Gereja di Emirat Arab
oleh Fabio Proverbio
Di sore hari, aku berada dalam sebuah mobil bersama Santos dan Lea, melaju di tengah keramaian Dubai. Di sekelilingku terdapat banyak mobil2 SUV besar yang hampir tidak bisa bergerak di tengah kemacetan lalu lintas, di tengah2 bangunan2 megah dan ultramodern, pemandangan konstruksi2 raksasa yang penuh dengan pekerja2 bangungan. Semua ini menunjukkan bahwa kami sedang berada di salah satu kota yang paling modern di dunia.
Kami menuju ke suatu tempat yang disediakan oleh kedubes Filipina untuk melindungi dan memberi tempat tinggal bagi pekerja wanita yang melarikan diri dari majikan2 mereka.
Setibanya di tempat itu yang terletak dalam sebuah gedung megah, aku bertemu dengan sekitar seratur wanita muda dan tempat itu jadi penuh sesak (lihat foto). Semuanya berdiri berdampingan, mereka menyanyikan lagu2 rohani dan berdoa, saling tukar peluk dan salam. I note the tears that none of the girls is able to hold back, and I search fruitlessly for some reason for so much sadness. I will understand at the end of the prayers, when Santos and Lea recount for me the dramatic experiences of these young immigrant women.
Their stories are almost unbelievable, like that of Beng, who, tired of being closed up in the house where she worked and suffering abuse from the family, made a desperate escape attempt, which ended with a ruinous fall and a broken arm. Brought to the hospital by some passersby, the girl was later arrested on the accusation of having attempted suicide. The intervention of Filipino diplomats finally set free the immigrant who today, in this protected place, is waiting for developments in her case. The housemaid who worked for the same family after her did not meet with better luck: she, too, tried to escape, with the same result.
Santos and Lea are members of the Legion of Mary, the Catholic movement that has become a point of reference here for many Filipino immigrant women who find in this community not only solidarity, but also the necessary legal assistance to be able to break free from working conditions that often do not correspond to those defined in their hiring contracts.
After saying goodbye to the young immigrant women, who in the meantime at least seem to have recovered some serenity and some of the cheerful spirit that characterizes the Filipino people, I leave for Abu Dhabi.
It is Sunday, but in a Muslim country like the United Arab Emirates this is just another day. And yet, late in the afternoon iat n the Catholic church of Saint Joseph in Abu Dhabi, I witness an extraordinary coming and going of faithful belonging to different ethnic groups, who come here to participate in the Mass celebrated in their own native language. There are Indians - mostly from Kerala or Tamil Nadu - Filipinos, Lebanese, Iraqis, or Christians from other Middle Eastern countries, and also Europeans and Americans.
On Friday, the weekly holiday in Muslim countries, the faithful stream through in even greater numbers, so much so that the church cannot hold them all. Many must follow the celebration from outside, in the front churchyard, where gigantic screens are set up on special feasts like Christmas or Easter so that everyone can participate. Nonetheless, Paul Hinder, bishop of the apostolic vicariate of Arabia, takes care to clarify that those who come to the parish regularly are only a small proportion, 15-18 percent, of the Catholic population in the capital and the surrounding area.
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The Christians present in the United Arab Emirates represent about 35 percent of the population, for a total of more than a million faithful, a majority of them Catholic.
They are all immigrant workers, and many of them, because they live on the outskirts and don't have easy transportation access to the city, cannot regularly attend the official places of worship. This is the situation of the thousands of Indians who work on the construction sites in Dubai and are housed in the largest village-dormitory in Asia. According to unofficial estimates, this houses a population of about thirty thousand workers. Or there are the immigrants who work in the oil industry, who are cut off in isolated desert villages.
Another case is that of the Filipina housemaids who, because they don't have enough free time or enough money for transportation, remain bound to the places where they work. In consequence, small prayer groups - which are organized according to language and place of origin and meet in private settings like apartments, dormitories, and storage sheds - have become a very important and widespread form of religious expression for the Catholic communities. These are necessary moments of encounter, but they are also risky because of the rules imposed by the local authorities, who grant freedom of worship only in officially recognized places like the territory's parishes. In this context, the Charismatic groups from India or the Philippines take on an important role in spearheading initiatives in support of immigrants living in the most difficult conditions. These are often not limited to religious initiatives, but also include services of practical assistance, as in the case of the Legion of Mary mentioned above.
The phenomenon of immigration to the United Arab Emirates is a relatively recent one, and is linked to the region's oil fortunes. When in the 1950's and '60's oil revenues began to bring prosperity and progress, the country's development made it necessary to bring in both specialized and non-specialized manual laborers from abroad.
Today, the Emirates are undergoing a process of modernization that has no equal in the world. Petrodollars are being reinvested in highly advanced structures and infrastructure, the Dubai stock market is taking on global significance, and its port is one of the world's busiest. Artificial islands in the shape of palm trees, ski slopes in the desert, bizarrely shaped hotels, and a whole series of eccentric building projects - like the still incomplete tower Burj Dubai, which is set to become the tallest building in the world - are just a few examples of the "wonders" through which the local emirates intend to amaze the world and attract foreign investors, who find favorable investment conditions and extremely low labor costs here.
Immigrants represent 90 percent of the almost two million workers present in the Emirates, and 100 percent in the case of low cost manual labor. In fact, for the Arab locals the concept of poverty is either unknown - for the youngest - or is a timeworn memory from long ago. The lack of incentives for striving toward professional and economic success - which are guaranteed from birth - is creating complacency among the country's future leaders, with the risk of leaving them incapable of meeting the challenges of globalization.
The term "immigrant" is itself too generic to define the reality of those who are working today to transform the face of the Gulf. The true status of these workers, even of those who have been living in the Emirates for a number of years, is that of "expatriates," persons whose presence in the country is strictly connected to the possession of a valid work contract, but who can never become residents or buy houses or property. Their destiny is bound to the decisions of their employers, who often hold their passports hostage out of fear that they will flee or become insubordinate. These manual laborers are employed in the oil industry, and more recently in the sectors of construction and domestic service.
They are the new poor of Dubai and its surroundings. Few of them make more than 200 dollars a month, and they work an average of 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, in temperatures that can reach 50C (122F). They live in suburb-dormitories that are as large as cities, but completely devoid of services. Like huge barracks, these villages are entirely populated by men whose families are a distant memory, to be contacted periodically with a moneygram that permits the most fortunate to send their children to school or pay some debt arising from extreme poverty. The best that this army of grunts can hope for is to spend their working lives on construction sites in the Gulf, with brief visits to their loved ones every two or three years.
Speaking of poverty in a country undergoing very rapid economic expansion - and one whose leaders intend to make it one of the most important spots for contemporary art, with the opening of museums and exhibit spaces - seems like a paradox. And this is a reality particularly difficult to understand and accept for an outside observer, precisely because it exists side by side with such exaggerated opulence.
But these elements must also be considered in seeking to understand the reality of the Emirates today: a land of striking contrasts, where tradition meets modernity in a unique, surprising, and dramatically contradictory fusion of East and West.