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Immigrant Views of Dubai, the ‘World’s Fastest Growing City’

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Posted on Feb 18, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

(Page 2)

Ekta, Sanjay’s wife, chimed in that, had they stayed in India, their life would have been an even greater struggle. Specifically, “because of traveling from your home to the workplace is so difficult. Trains are so overcrowded, buses are crowded. You have to wait for hours. So we would have been spending at least three hours a day just traveling to and from work and the house. And the pollution is so great. It’s really, really bad. I don’t think India, especially Bombay [where we are from], is a country where you can raise your kids.”

Like immigrants the world over, living and working in a place like Dubai enabled Sanjay and Ekta to provide their children with a better life. “I feel all our children are successful today mainly because of the education that we were able to afford and give to them by living in Dubai,” added Ekta.

“But,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to spend my retired life in Dubai. I would like to spend my old age in India.”

Padma is a 39-year-old Indian who was raised in Dubai as a young child and, like me, moved to the U.S. for higher education. Unlike me, however, Padma decided eventually to move back and is now married with two children and working for a government agency. Like Sanjay, she has found happiness in Dubai. Padma told me, “Yes, I’m happy. But there’s a lot more to it. If I look at my life in Dubai I feel lucky because the work that I do here is amazing and exciting. In terms of affording education for our kids and a somewhat luxurious lifestyle—it’s something that I know a lot of people in my age group are struggling to do the same in Europe and in the United States. So living here has been rewarding.”


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But life is not luxurious for all or even most Indians in Dubai. Ayesha, an Indian woman in her 20s who was raised in neighboring Oman, has lived in Dubai for seven years. Like thousands of other Indian migrants, she came looking for a better life and greater opportunity. Yet working as a copywriter for an e-commerce website doesn’t bring in enough money. Ayesha lives in Bur Dubai, a working-class neighborhood in the city that she affectionately calls “a ghetto,” sharing an apartment with a roommate.

I asked her what she thinks her life would have been had she lived in India and she responded, “It would be definitely more rushed because Dubai makes you lazy. For example, in Bombay, rush hour is like a war zone. You become very good at catching the bus! And it’s very expensive there too.

“But,” added Ayesha, “life in Dubai is transient. People come here just to make money. You have to know how to make money fast. And then you go back.

“I’m not very good at that,” she lamented. In fact, “it’s very easy to get into debt here if you’re not careful.”

What about the fact that immigrants in Dubai have to toe a tricky line, being careful not to criticize Dubai’s government or push the limits of the many harsh laws? Ayesha told me, “Because I’ve always lived like this [as an immigrant], I’ve always felt that I don’t really have any say. I’ve never experienced the environment where you have rights, like you watch people in American movies say, ‘I want to talk to my lawyer’—you don’t have such situations here.”

Shefali is a 30-year-old artist who was born and raised in Dubai as an Indian immigrant and moved to the U.S. for higher education. Because of the U.S.’ strict immigration rules, after graduating, she was forced to move back to Dubai to live with her parents, even though she obtained a reputable job in her field in an American firm. Now, five years later, she is getting ready to move back to North America, but this time her destination is Canada, a country that offered her residency. Shefali is among those Indians who call Dubai their home, saying, “I’m a ‘Dubaian,’ even if I don’t have a passport to prove it.” But she cannot bear to live in a country whose laws are stifling and arbitrarily applied. She’s moving back to the West because “there’s a lot more freedom to express yourself and grow. Here, there is really no room to grow, especially as an artist. Unless you’re in marketing or sales and you’re willing to play the game.”

I asked Shefali to describe Dubai to someone who has never visited the city: “There’s a lot of glitz and glamour. The lifestyle is really fancy. You have house help. You live a really cushy life. When I moved back to Dubai after being in the U.S., I was initially happy to be here because life got much easier.” But “there’s no room for growth. This is a business city. It’s like Vegas. There’s a lot of money and consumer culture. If you want to have a luxurious life and make money, you come to Dubai.” Shefali also had choice words to describe Dubai’s mall culture. She called the ubiquitous shopping centers “garish, over-the-top and opulent. It’s desensitizing. The malls are really clean and fancy. They have massive waterfalls. Some of them even have trains!”

But given the cushy life for many Indians, I asked Shefali why she wants to leave Dubai. She didn’t hesitate, saying, “I feel like my soul is drowning here. If you’re an artist or a writer, it’s very hard to find inspiration in a city like this.”

Ultimately Dubai’s future depends not only on affording its vast immigrant population greater rights, but on charting a path that offers all of its inhabitants the potential to be genuinely happy. And that is a challenge all cities face.

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