakistan. Khan’s wife and daughter were in Dubai with him at the start of the pandemic outbreak and he was able to send them home safely. Soon after that however, his employer, in the restaurant business, asked him to resign due to financial circumstances but gave him time to find another job.

Faced with the possibility of being unemployed, Khan thought his time in the UAE was over. He wrote, as a reply to a Gulf News post, that he was about to leave. “I thought I will leave, be with my family… but then by the grace of God, my plans changed,” Khan said.

Ismail Khan
Ismail Khan is a 30-year-old expat from Peshawar, Pakistan and he said his plans to leave changed when a friend offered him a job Image Credit: Supplied

Khan had a friend who had promised that in case of any trouble with employment he could reach out. This friend helped Khan by finding him a job at another café.

“So now, I will continue to be here,” Khan laughed in relief.

The emotional, mental effects of such change

Change – Fight or flight response

Dr Fabian Saarloos, German Neuroscience Center

"When dealing with a change in environment the brain will need to adjust to the change, which could encompass several sub-changes, e.g. location, climate, food, social environment, etc. Since the brain is always making sure that we survive, the brain will start by making hypotheses, or expectations i.e. predictions, about the receiving environment.

These predictions and the current state of uncertainty and unfamiliarity with the new environment will lead to stress, which can be only experienced physically (e.g. nervousness) but also cognitively (e.g. insecurity, doubts) or as a complex emotional reaction (e.g. anxiety, panic). Once in the new environment, the brain will create a fight-flight, or approach-avoid response in order to explore the context and assess and evaluate the expectations. If the expectations about the environment are met, adjustment will take place and the person will deal with the new situation as events happen.

However, if expectations are not met, usually because they were too high, then the brain may respond with sadness and depressive feelings (as a grief response over the old environment), or feelings of frustration and anger, which are all emotions that should stimulate the person to get to terms with the new environment and process the ‘lost’ environment.

Why worry

In case of extreme changes, shock may ensue, a state in which the brain shuts down in order to take the time and energy to process the loss of the old and the conditions of the new environment. People may feel disoriented, nostalgic, rage and frustration/anger or guilt, and depressive feelings. Clinically, these emotions are functional as they should motivate the person to explore and adapt to the new environment. However, if these emotions last too long (e.g. longer than 2 months, and/or mood swings and negative thoughts do not recede, serious psychological disorders may develop.

Planning is critical

First of all, one should prepare for the transition, e.g. by gathering information about the new environment and conditions so to form correct and realistic expectations. Planning is essential, so to maintain a sense of control, maintain commitment as well as a guideline to adjusting and the required steps to take. One should be mindful of the purpose of the transition, so to maintain hope and give the transition a positive meaning, and of course one should also look for the exciting things and benefits of the transition.

Should one suffer the emotional reactions of sadness or anxiety, one should always bear in mind that emotions in essence serve a protective function. So should sadness and depressive complaints ensue, one should seek support and comfort (e.g. family) but also grieve about what has been lost, and try to regain or recreate what has been perceived as lost in the new environment. Should emotional reactions however last too long, one should seek the help of a mental health worker or a social worker."

Sudden changes are never easy

Sneha John, Clinical Psychologist, Camali Clinic Child & Adult Mental Health

"The emotional impact of moving is one among the many stressful situations that we experience in our lifetime. Being expected to move to a new environment without prior notice, starting lives fresh and leaving behind fond memories of their life in the UAE, can be overwhelming.

People develop attachments to their homes and communities that can be as strong as relationships with their families. Many of us try to spend a great deal of effort trying to avoid change and have certainty in our lives. Hence, when we are expected to face sudden transitions, it is quite normal for our internal stress response systems to go into fight or flight mode. This is our body’s automatic mechanism to cope with unexpected situations which can seem beyond our control. As a result, we perceive the situation as frightening and overwhelming.

Anxiety, decision fatigue

As people are exposed to situations that require decision making, it can lead to decision fatigue and exhaustion. Unable to cope up with the demands of these decisions, an individual can respond with heightened anxiety. This affects our ability to think clearly and focus on daily responsibilities which includes looking after ourselves. With an anxious thinking style, we are often pre-occupied with thoughts about the present and future.

We call this paralysis by analysis. We may be hyper-vigilant for changes and take the effort to plan in advance even when certain things are beyond our control. The more we operate with an anxious mind; we get attuned to behaving in that way. Anxiety could lead to even more serious issues such as depression, chronic fatigue, chronic pain and social isolation.

This too shall pass

While there is no formula to preparing for situations and would depend on each individual, there are a few things we can do to prepare for such situations. Take the time to evaluate the situation in its entirety, which includes the pros and cons. Take charge of the change by looking at the positive outcomes from it.

Significant changes are often hard-won, with reversals and failures along the way. By seeing change as a journey, with bumpy patches as part of the terrain, it becomes easier to be compassionate with ourselves when we are not doing as well as we hoped. Learning to control your impulses and emotions, especially under stress can convey a confidence that translates into proactive resilience. Thinking with a calm and collected mind could help you transition smoothly into the next season. Be mindful of your stress responses and the tone of your emotional mind which says ‘you will be doomed, you cannot cope, things will never be the same.’

Replace negative self-talk with a positive internal dialogue, ‘this is not what I expected. It is disappointing. I can get through this. This too shall pass.’