A mother and her daughters are trying to obtain residency documents after living in the UAE for more than 20 years without official papers.
The Sri Lankan family has stepped out of the shadows after years of living without documentation even as the UAE visa amnesty ended at the end of last year.
A year after The National first reported on the case of Fathima Azliya Hassan and her four daughters abandoned by their Indian father, their birth registration and identity papers are being processed by the Indian and Sri Lankan consulates.
Media in South India picked up the story, after which a social worker helped connect the family with her estranged husband to corroborate Ms Hassan's story and speed up the legal paperwork.
But owing to the many years the girls, aged 14 to 21, have lived without any official identification, the process in the UAE will be a lengthy procedure.
"They have only known four walls because they have always stayed at home," Ms Hassan, 48, said from her home in Dubai's Al Quoz. The home is filled with photographs of the family in happier times.
“I was always worried of being caught without papers and we rarely had enough money so they never went to school,” she said.
Ms Hassan, said her husband left her passport as security with a moneylender back in 1996. He was unhappy that she delivered four girls and fled to Kerala to escape creditors in 2005.
She secured a Sri Lankan passport late last year during the amnesty period. The girls have their father's name, and after he came forward, they decided to apply for Indian instead of Sri Lankan passports.
But they want nothing to do with the man they say rejected them when they were young and is responsible for their penniless condition.
Ms Hassan’s second-eldest daughter Shahina Samad, 19, is relieved her father agreed to sign an attested document confirming they were his children but is determined the family will make it on their own.
“We have come so far without his help so we don’t want anything from him,” said Shahina, who wants to study to be a lawyer.
“As a father it was his duty to give us papers we needed to prove we are related. He is trying to talk to us now but we don’t want him in our life. He thought we were a burden when we were young. We want the opportunity to study and do this on our own. If someone can help us with education and a job, we can really work hard.”
In an April 2019 letter giving consent for his daughters' passports to be processed by the Indian consulate in Dubai, the Indian national said: “I have no objection for applying for Indian citizenship and Indian passports for our four daughters. I am authorising my wife Ms Fathima Azliya Hassan to apply for Indian citizenship and passports for our four children.”
The letter validates the girls' identities and is backed up by the couple's 1997 marriage certificate.
Seated in a darkened room with the air conditioner barely working to save money, the girls hold on to dreams of a better tomorrow.
The sofas, cupboards, tables, kitchenware and even their clothes are donated by families of children their mother has tutored.
Their affection for her is splashed across the walls in photo collages with the words “We love you Mama" painted in blue against drawings of mountains, the sea and stars.
The girls have been taught at home by their mother.
They read and write English, understand Hindi, Malayalam and Arabic and have basic knowledge of maths and science. Textbooks on English and the sciences are propped up alongside books on general knowledge given to them by a few well-wishers who know of their situation.
For years after her husband fled, the single mum managed the finances by working as a home tutor in Jumeirah, where they first lived.
After the villa was demolished two years ago, the family moved to Al Quoz. But Ms Hassan found few tutoring jobs in the new surroundings and the family has depended on money from babysitting and donations.
The family were outed after an anonymous tip-off brought the Police and social welfare officials to their home last year.
Under the advice of immigration authorities, Ms Hassan applied for birth certificates for her daughters, who were born in Dubai hospitals.
Immigration officials said the girls' passports were required before visas could be processed.
With mounting visa overstay penalties after the amnesty ended, Ms Hassan appealed to authorities to consider her family's case on humanitarian grounds.
She also owes Dh25,000 in rent and has loans of Dh70,000, money she borrowed for daily expenses from friends and well-wishers over the past few years.
The media spotlight over the past year has ripped apart their cloistered world.
Their faces were not blurred by a television channel in South India and after the broadcast they were recognised and jeered as "cast-offs" in their immediate neighbourhood.
Unknown men called asking for their hand in marriage, said Shahina.
The older siblings declined to have a photograph taken along with their mother and youngest sister.
They worry more images in the media will put a target on their backs.
“Ever since the news came out, our faces are known," Shahina said. "People laugh when we go to buy groceries. Instead of helping us because they have known us for years, they mock us.
“These men say they will marry us, but we didn’t do this for marriage. We are sad we are in this situation. We did not want to be on show. But we are not desperate. We are still hopeful someone with a good heart will come forward and help us.”
An Indian consular officer said the citizenship process could take months.
“Once we clarify there is a no-objection from Sri Lanka for the girls to get Indian citizenship, we have to refer this to the ministry of home affairs for approval because this is a very complicated case,” an official in Dubai said.
“Up to the age of 18 we can register younger girls on our own and issue passports but once they turn 18 years, we must approach Delhi. It is also more complicated because one parent is Sri Lankan.”
Meanwhile, Ms Hassan said her daily prayer is to find administrative work, since she speaks Arabic and three Indian languages.
She also keeps a close eye on her girls who are anaemic, require medication for kidney stones and have not been for regular check-ups since presenting ID cards were made mandatory at clinics
“This is the only country my children know,” Ms Hassan said.
“My husband never wanted to be responsible for the girls. But this country has given my girls a home. Once we are all legalised, I hope to give my children a better future in the UAE.”