I'm Sorry Miss, but You Cannot Leave the Country
I was speechless.
The words were spoken by the Emirates immigration officer at Dubai International Airport. All he was supposed to do was look at my passport, verify that it was me, and let me through the gate to board my flight back home. But instead, he looks at it, flips through the pages, looks at me again, and after a short pause, motions over to his colleague, working at another counter "yalla, yalla". As the other official walks over, he also, glances at me, and looks at my passport and reiterates what his colleague was trying to tell me "You can't travel on this visa." My response "what do you mean I cannot travel, my passport is valid, I have a ticket out...", "Yes, but your visa has not been cancelled, your company needs to cancel your visa, and stamp it as cancelled in order to leave the country. I'm sorry."
I nod and walk away disappointed. Here goes my attempt at leaving the oppressive situation I willingly signed on for. I was 20 years old. Alone, in a foreign country in the middle east with no family within 4000 kilometres.
A little history into how I arrived at this moment
I was 20, studying online for my bachelors not because I was a fan of studying from home, but because neither parent of mine could afford to send me to a full-time university. So my aunt offered to pay for my studies but only if it was through correspondence (after all, she had gotten her degree the same way because of financial constraints).
I was a child raised in apartheid South Africa. My family had lived in the beautiful province of Durban for centuries after being brought over as indentured labourers by the British. My grandparents were the first Christians in our family, my grandfather gave his life to Christ (converted) at the age of 15 when a white Pastor from the UK - the influential and admired "J. F. Rowlands" had come to the minority-segregated neighborhood in Natal (formerly named Natalia by the Portuguese), South Africa. His main purpose was evangelism, and while I thank God for that, its good to note that he was also a businessman who took full advantage of the white privilege which existed at the time - he was able to open shops, churches and farms. My grandfather became a born-again Christian under his leadership and one of the most successful and influential Pastors in Southern Africa, but he remained a modest, humble man through it all. His demeanor was one I could only hope to achieve in a dream-world. I could never be that calm, that forgiving, that patient, that loving, that joyful, that faithful and that generous. He hated no-one and welcomed everyone, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or political views. He was not a man concerned with politics, he was concerned with the Glory of God and the human condition and how to relieve suffering as much as possible - by introducing people to the Peace of God, that surpasses understanding. He grew up as a minority in apartheid South Africa (just like the rest of my family), suffered, had to carry pass-books to be allowed onto certain parts of the beach, wasn't allowed to sit on certain park benches and remained poor all his life. Distinguished, but poor and full of forgiveness and love.
Anyway, we didn't have generational money. We didn't own farms, we didn't own land and if we wanted to study - we had to do it through online universities or receive bursaries (and I was definitely not that dedicated to studying in high school to receive one of those) so I studied my degree online for a fraction of the price of a full-time university. I studied through the same university as Nelson Mandela, so I was glad about that! Also, I preferred studying on my own time, and not having to get up in the mornings for classes (it meant I could hang around in my pj's for most of the day). In this story I am on my first year of college. Our family was having a hard time financially. My aunt who had agreed to pay for my studies. Now my own parents couldn't do this because my mother was remarried to an abusive man, and my father was diagnosed with schizophrenia from the time I was 8 years old...but that's another story. So that week my aunt looked in the newspaper and spotted a little ad saying "Opportunity of a lifetime! Work In Dubai as a waitress! Many jobs available. Flights, accommodation company sponsored. Good salaries. Interview will take place in July at the Elangeni luxury hotel" this was a ten minute drive away from us, on the beautiful Durban golden sands beachfront. My aunt shows me the ad and says "you should go." So I did.
I attended the interview with the recruitment company in June, and got a job as a waitress for a UK chain that was opening its first store in Dubai at Burjuman Mall in Dubai starting in July. I didn't want to go. I personally don't like the middle east. Not after living (mostly) free in South Africa, where women were gaining power and were respected in most cultures of South Africa. The culture in the middle east was totally unappealing to me...but after hearing about how ''progressive'' Dubai was, and that its a "tourist's dream", I decided to take the opportunity. Most of all so that I would be able to support myself and wouldn't be some kind of 'burden'' on my family at 20 years old while studying. By the way, employment in South Africa was scarce - hence the appeal of student work-abroad programmes.
We landed in Dubai International Airport, we were taken to our villa. A separate villa for men and a villa next door for women. The other staff hadn't arrived from their respective countries yet. It was just me and Johan (the other South African guy who was recruited by the same company). There were slums right next to our luxury company villas - one villa for male staff and one for female staff. The said two villas purchased by our boss (a wealthy 24-year-old Omani national whose dream was to open a popular UK sushi chain in Dubai) were meant to house 10 people in each 3 bedroom villa. I ended up sharing a room with 5 other girls from Indonesia and Romania respectively. The girls were fantastic, and I loved getting to know about their cultures. They were waitresses and chefs in the restaurant we opened.
