DUBAI — A life-size electric Santa Claus sways his hips back and forth outside a grocery store on Rigga Street in Dubai. It's Christmastime across this desert metropolis. Shops, malls and hotel lobbies are decked out in holiday decorations and fake snow for the season.
Rigga Street is no exception. It runs through Deira, a neighborhood built decades before Dubai's futuristic skyline of high-rises. Here, a cup of sweet milky tea known as karak chai sells for just a dirham, the equivalent of about 25 cents. This is where many Filipinos working in Dubai call home. Most are Roman Catholic and marking another Christmas away from their families in the Philippines.
They've come to the United Arab Emirates in search of better pay. They live off only part of their salaries, sending the rest home every month to relatives in the Philippines relying on them.
In Dubai, migrant workers often live four to six people to a room. Ads plastered on an old payphone on Rigga Street advertise bed rentals for around $300 a month.
Working through the holiday
Since coming to Dubai three years ago, Robert Monsale has never had Christmas Day off. He's serving tables at a buffet inside a new Filipino restaurant on Rigga Street. It's festive inside. A Christmas tree is adorned with lights and ornaments.
"I didn't celebrate Christmas [before] because I was working at KFC," he said.
He'll likely have to work through Christmas again this year, but he doesn't seem to mind. His salary helps support his mother and siblings back home.
Romelyn Galang works in retail and won't have Christmas Day off either. She's a Filipina Christian who recently married a Muslim man from Egypt. She thinks he'll buy her a present like he did last year and take her out for dinner.
For this couple, though, Dubai is about earning a living. They even met at work in Dubai, she says.
"I came here to work," Galang says. "I came here to live."
Leaving family behind for work
There are around 10 million people living in the United Arab Emirates, with the vast majority foreign workers. It is one of the most popular destinations for overseas workers from the Philippines.
What they earn here and send home is critical to their families. Before the pandemic, state-linked local media reported there were around 750,000 Filipinos in the country. The money they sent to the Philippines accounted for around 7% of all personal remittances from the UAE, coming only after remittances to India and Pakistan, according to the UAE's Central Bank report in 2018, the most recent figures.
Many take on jobs that Emirati nationals and others shun as lower-paying. But their work as nannies and nurses, in offices, retail and hospitality, keeps the country's economy humming. There are laws that regulate working hours, basic salaries and paid time off, but domestic workers are generally subject to the whim of their employers, working long hours and often six days a week with little time off.
Dubai prides itself on being a place that's open to the world. It's a major tourist draw and where many foreigners who come to the UAE choose to live. As in the rest of the Gulf, the official religion is Islam. That means Christmas is not an official UAE holiday. Churches and other non-Muslim places of worship must obtain operating licenses from the government and are not allowed to proselytize.
Despite some government restrictions and oversight, churches operate as important spaces for building community and friendships among the many foreigners here living alone and apart from family. So large is the Catholic community that the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi hosted Pope Francis in 2019. He ministered the Arabian Peninsula's first ever papal mass, with thousands in attendance.
Mai Lumapac poses with a friend by a large Christmas tree in the St. Mary's Catholic Church courtyard. She's been in the UAE for 13 years. Her kids were just 5 and 8 when she left the Philippines to find work in Dubai as an administrative assistant. She's a widow who, like other migrant workers, might see her family for just a few weeks every couple of years.
"My family is in the Philippines so I celebrate alone with my friends," she says with a wide smile.
Lumapac says her children, who were raised by other relatives, understand the sacrifice she's had to make. She still sends them money for their education and living expenses. Thinking about what that sacrifice has meant overwhelms her for a moment.
"You make me cry," she says, laughing through tears.
Christmas is lit
Hundreds of Catholics, mainly from the Philippines and India, are gathered at St. Mary's for a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Children and their parents cheer as Santa Claus comes dashing through the courtyard — on a motorcycle. There isn't a reindeer in sight.
Soon, a group of all ages, including Lumapac and Filipino kids born in Dubai, put on a hip hop show. Sparks fly and Christmas beats drop. On the other side of the courtyard is a model of the Virgin Mary lit for Christmas and a prayer area where worshipers each light a candle.
Another popular spot for Filipinos this time of the year is the Rigga Night Market, where stalls sell clothes and accessories. The main draw, though, is the food — popular Philippine bites like fried squid with vinegar.
Nora Manliguis came to the market to browse. She lives in the emirate of Ajman, but comes to Dubai whenever she can for a change of scene and to visit a daughter who works here. For the past six months, Manliguis hasn't had a steady job. She gets by working at a salon part-time.
"I'm happy. I'm happy," she says, smiling ear to ear, showing off a pink crystal on a tooth. She's bought herself a bag and bracelet for Christmas. "I'm happy, even [if] I don't have work."
Joy in community
Few Filipinos in Dubai have worked longer than 85-year-old Nida Maristela. The silver-haired, self-identified born-again Christian retired some two decades ago as a teacher in the Philippines. She's lived in Dubai almost ever since, earning money selling perfume and other goods.
She's proud of the friendships she's made on Rigga Street, where she lives. It's a community she's built with care over the years. Everyone here knows her, she says. Many confide in her. To people here, she's simply known as "Mommy Nida."
"I'm old [and] I have many friends very young ... we celebrate [Christmas] by cooking, exchange gifts, like that. Eating, then dancing. Music and also songs," she says. "I don't get angry to anybody. That is my secret. Because God is always with us."