I sacrifice so my family has a future

I struggle with the rising cost of living and cuts to my salary, but still send nearly all of my salary home to Kerala.

ABU DHABI. 25th April 2010.MONEY & ME.  Mohammad Shahul at his office in Abu Dhabi.    Stephen  Lock   /  The National  FOR PERSONAL FINANCE
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When I first came to Abu Dhabi in 1996 things were booming, but lately I've noticed how much harder it has become to earn enough money. While he was alive, my father instilled in myself and my two older brothers a sense of responsibility to look after the family. Now, things are getting more difficult. Everything costs more, I am earning less than I used to, I have my own family, and there are more responsibilities.

I have worked in the Abu Dhabi office of Al Mubarak Agro Chemicals, a UAE chemical supply company, since 1996. Over the past four years we have faced very, very low sales. The company is based in Dubai and it's kept an office in Abu Dhabi with me as the sole employee, in the expectation that something will happen. However, we haven't been able to meet expenses for a while and it looks like we will close up here soon.

My salary was good when I first moved here. But it's gone down slightly and the cost of living has got so high that comparatively it is much lower. In 2000, when things were going really well, I brought my wife and three-year-old daughter here to live. I paid Dh2,200 a month for a three-bedroom apartment, which I shared with others. My salary was Dh2,500 a month and was supplemented with extras to cover phone and other expenses. Within a year, they put the rent up to Dh3,000. I couldn't save money any more and I had to send my wife and daughter back to our home in Kerala, in southern India.

I thought it would be temporary and the prices would come down again, but in the past three or four years things have got worse. Now, I'm paid a salary of Dh2,300 and there are no extras. You see all these big, beautiful homes around Abu Dhabi, but I would say about 85 per cent of people working here don't live like that. They have low incomes and share rooms to save as much money as possible. Most people in Abu Dhabi have families back in their home country because it is so expensive to live here. The majority of workers earn between Dh1,500 and Dh3,000 a month. But a bed space, that is a space not a room, costs between Dh700 and Dh1,000 a month. To rent a room costs more than Dh3,000 a month.

We see our families maybe one month a year. So after 30 years of working, many people have just 30 months of family life. I come from a village near the city of Tirur in Kerala. I have five sisters and two brothers. I'm the youngest. My brothers are here in Abu Dhabi. My older brother has been here for 30 years. He works with Etisalat. My second brother came over in 1985 and is doing maintenance for a private company.

All our wives and families are back in Kerala. When I was growing up I felt rich. My mother came from a wealthy family and my father was a former military man. After the British pulled out of India in 1947, he was given a payout, which he used to buy a farm near the village of BP Angada. So my brothers and sisters and I grew up in a five-bedroom house on a beautiful farm growing coconuts, bananas, mangos, rice and other foods. My mother was an educated woman and made sure we were all sent to private schools.

I didn't have much use for money as a child. My parents were strict Muslims. There was no going to the cinema and we all had to be home by 6pm, even after I went to college. We prayed five times a day and read the Quran. In our region everybody was well off. Most families had someone working in the Gulf region who would send money home. My father had eight children to educate and five daughters to marry and that can be expensive. A woman's dowry includes between 40 and 60 grams of gold, plus gifts and money for the husband's family.

When I got married in 1995, I didn't take a dowry; I don't believe in it. I believe my religion tells me not to and that it is the husband's duty to look after his wife and family. A dowry is a cultural obligation not a religious one. But family obligation is strong in Kerala and if a girl is 18 she will be married and the family will get together to help pay for it. After I completed secondary school at the Tirur Comprehensive, I went to a government-run technical college for a year then returned to finish final year. It was just the way things were done over there.

When I went to college my mother made sure I always had enough money for whatever I needed. I got a motorbike and started going to the cinema. But I still had to be home at 6pm for final prayer. After completing school at 19, I got a job in a pharmacy. I wanted to get a diploma in pharmacy and help people. I saved what I could with plans to one day open my own clinic. But my father and brother didn't agree with my plans. A pharmacy degree is very expensive. So I stopped working in the pharmacy, and when I was 23 I came over to Abu Dhabi to stay with my brothers and look for a job. I was here less than 40 days when my father got sick and my mother called for me to come home.

He died three days later. He was 63 years old. It was a big shock. And I really felt then the need to earn money to help the family. Until then, it was my brothers and father who were supporting the family. Now I had to help. Six months after my father's death, I returned to Abu Dhabi and I got the job with Al Mubarak Agro Chemicals. The UAE Government was planting new forests at this time and needed agricultural chemicals, so business was very good. But now things have changed.

The Municipality has stopped using chemicals. Many people with the company have lost their jobs. I am looking at other options, and somewhere I can earn more money. I have many years of experience in sales, but my plan is to start a business in property management. I have kept an eye on rental prices in Abu Dhabi and I have lots of friends in construction, so I know when new apartments are coming on to the market.

Right now, my wife, Arifa, and our three children - daughters Shaza, 13, Nedha, eight, and our son Mohammed, who is not quite one - live at the family home looking after my mother and the extended family. Two of my sisters' husbands have died, so my brothers and I are looking after them and their children. They have five children between them. I try to send home at least Dh1,000 a month to keep the house going.

If there are medical or other expenses, I have to find more money. I spend a minimum of Dh1,000 a month here on accommodation and food and then there's phone bills, stationery and other expenses. I've bought a small piece of the family farm. No one is working on it any more. It is about 300 square feet and I built a house on it as an investment. My mother is 82 years old now and is suffering from Alzheimer's disease. She had eight children and now she really needs our protection.

We are not prepared to put her in a home; that is not our culture. We treat her ourselves, but Alzheimer's is something that money cannot help. * As told to Jane Williams