Life at work
We attended a week-long orientation course, where we were certified in skills such as food-hygiene from Dubai-based UK institutes. There was an 'opening team' some key staff from the UK branch came to Dubai to orient us new recruits for the first Yo! Sushi chain in the middle east. This week went well, as we were 'under the wing' of the British visiting staff who were training us. We also learned about the Arab culture, and what not to say or do when relating. I was already accustomed to multi-cultures, (after all I am South African and we do have 11 national languages), but this was a challenge because I saw how women were oppressed - in my view anyway. Some families came in where the men were dressed in their cool white cotton clothing and the women were fully donned in black abayas in 50 degree Celsius heat. I thought that wasn't fair. Why not let the women wear white too at least? Anyway, the culture sort of got on my nerves more and more each day. And although I endured it, and actually enjoyed interacting with customers (who were mainly UK, American and Canadian expats with the exception of a lot of rich elite Arabs who were mostly friend of the owner and got free meals) I didn't enjoy working for 15 hours a day and only getting paid for 8. I brought it up with the owner, who said "he will see about it". He never did.
The Visa Change in Iran
After about 5 months into my job as a waitress, the whole team of around 20 staff were instructed to take the ''visa change trip" to an island on Iran, because our Dubai entry visas which the company had issued were only valid for 6 months, and had to be changed for the longer term (2 year) visas which we had signed up for on our contracts. By this time a lot of the staff had been working tirelessly 15 hour days and sometimes night shifts (during Ramadaan) and were fed-up of not being paid their fair wages. The only 2 non - eastern staff (aka not from Indonesia or the Philippines or Bangladesh) were me and the other South African guy. Both of us were also the only English speakers (which was highly sought after in the industry as Dubai was chock full of English-speaking expats spending their money with the favorable exchange rates for them)Our benefits were that we had free accommodation provided for us - our wages (which was not much) were purely for ourselves to spend on whatever we fancied.
About 5 months into our exhausting work, we found out from Human Resources that we all had to do ''visa run''. This basically meant that we had to go to a special island not part of the UAE, change our visa to work visas and return to the UAE. So the staff were sent in batches to Kish Island. Which to be honest reminded me a lot of Durban, my own coastal home-town. We rented bikes, cycled on the beach and ate sweet treats and just had fun, under the watchful eye of the Iranian police of course - I was confronted by a policeman one day while taking a walk, and asked to tie my headscarf the 'proper way' which was under the chin, instead of behind the head.
Sometimes there were two staff members on the island and sometimes there were 6 of us. Which was really fun at dinnertime. We had to wait on the island as long as it took to process a visa. My visa took a little more than a week. I stayed in a dirt cheap motel (paid for by my 'amazing' company) the motel was especially for those awaiting visa changes. I shared an apartment with about 5 other women, who worked for different companies in Dubai, and flesh-eating bed bugs - I'm not even kidding. I thought it strange that the women were banished to the yucky bed-bug ridden apartments hundreds of meters away from the beach while the men had large villas right on the beachfront! We found this out from our male co-workers who laughed at our accommodation because theirs was better than ours. I didn't care too much about that, I just wanted out. Out of the contract, out of the middle-east.
So everyday was a guessing game, we would watch the TV screen in our rooms and see if our name appeared on a screened list. If our name was there it meant our visa was ready and we had to go pick it up and proceed to the local airport we came in at (the same airport that issued us with the proper attire for Iran - full-length abayas (cloaks made out of cheap disposable fabric) and headscarves to pick out of a box as soon as we landed) In the meantime, while waiting on the island we rode bikes, talked about how we were being exploited by our companies and ate delicious Asian food from the local delis - all on company time and money (which was dirt cheap... considering our Omani boss drove a Maserati, a Porsche and a Ferrari just for fun). My visa took the longest to process, my other colleagues who had flown in with me had left and returned to work in Dubai and I was still waiting on the island. I was unhappy - not on Kish Island because it was a strange, yet relieving break from slaving away at work, but in Dubai - because life sucked. We were overworked and underpaid, and on top of that I was a triple-minority! I hated the stares and dirty looks from the Arab man who thought they could yell out any cuss words they pleased whenever I walked by (because I wasnt donned in the abaya - and they did this to foreign women - if you're not muslim you're inferior) - one day a Lamborghini full of Arab men stopped by the roadside to ask "how much" and a few other utterances in Arabic that I couldn't understand nor wanted to. I ignored them and continued my walk to work. I was wearing pants and a t-shirt. We were advised to dress 'modestly' by our very cool and very gay British manager on arrival. He said it 'just makes things easier, because Arabs don't like western women dressing in skimpy clothes'. The funny thing was I saw so many of the so-called 'holy' Arab guys that came to eat at the restaurant grinding away with big-boobed blondes at the club! Talk about double standards eh?
