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Sara Al Mheiri: Never too young
August 08, 2014
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I nod my head enthusiastically and supportedly whilst my fellow American intern recounts the endless list of jobs she has had, previous to this one.  But deep down inside I am cringing at myself. This girl is only eighteen; just started college and her parents are wealthy enough to provide a pretty great lifestyle. Yet instead of taking the easy way out, she worked hard from the young age of twelve to earn her own money. She started out babysitting then moved to dog walking then moved to a shopkeeper’s assistant and so on. She now works with me as an intern at an art gallery in New York.

What did I do when I was twelve? Clearly nothing substantial. Where did I get my money from? Mummy and Daddy’s wallet and let’s not forget, the best holiday in the world for every Arab kid: Eid. Even now, she still has two jobs, one as a lifeguard and this. To be fair, I work more days than her here but still, it puts me to shame. I really do want to blame myself and I should and have.

All my American college classmates had and still have part-time jobs where they work hard to earn a measly couple of dollars a day. All whilst balancing a busy school schedule and maintaining their social life. I never even had something remotely compared to that experience. In the UAE, you can’t really get a job at the age of under eighteen. It’s against the law.

Okay, even though I found that frustrating I managed to work my way around it and get some internships. Well, the first internships I had was all because of my parents. So internships I did, but even then, as a young Arab girl, the choices were very limiting and even when I finally found something to do, what happened? I got treated like a little princess. Why? Because I am an Emirati woman. I was treated better than half the employees that have been working there for decades. I hated it and would constantly tell them to stop and let me ‘rough it’ but no.

I realise now as I am typing it that I should probably be slapped in the face for the horrible things I had to endure. Oh woe is me, I am treated like a princess. But to me, it was so frustrating. I was trapped in this Emirati bubble that I couldn’t break out of no matter what. I even volunteered to work for the Dubai International Film Festival as an undercover Indian girl which was perhaps the best experience I got, but even that doesn’t compare to anything an American kid experienced.

So imagine the humiliation I had to endure when my university told me that I have to take six months off and get a job/internship. At first I was so excited to get a real job and be a proper grownup. But that dream crashed and burned pretty quickly and no one survived the wreckage. Let’s say I applied for thirty jobs. Now take off ten straightaway because I am international and they don’t want to deal with international visa stuff. 

Then let’s take off another fifteen because I don’t have enough experience to be able to do this job without at least two weeks of training. Now I am left with ten potential jobs where they all interview me but only three will call back for a second interview. The other seven, even though they thought I was interesting and my global lifestyle would bring in a new interest to the job, I am still not as qualified as the competing American. Now those last three may never even call me back but thank God, one finally did. 

Yet every day when I would trudge home after talking to my job adviser about other options, my American friends would run past me all dressed up in fancy work gear, ready for the third interview at a prestigious company. And they would get at least five job options before settling down for one.

I remember recounting this to my mother and she confided to me a story about when she received her PhD. How she was so proud of herself of the title she had worked hard to achieve. Yet her happiness was quickly overshadowed with the guilt she felt compared to her fellow student. He would play the saxophone on the street weeks on end just to earn enough money to pay for the university. She told me that she felt spoiled and that is exactly how I feel now.  I am so grateful for everything I have but a small part of me  inside me is shouting “You and UAE should have tried harder.”

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Sara Al Mheiri is a young Emirati woman who is currently living
in Boston, USA, where she is specialising in media studies with a
focus on women's studies. Sara is the ultimate nomad who flits
between countries observing new societies and their culture.

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