From Pakistan to Dubai: Behind a migrant worker’s dream

Filmmaker Syed Owais Ali provides an insight into the lives of migrant workers, behind the numbers and figures.

I was 10 years old when, in 2002, my family migrated to the United Arab Emirates from Islamabad, Pakistan.

I spent my teenage and university years in the UAE and Qatar, and in the 14 years that I’ve lived in the region, I have heard the stories of many migrants.

My father voluntarily ran a small South Asian community centre in the city I grew up in. It was a place where everyone was welcome. For many, it went some way towards filling the void that came from being so far from home and family.

The majority of those who came to the centre were what the media commonly refers to as “migrant workers”, but I grew up knowing them as my uncles and brothers. We’d celebrate Eid together, share personal stories and act as a support system when needed.

When I moved to Qatar to study film and media communication in 2012, I realised how misunderstood these workers were. There was fear on both sides. When I would try to initiate a conversation with a worker on the street, they would respond hesitantly, perhaps conscious of the misconceptions many have of them.

I wanted to tell their stories and to see their lives through their eyes.

In 2014, during my second year in university, I pitched the idea for Pakistan: No Place like Home. I was given a generous grant, but I’d never made a documentary before and was struggling to find a worker I could follow for the film.

Then I heard about Sharif.

I knew Sharif’s uncle, Munawar, from my father’s community centre. He was Uncle Munawar to me, just as he was to Sharif.

He told me about his plans for Sharif to come to the UAE to work. I asked if I could visit his village and document his journey.

Uncle Munawar made sure I was well looked after in his village, thousands of miles away from the place I had come to consider home. When I arrived, all the villagers welcomed me.

It was the beginning of a year-and-a-half long journey as I became a one-person film crew, following Sharif from his village in rural southern Punjab, Pakistan, to the Gulf.

Sharif is one of many Pakistanis working abroad [Al Jazeera]Sharif is one of many Pakistanis working abroad [Al Jazeera]

Twenty-nine-year-old Sharif shattered everything I thought I knew about migrant workers and about village life in Pakistan.

Talented and funny, with a knack for driving any sort of vehicle, he was at the centre of village life. Everyone was his friend, or wanted to be.

He saw the humour in everything. Rather than complaining about losing his car to pay off his debt, he laughed about using a donkey instead. That humour became integral to the documentary.

Before visiting his village, I’d assumed that uneducated villagers lacked agency; that they would blindly do anything a wealthy landlord or politician asked of them. I was wrong. Their stories about how they had come together as a community to improve their circumstances – such as the time they made a local politician pave roads around the village before collectively deciding to vote for him – were eye-opening.

So, too, was the fact that – contrary to my expectations – Sharif was aware of some of the potential pitfalls of becoming a “migrant worker”. He had heard the stories of human rights violations and hardship, but had chosen to travel nonetheless – and his village had chosen to support him in this.

Far from being a faceless, nameless number in a report, Sharif is a knowledgeable, informed participant in his own story; one driven by dreams and ambitions, just like the many other “migrant workers” whose stories, for now, remain untold.

For more watch the full documentary “No Place Like Home” .

Follow Syed Owais Ali on Twitter @owaisalisyed and Facebook.

Source: Al Jazeera