ABU DHABI // Wilma Avila, 62, considers her stay in the country for more than two decades a "rewarding" experience. She arrived in the capital in October 1986 to work as a tutor and governess in an Emirati home. Today, she is the executive secretary for one of the largest group of companies in the UAE.
"My former employer was a very educated man who also hired tutors in French, Arabic and science," says Mrs Avila, from Laoag, Ilocos Norte, 400km north of Manila. "I taught the children English and maths and attended their parent-teacher meetings." The couple had four boys, aged 14, eight, seven, and four, and a five-month-old daughter, she recalls. In the Philippines, she started out as a high school teacher, a role she held for two years. Then, for 17 years, she was professor in communication arts in English and English literature for the Philippine Air Force College of Aeronautics [now the Philippine State University for Aeronautics].
In March 1986, Mrs Avila chanced upon a newspaper that carried a job advertisement for a tutor and governess in the UAE. She was among 200 people who applied and made the shortlist of 10. The Emirati employer went to the Philippines and made a surprise visit to Mrs Avila's school to observe her teaching methods and conduct an English proficiency exam. "He told me that I was the sixth person he was interviewing," she said. "He decided not to meet four other applicants after choosing me."
The Emirati offered her a monthly salary of Dh1,500, which she accepted. "My marriage broke down and I didn't want people pitying me," Mrs Avila says, explaining her decision to work overseas. "Working outside the country was a good step - it fulfilled my sense of adventure." She and her husband had been married for 10 years. It was equally heartbreaking to leave her son behind, she says. "As a single mother, I was belittled by the community," she says. "I had to work overseas because I felt I was doing it was for my son's welfare and for my emotional stability."
It was a "challenge" for the four children to speak in English, Mrs Avila says. "We had reading lessons and I also taught them good manners, personal hygiene and cleanliness." She convinced her employer to buy a set of encyclopedias and a personal computer. "I taught them basic typing lessons before allowing them to use the computer." Back then, Abu Dhabi was similar to a remote rural area in the Philippines, Mrs Avila says. "It wasn't developed yet. There were no malls or giant skyscrapers. The tallest building at the time was the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce building on the Corniche road."
After two years in the household, Mrs Avila left her tutoring job in search of a better salary to support her family. She was grateful to her employer who gave her a no-objection letter that enabled her to work for another company. "I'm the third child in a brood of eight and with my earnings I sent my five younger siblings to school." Mrs Avila wanted to teach English in an Abu Dhabi school, but the job required a native English-speaker.
Instead, she got a job as a junior secretary at an oil field services company in Abu Dhabi, a position she held for 18 months. "I wanted to have a stable income for my son since he was studying at a private school back home." In 1990, Mrs Avila landed a job at Elenco Emirates Group. She began as a junior secretary for three years and was then a general manager's secretary for five years. From 1998 until today, she has been the group's executive secretary, handling the communications and records of several companies within the group.
In addition to teaching in the Philippines, she had been a school registrar so an administrative job was not new to her. Having developed a filing system since joining the company, she is often contacted by managers for reference material. "I feel I had accomplished something and they recognise my contribution," she says. She also manages 12 technical staff, including air-conditioning technicians, electricians and the labour workforce.
Three years ago, she chanced upon the eldest son of her former employer. "It was so nice to see him again after so many years. He's married and has two sons and his father has since retired." At 62, Mrs Avila is still busy working. Her son, Allan, 33, now lives in the UAE, having moved here following his graduation, and is a physiotherapist at a government hospital. "I've become an adopted daughter of the UAE," says Mrs Avila. "My stay here has been both rewarding and enriching. I learned how to speak, read and write Arabic."
Mrs Avila is a member of a dance club in Abu Dhabi and loves videoke - a type of karaoke - reading and dabbling in arts and crafts. "My son and his family are here so I don't mind working in this company," she said. Hilary Barreto, 54, the commercial manager of Elenco's service equipment division, has known Mrs Avila since he became the assistant manager of the division in 1991. "She has been serving the company for several years as the executive secretary for the top management," he says. "This is proof enough that she's a dedicated member of our staff."
Mrs Avila is also devoted to her mother, siblings and son, he adds. "She wants to make sure that they live a good life." Lilian Macmod, 58, Mrs Avila's friend for 22 years, agrees: "I don't see Wilma retiring anytime soon. She still has a lot of goals set for herself and her family, and we admire her work ethic." Mrs Avila is a partner in Symmetry, an international direct selling company of herbal and nutritional health products. Through it, she hopes to help her son and his two children become financially secure.
Her only regret is not being with Allan while she forged a career here. "To make up for all those years, I would like to stay close to my son and my two grandchildren." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org For more in this series, visit www.thenational.ae/people