From Barbie dolls and mobile phones to canned food and chocolate, Filipino residents in Dubai have readied Christmas surprises for families back home.
They follow a balikbayan or returning resident tradition. Most expatriate workers will not be home for festivities and instead, fill up cartons with sweets, gadgets, clothes and food to be opened under the Christmas tree.
Many save for months and slowly add to the box every few weeks. They wait for sales and stock up so their children and family get a taste of what they enjoy in the UAE.
The Emirates is among the biggest hubs globally with more than 50,000 parcels, each weighing between 30kg to 100kg, sent via freight to the Philippines between October and December.
“Since they were young, my children are so excited to open parcels to see the clothes and chocolates,” said Sharon Toribio, 45, who works as a housemaid in Dubai.
“When there is a sale I buy Ferrero Rocher or Toblerone, sometimes I put a mobile phone in so they are happy to find it.
“I put groceries, canned fish or meat, corned beef or chicken sausage.
“I want them to enjoy what I have here in Dubai.”
Wish come true
A resident of Guinobatan town in the south-east, Ms Toribo takes on part-time babysitting jobs to add to purchases for three children aged between 20 and 25 years.
This year will be special for Ms Toribio’s family.
Balikbayan boxes are often sent as expatriate workers cannot be home but the UAE resident will be in the Philippines in December – her first Christmas holiday in 14 years since she began work.
“I lost my job during the pandemic so I didn’t go to the Philippines for a holiday for many years,” she said.
“My daughters’ wish for me to celebrate Christmas with them will be granted this year.”
As part of her box, she even packs household provisions so her family gets a sense of UAE products.
“I put in coffee, sugar, flour and pasta, detergents, dishwasher soap – I know you can get this in the Philippines but I like to send it anyway.
“It makes me happy, it makes them happy.”
LBC Express, a 75-year-old courier company in the Philippines, has taken on additional staff with workers loading boxes at warehouses in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.
“We are like Santa's elves, this is a busy time for us,” said Allan Bautista, head of sales and marketing for LBC Express Middle East.
“Balikbayan is rooted in tradition because for generations when Filipinos migrated, they sent gifts for loved ones at home.
“Anyone coming home is called balikbayan or returning resident. This is what fuels the volume of balikbayan boxes.
It can take between 30 to 60 days for the company to deliver 50,000 packages from the Emirates to more than 7,500 Philippine Islands, depending on how remote the area is.
The charges range from Dh115 to Dh370 for boxes weighing between 30kg to 100kg.
“We strive to get the boxes home before Christmas Eve,” he said.
“It takes people two to three months to fill up the boxes on average.
“Christmas is our biggest season. The UAE is our biggest market in the region and among the biggest worldwide.”
Close to home
Dubai resident Kristine Suico, 37, bought Barbie dolls and pink dresses for her young daughter, plus gifts for the family.
The range of toys available makes it easier to shop for Barbie memorabilia for her six-year-old child and her daughter’s friend.
“I roam around the city to get the best stuff. There are a lot more options here in Dubai,” said Ms Suico, who works in the hotel industry.
“It’s cheaper than in the Philippines because I get wholesale items at a lower cost in Dubai.”
She said she feels close to home packing the gifts.
“They get excited to get a parcel and that it comes from me, they love that gesture,” she said.
“I won’t be there but this will be under the Christmas tree when they open their gifts at midnight on December 24.”