Life is not greener in the Arab world, especially for foreigners

Hundreds of young Ugandans seeking greener pastures in the West or the Arab world should be prepared to face racism, poor pay, exploitation, beatings, mistreatment and possible deportation if they break visa regulations.

In his biography The Ambitious Struggle: An African Journalist’s Journey to Hope and Identity in a Land of Migrants, Ugandan journalist Yasin Kakande, who lived in the United Arab Emirates for 10 years, warns that despite the hype about its being one of the world’s most welcoming cosmopolitan places, racial discrimination is deep-rooted in the country.

The 306-page biography was published by Florida Academic Press in the US in 2013. Kakande shares his woes of securing permanent journalism employment and the pressures of applying for visa extensions and proper housing. He turned his home into a stop for Ugandan immigrants, and he helped some get jobs.

He says pay is based on one’s country of origin and, sometimes even the colour of one’s skin. “The British earn highest, followed by Americans and Arabs in that order, while Indians and Africans often get the least.”

Kakande worked in the United Arab Emirates for more than a decade for The National, Khaleej Times and Bahrain Tribune newspapers, and as a news producer for City 7 TV in Dubai. He currently works as a translator for The Peninsular newspaper in Doha, Qatar and has done several freelance assignments for international distribution.

At The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, he says he earned less than half of what some fellow reporters were getting.

“I thought about the load I had at the paper, and admitted nothing haunted me as much as the pay I was getting compared with all other employees,” he writes.

His five-year-old daughter Latifa was racially abused in her first year of school. Emirati children were taunting, teasing, and even bullying her because of the colour of her skin. It was then that he started planning his family’s return to Uganda.

Kakande cautions Ugandans that Dubai is not an economic paradise for emigrants. 

One of his relatives left his job in Uganda where he was earning $200 a month to earn $400 in Dubai as a security guard. After just two months, he said he regretted the move because he could not save any money and the work was stressful.

Kakande laments how he failed to convince his ailing mother to undertake a biopsy, who eventually lost her life to cancer. He dedicates the book to his mother, who struggled with his school fees. He was sent home frequently to collect school fees, and as a result, he missed several lessons.

Later, Kakande reconnected with his father, who paid his school fees for a term or two.

He decided to try his luck in Dubai when his efforts to find employment in Uganda failed. He was cheated of his money in his first attempt to go to the UAE and ended up with a fake visa.

Kakande finally landed in Dubai in May 2005. He lived on a verandah like other foreign job seekers. His first job was loading cargo containers, while he searched for longer-term professional work.

“The authorities in the UAE responded to my first book, The Ambitious Struggle, with anger. I was fired from my job and expelled from the country. From the UAE, I moved to Qatar where I finished my second book Slave States: The Practice of Kafala in the Gulf Arab Region, which is going to be published this December by the UK’s Zero Books,” Kakande said in an interview.

There has been a lot of curiosity among Ugandans to learn about life in the Middle East, but the reading culture in Uganda is still poor and few have read his book.

“We sold about 500 copies mostly in Europe and the US of the first book Ambitious Struggle. Although Slave States is not yet on the shelves, the publisher already has sizeable pre-orders. The publisher is also looking to translate it into other languages like Arabic and French,” the author said.