It may be a ruin, but it’s home

Faced with the choice of newer buildings in suburbs off the island, or crowded living conditions, many migrant workers are increasingly putting the buzz of community first and opting for the latter.

From left, Ramesh Thangiah, Sajjath Saifu, and Kameswaran Arumugam at their bachelor accommodation in Abu Dhabi. Satish Kumar / The National
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When Mohammed first set eyes on the building where he now lives, he thought his friend was joking. It appeared abandoned but for a few items of forgotten laundry.

“I asked my best friend and he told me, ‘Mohammed don’t worry’, but when I came to see the building outside I thought it would fall down at that moment,” said Mohammed, 38.

Now, he calls it home.

Four months after moving into the derelict building, Mohammed has found a life in the cafes, shops and mosques of Al Falah Street to ease the loneliness of separation from his family in southern Egypt.

He is one of hundreds of migrant men who fear that they will be pushed off the island city of Abu Dhabi as old buildings are demolished to make space for modern skyscrapers.

Workers have the option of lower rents and new, safer buildings in suburbs off the island, such as Mussaffah. But they are willing to pay more for humble bed spaces in crumbling buildings in the city because of shorter commutes and community engagement.

Despite rising rents and the declining safety of aging buildings, some tenants want to live in the city for as long as they can.

Portraits of the sheikhs hang in an empty foyer of Mohammed’s building. Upstairs, doors are decorated with UAE flags. The aroma of Mohammed’s cooking fills the halls.

For all the life tenants have invested, the building is neglected by its owner. The ceilings are cracked. The staircase is crumbling.

There are rumours that the building is the subject of a dispute in the Abu Dhabi courts.

“The building owner, he doesn’t care to do maintenance inside,” Mohammed said. “I think if the municipality allowed him to demolish the building he would agree. Anyone who sees the building would think nobody lives inside, but all people are here from many nationalities and all people live in a safe way.”

Mohammed and a friend pay Dh2,500 a month for a nine-square-metre room and share the five-room flat with Moroccans, Indians and a Vietnamese family.

Mohammed has one complaint – their room is too small to entertain. “There in my room I cannot receive anyone to come to visit me. There are no places for people to sit.”

Instead, he has the street life of Al Falah.

The street has layers of communities that give emotional support to migrant men. The Panaderia Bakery across the street is a hub for Filipinos across the city and those who live in the flats above.

For Robert Dizon, 52, a forklift operator, the food and company offered by the Panaderia and the Casa Pampanga restaurant next door have been comforts since he left the Philippines to support the education of his four children.

“My life is very happy here,” said Robert, who pays Dh500 a month for a bunk space in a flat above Panaderia. “Why would we leave?”

Many tenants consider the building unsafe but choose to stay for the community. A fire in April trapped residents inside the building. There was no working fire alarm and safety has not improved. It was the building’s second fire in recent years.

While such incidents are a reminder of the dangers of old buildings, low-wage workers cannot afford new flats and they work split shifts that do not give them time to commute twice a day. They usually rely on public transport or illegal taxis to travel between the city and suburbs such as Mussaffah, which can be expensive and time consuming.

Abu Dhabi Municipality is continuing its urban-renewal campaign to remove old buildings that are unsightly and unsafe. The average Abu Dhabi building has a life of 15 to 30 years.

The municipality issued 282 demolition permits in 2009, 260 in 2008 and 162 in 2007. A quarter of the 1,000-plus construction projects overseen by Abu Dhabi Commercial Properties in 2010 required the demolition of an existing building.

Instead, the Abu Dhabi government plans 23 labour cities across the emirate to raise living standards for low-income workers off the island. The Dh20 billion investment will eventually house 400,000 people and provide cinemas, markets, mosques, parks, sports facilities, health clinics and hospitals. The first opened in Al Ain in May.

But the men in Mussaffah’s new labour accommodation are not always happy with the move from the city, despite cleaner and safer rooms. The area has few amenities and little feeling of community.

“We want to come to the city. If you ask people if they’re happy or not happy, they’ll directly tell you they’re not happy. Only the poor people, the kachara people, the dirty people, live in Mussaffah. It’s not the same as the good city,” said a middle-aged Egyptian taxi driver who lives in ICAD Residential City, a new labour accommodation in Mussaffah.

Low-income male migrant workers, commonly called “bachelors”, are usually here to work for the families they left behind. They worry that they are being pushed outside the city because families are intimidated by crowds of men.

“Abu Dhabi government thought we’re only for labour, that we should want to go to Mussaffah,” said Kameswawan Arumugay, a petrol-pump attendant. “The government thought bachelors here are maybe a problem for families. That’s why they need to separate us.

“Because the government thought if you’re a family man, you can bring your wife and kids. Our company is not like that. Family is only for executives.”

His colleague, Sajjath Saifu, agreed. “The majority of bachelors here are leaving their families, their home town. Sending them to Mussaffah is not good for them.”

Kameswawan and Sajjath, who are from Chennai, pay Dh550 a month for bed space in a pink-walled, perfumed room that holds six men. A plywood-box shrine with a candle is nailed to the wall over one bunk bed. Their uniforms hang on hooks.

The kitchen in the five-bedroom flat has six gas canisters connected to several two-burner stoves.

The room’s annual rent increased to Dh33,000 in 2011. “All for the owners, not for us. In their business there is no fire safety,” said Sajjath, 32. “In this building, risk is there, but we are staying for no other choice. Mussaffah is not an option.”

The friends lived in Mussaffah for two months but moved to the city to cut the two-hour commute. They have more time to cook and dine with friends. Here, they can visit shopping malls, the Corniche, the cinemas.

“In Mussaffah we stay in the room only,” Kameswawan said. As for entertainment: “We cannot go out.”

Abu Dhabi city offered Kameswawan freedoms he did not expect when he heard stories from migrants returning from the Arabian Gulf. “Other countries like Saudi are not free, but here we’re all free,” he said.

They were informed last year that their building was listed for demolition. Whatever happens, they plan to stay on the island.

"If you come to the city you can see a green place, you can watch everything," Sajjath said. "You feel that everything is there."