So while on Kish Island me and my co-workers hatched a plan - all this time of working for the company (6 months) they had been holding onto our passports - I only received it when it was handed to me at the visa desk in Iran after it had been processed with the company work permit and had to fly back into Dubai with the new work visa on it - so basically I had been illegally working on a 6 month tourist visa while in Dubai for those months (no use trying to bring that to the legalities - it would have just been dismissed since our Omani boss had 'contacts' everywhere) So the plan was, once I had my passport in hand, upon arrival in Dubai - I would try to book myself a ticket home and never return! Pretty easy, right? Wrong.
The Immigration Officers
So that's exactly what I did - I booked a ticket back to South Africa as soon as I landed - I went back to the villa, picked up my luggage and took a cab back to the airport.
While walking to the immigration checkpoint I was confronted by Jamaican men and women with braided hair who pleaded with me to carry their very heavy-looking luggage and I was creeped out and said "no" and walked away quickly. I saw them asking almost everyone who looked naive. Thankfully I wasn't.
So I get to the immigration gate, the one point where they look at my ticket, look at my passport, stamp it and say "enjoy your flight". Only I didn't hear these words... all I heard was "yalla yalla!" as my immigration official looked at my passport questioningly. I thought "no, please, no, just send me through..." and then another officer appeared from 5 counters down who looked at my passport and said these word which are singed upon my brain
"I'm sorry Miss, you can't travel".
I pretended to look shocked, "but why not-"
"Because your visa doesn't allow to leave unless it has been cancelled by your company you work for."
I took my passport back, as my heart sunk, I went to the ticket office and got a refund of most of my ticket back. I walked glumly to the taxi area and took cab back to the villa. My friends were as disappointed as I was. They really hoped I would have been able to leave. They didn't want to - they were happy in Dubai - they were Muslim, from poorer, more oppressed countries and Dubai was like the 'West' for them. It was the opposite for me.
So the next day I told my super cool manager all about it. He was shocked, and said "Oh dear, the boss wont be happy if he found out about this, you know I have to tell him right?" I nodded. Then he saw the sheer desolation in my eyes and perked up "you know our boss is a sucker for a woman in tears... maybe you could say that you tried to leave because a family member was ill... lets see if he lets you go".
"Lets me go?"
"Yes, he can cancel your visa and have you sent home."
"Ok. I'll try."
So the following day me and my manager went to meet the boss in his luxurious office decorated with golden shipping plaques and some other items that only rich people would have in their offices. I sat there, bawled my eyes out, said my dad was ill and I needed to get home asap (I had even asked my mom to fake an email asking I be sent back) and she did, and he read it out on his computer screen while I sat there, and said "Ok you can go, but you'll have to pay your own ticket home". According to my manager - this was lenient. I guess he fell for the crocodile tears. Anyway, I was so done with Dubai by this point. It was October. I expected my visa to have been cancelled in 2 weeks. I ceased working immediately, so I had no income from that day onward... however my captor decided to stretch out the visa cancellation - and it was only ready in December. 24th to be exact. By that time I had called my airline agent booking and cancelling 4 tickets because I received (false) word from my HR office that my passport would be 'ready in another 2 weeks'. The wait was awful. But thank God for friends - they helped me more than I could have asked for, by buying the groceries which they shared with me, went out on the town when they were back from work and just spent time talking and getting to know each other, and I can honestly say we grew a whole lot closer. For this, I'm glad. And I will never forget their kindness towards an Anglophone like me.
Home at last
Anyway, on December 24th I boarded my flight home to Johannesburg, there were 4 stopovers, and one airport change in Nairobi, but I got home - in time for the most important day of the year - Christmas. Safe and sound by the grace of God. I was back with my family. I literally wanted to kiss the ground of my Africa. MY BEAUTIFUL SOUTH AFRICA. The freest country I have ever known - even more so than so-called Western countries of the world today. I was home, and I can honestly say I will never visit the middle east again, and that God brought me out.
“Do not be afraid—I will save you.
I have called you by name—you are mine.
When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you;
your troubles will not overwhelm you.
When you pass through fire, you will not be burned;
the hard trials that come will not hurt you.
For I am the Lord your God." - Isaiah 43: 1-3
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