AL AIN // Maria Teresa Talinga never expected that she would work overseas as a family driver, let alone stay for 20 years.
The 48-year-old former teacher from Manila, who has worked for the same family in Al Ain since arriving in 1991, is beloved by her Emirati employer, Mohammed Khalaf al Muhairi, and his family.
"You seldom hear Emirati employers heap praise on their household staff but he once told me, 'We love you. You are our thumb; without you, we cannot live'," she said.
A bachelor of arts graduate in physical education in Manila in 1985, Ms Talinga topped the teachers' board exams in the same year. She worked as a university physical education teacher and basketball coach, later spending four years as a sports and social development co-ordinator at an export company.
"I enjoyed working in the Philippines, but my best friend sent my CV to the UAE," she said.
Mr al Muhairi, who worked for Al Ain Municipality for 40 years before retiring in 2007, said their "Thesma" has become part of the family.
"We want her to stay with us," he said. "She knows everything - me, my wife, my children. All my grandchildren love her. Thesma is a good worker, knows English well, and taught my son and daughter."
Mr al Muhairi's 33-year-old daughter Hessa is married and has four children. Their son, Jamal, 30, tied the knot 18 months ago and is in Australia studying a master's degree.
Ms Talinga, who speaks English and Arabic, also regularly serves as a translator for the family. In addition to frequent trips to Germany, where the family owns a home in Munich, she has been to Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK, staying in five-star hotels.
Back home, Ms Talinga works as part of a staff that includes 10 Filipina housemaids, five Indian male drivers, one Bangladeshi gardener, three Indian cooks and two Indian cleaners. Her job involves driving a fleet of more than a dozen luxury vehicles, including a Porsche and a Lexus. She also serves as Mr al Muhairi's secretary inside the family villa compound, checking e-mails and keeping track of files.
"My boss calls me a walking computer," she said.
Her loyalty and dedication to the job has been well rewarded. Her employer paid for all five of her siblings - Stella, Litang, Romel, Agnes and Mary Ann - to attend university. Although she does not have a regular day off, the family is generous with time when she needs to leave.
"We want to help her and everyone working for us," Mr al Muhairi said. "I have one errand staff from India who has been with the family for 27 years. We don't shout at any one of them, pay their salary on time and treat them well."
The family often gives her items to send home, such as speakers, TV sets, laptops and desktop computers. "Jamal gave me a Macintosh laptop three years ago," she said. "I was really overwhelmed. He told me that he was buying a new one."
The first time she decided she wanted to move back to the Philippines was in 1997, but her plans were scuttled when she learnt her father's health was deteriorating and the family needed 180,000 pesos (Dh15,262) to pay for his treatment.
"I asked them if they could loan me the amount, and if I could pay them back in instalments through a Dh500 monthly salary deduction," she said.
The family loaned her the money and deducted just one payment from her salary before forgiving the rest of the amount. Although her father died that year, she stayed on.
Ten years after arriving in the UAE, Ms Talinga again felt the urge to go home. But the family persuaded her to stay. "At that time, the couple said neither Hessa or Jamal were married," she said. "Now they're saying that their grandchildren had to get married."
During her time in the UAE, Ms Talinga has become a community leader, the adviser of an association of lady drivers in Al Ain, a webmaster and lecturer of the Filipino Association for Computer Excellence and a member of the board of directors of the Filipino Expatriates Association in the UAE.
She was one of three women invited as guests on the March 22 Filipino Excellence in the Middle East radio show on Dubai Eye, held to celebrate International Women's Month in Dubai.
"I really admire her," said Marylyn Uy, a supervisor at a cleaning company, who was a former family driver in Al Ain. "She is always willing to help others in need. She is also very lucky to have a great employer who trusts her."
Although she still feels the call of home, her employers want her to stay and are prepared to keep her on indefinitely.
"I asked them, what if I'm too old to drive?" she said. "They said that they will hire a driver, but I would still be in the same car with them."
Although her contract ends in June, Ms Talinga's employer renewed her visa so she could travel with the family to Germany last month.
"After 20 years, I can say that I've done enough for my parents and siblings," she said. "I want to go home but a big part of me wants to stay. They have been like a family to me."