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A large community of Filipino workers in Dubai celebrates Christmas far from home

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Like millions who move far away to support families back home, Filipinos living in the United Arab Emirates often mark Christmas without their loved ones. Many also work right through the holiday. But as NPR's Aya Batrawy reports from Dubai, they find a sense of community even far away from home.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: A call to prayer rings out from a mosque that overlooks a large church courtyard in Dubai, where hundreds of Christians, mainly from the Philippines and India, are gathered for a Christmas concert. This is a Muslim country, and the mosque must finish prayer first.

(CHEERING)

BATRAWY: But now it's Santa's turn to be heard. In this desert metropolis, there are no reindeer in sight. Santa dashes through the courtyard on a motorcycle and announces himself.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Santa) Hi, everybody. Finally I'm here, right here. Santa's here at St. Mary's Dubai. Let's clap, everybody.

(CHEERING)

BATRAWY: This church in Dubai provides an important space for Christians like Mai Lumapac. She's one of around 750,000 Filipinos living in the United Arab Emirates. Most are Catholic and celebrating Christmas away from family back home.

MAI LUMAPAC: My family is in the Philippines, so I celebrate alone with my friends.

BATRAWY: Her kids were just 5 and 8 years old when she left for the UAE over a decade ago to find work as an office assistant. She sends money home every month. Lumapac says it's still hard to celebrate the holidays apart or even answer questions about it.

LUMAPAC: You make me cry (laughter). You make me cry.

BATRAWY: But she's found joy in this church and the large Filipino community here. She's part of a group performing a show for Christmas that's lit - seriously. There are sparks flying and hip-hop dancers of all ages, including Filipino kids born in Dubai.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORK IT")

MISSY ELLIOTT: (Rapping) Is it worth it? Let me work it.

BATRAWY: Dubai prides itself on being a place that's open to the world. Its economy relies on foreigners. The city's streets and malls are shimmering in holiday decorations. Yet Christmas is not an official holiday. For many Filipinos working in restaurants and shops, in offices and as nannies, there is no time off for Christmas. I meet Romelyn Galang on Rigga Street, a neighborhood teeming with migrants from the Philippines.

You don't take Christmas off? You work.

ROMELYN GALANG: Yeah, I do. I work because I'm in the retail industry, you know.

BATRAWY: Past Christmases, too, no time off, yeah?

GALANG: Yeah, no, because I was working in a restaurant as well, so I have work always.

BATRAWY: Is that Dubai for you - just work all the time?

GALANG: Yeah. I came here to work. I came here to live, you know.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, one more end table.

BATRAWY: Inside a Filipino restaurant on Rigga Street, Robert Monsale is waiting tables.

ROBERT MONSALE: I'm working on Christmas Day. At Christmastime, I'm working extra (inaudible).

BATRAWY: Still, the people I speak with say they're grateful they even have work. Back at St Mary's Church, Angelica Alipio says her younger brothers rely on the money she sends each month. At church, she's made friends and belongs to a group of other single Filipinos.

ANGELICA ALIPIO: It's very important, especially if you have a community here in UAE, or in Dubai, which has a Filipino community, Singles for Christ.

BATRAWY: For Filipinos marking another Christmas without family, nights like this one at St Mary's in Dubai are about the longing.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Oh, come let us adore him. Oh, come let us adore him.

BATRAWY: Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) Oh, come let us adore him... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aya Batrawy
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