Guest workers in Dubai hold pictures of damily members back home.
Guest workers in Dubai hold pictures of damily members back home.

Far From Home

In today’s hyperconnected world, many developing countries find that their most lucrative export is people. The foreign workers and their families must grapple with an inevitable trade-off: emotional loss for material gain.

Noon in the United Arab Emirates is four in the afternoon in the Philippines, which means that Teresa Cruz’s two older children are supposed to be home from school and back inside the apartment of their aunt, who is raising them. Teresa lives in Dubai, the U.A.E.’s most populous city, 4,300 miles from the Philippines. She’s a 39-year-old sales clerk at a clothing store in one wing of a shining multistory Dubai mall. Her job requires her to straighten clothes, ring up transactions, keep track of receipts, and smile whenever a customer walks in. She’s on her feet six days a week, Fridays off.

So Friday midday is a scheduled time for Teresa to see her 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son, and because she’s an overseas worker—one of many millions of adults who have traveled thousands of miles from home to take jobs that allow them to send money back to their families—she does this in the overseas worker’s modern way: She pulls a low, plastic stool up to a computer set into a particleboard desk inside the bedroom she shares with four other people. She logs on to Facebook. She clicks a video-chat button, leans in close, and waits.

The first time I waited with her, Teresa was still in her pajamas and fuzzy-eared slippers at midday. She lives in the bedroom with her husband, Luis, who like Teresa left the Philippines years ago; their two youngest children, a baby and a three-year-old; and whomever the couple has persuaded to babysit while Teresa and Luis are at work. (Names have been changed to shield the family from potential repercussions.) This month it was a young Filipina who had run away from her job as an Emirati family’s ill-treated maid and was now illicitly residing in a metal bunk wedged between the Cruz family mattress and the bedroom door. The baby was teething and cranky, and Teresa shushed him as she clasped him to one hip, her eyes fixed on the computer.

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