Born and raised in a poverty-stricken community in Maharashtra, India, to an Emirati father and Indian mother, Ahmed Salem AlZaabi straddles his dual heritage with pride.
Mr AlZaabi, a UAE national who transitioned to the lap of luxury in Abu Dhabi at 12, now lives a comfortable life in Sharjah with his Emirati wife and three children, and works at the Community Development Authority in Dubai.
Despite his loyalty to the Emirates, which gave him a family and a successful living, Mr AlZaabi's emotional bond with India is so strong that he flies to Mumbai to visit his mother's tomb twice a month.
“That is where I grew up and went to school until I was 12,” he tells The National.
“No matter how busy I am, I make sure I fly to Mumbai and travel to Ichalkaranji, especially now that my mother is resting there eternally.”
Growing up in India
Looking back at his life, Mr AlZaabi says his ties with India feel like a fairy tale.
His mother, Khurshid, gave birth to him in February 1976 after marrying Emirati citizen Salem Hasan Al Shreef AlZaabi in 1975.
“He married my mother during a short visit to India,” Mr AlZaabi says.
“He stayed with her for a few months and left for Abu Dhabi. We did not hear from him for many years.”
He described his difficult childhood growing up with very little.
“We were dirt poor. We lived in a small house with my grandparents, and my mum earned her living as a housemaid.
“I didn't even have a pair of shoes or new clothes. Life was hard,” he says.
But it all changed overnight when his father turned up at his house one day looking for him.
“That was the fairy tale beginning of my story,” Mr AlZaabi says.
“Just like how Cinderella found her prince, I found my father and life changed in an instant.”
The two weeks he spent with his father, he says, are still the most memorable.
“He took me around and bought me everything I asked for – new clothes, toys and good food. It felt like a dream.”
But as soon as his father returned to Abu Dhabi, promising to take care of the family, they stopped hearing from him.
Mr AlZaabi says that his father had been sending them money through what he believed was a trustworthy associate, but sadly none of it ever reached them.
“Little did we know that the man siphoned off every penny and left us penury,” he says.
“It was only four years later when my father visited me again that he discovered that we were still living in abject poverty.”
Moving to Abu Dhabi
According to Mr AlZaabi, his father decided to take him to Abu Dhabi to take care of him.
“I was 12 years old when he came to India again,” he says.
“I was elated but also sad that my mother did not join as she did not want to leave her ageing parents behind.”
Mr AlZaabi landed in Abu Dhabi on January 10, 1988.
“My life transformed when my father took me under his wing,” he says.
It was there where he was granted his Emirati citizenship and enrolled in a government school.
However, Mr AlZaabi's father passed away within months of him arriving in the UAE, and he was then put into the care of his stepmother, who lived in Sharjah.
“Her family took good care of me. But I missed my mother,” Mr AlZaabi says.
The pair remained close through letters, but it was nine years before he visited her.
“When I knocked at the door, she did not recognise me. I had grown into a fine young man,” he says.
Following his first trip to see his mother in 1997, Mr AlZaabi would fly to India at every possible opportunity to spend time with her until her death in 2017.
“That did not end my connection with India,” he says. “In fact, I grew even more close to my hometown and her extended family. Now, I fly to India every two weeks and visit my mother's tomb.
“That is how I keep my memories and ties alive.”
Mr AlZaabi has become a guardian for his mother's relatives and offers them financial help where he can.
“I don't want them to go through what I did,” he says.
Even though he religiously nurtures his bond with India, his love and loyalty for the UAE is unmatched.
“This is a country that gave me everything,” he says.
“All my children are Emiratis and I am proud of being one. It is like I have two hearts.
“One for the UAE and one for India.”