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New Beginnings: Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Have Started Afresh in the UAE

Resilient, hopeful, resourceful – these are real stories of courage, spiritual discoveries, and paying it forward, from people who have made a new start in the UAE.

For some, new beginnings are scary. Change inevitably brings with it uncertainty, and a future undefined. But what if a leap of faith takes your life in the direction it was meant to go? Five diverse people who have made the UAE their home have done just that – refusing to accept their circumstances, they’ve started afresh and changed their destinies. From a former waiter who now runs her own company and a laborer who climbed the corporate ladder, to the sacred journey of two adoptive parents who traveled 72 hours to find their son in a foreign land, these extraordinary stories of new beginnings remind us what it means to be truly human.

Cheryl Nankoo
Account manager and adoptive mother

Simon Amyot and Cheryl Nankoo with their children Alpha and Aliyah. Photographed by Ankita Chandra, Francisco Dautant, and Rohit Sabu

From a young age, Cheryl Nankoo always wanted a family through adoption. Over the years, she worked in many initiatives to help children in the UK, India, and Laos. In 2016, after volunteering in an orphanage in a Dalit village (the lowest caste) in India, she decided to adopt as a single mother. Nankoo was faced with many challenges, but she continued to research ways in which she could adopt. Two years later, and at the age of 42, Nankoo met and married her husband. After a miscarriage, a gynecologist tried to persuade Nankoo to try infertility treatment before adopting – advice that made Nankoo feel as if adoption is the “lesser choice.”

The process made her and her husband realize how much they wanted to adopt. Finally, in 2020, they brought home Alpha from Sierra Leone. Daughter Aliyah followed in July this year. “That day, September 20, 2020, was the best day of my life, because I met my son Alpha for the first time. It was overwhelming, but as soon as we brought him home, I knew I wanted more children. People tend to focus on what adoptive parents miss through not giving birth, but they fail to see what parents miss out on by not adopting. There is no right or wrong way of starting a family – it’s all about love. Since adopting my kids, I am no longer trying to define my purpose. I now know my future dreams are related to my children and their home countries. My children have shown me the way.”

Aishwarya Joshi
Social entrepreneur

Aishwarya Joshi photographed in Al Quoz, Dubai by Ankita Chandra, Francisco Dautant, and Rohit Sabu

Having lost both her parents in her teens, Aishwarya Joshi says she owes a lot of who she is today to the kindness shown to her, and she’s dedicated her life to paying it forward. After moving to Dubai as a design architect in 2005, Joshi was quickly drawn to empowering the laborer community on the fringes of construction sites. This led her to volunteer in various UN campaigns and international non-profits, before founding her own consultancy firm, The Lighthouse Cohort, in 2014.

For the past seven years her firm has facilitated mental health programs for rape victims, orphans, and single mothers from the persecuted Yazidi community in Iraq, and orchestrated peacebuilding workshops that have helped more than 1 500 displaced children from Syria, Gaza, and Jordanian tribal communities, taking refuge in Jordan and Lebanon. “What drives me every day is the crossover of professional skills and extending my career beyond the designing of buildings to shaping larger communities for the benefit of laborers, prisoners, and refugees across the Middle East and Africa.”

Fevie Laurilla

Fevie Laurilla photographed by Ankita Chandra, Francisco Dautant, and Rohit Sabu

Originally from Rizal, Philippines, Fevie Laurilla came to Dubai more than two decades ago to work as a waiter in a fast-food chain. Over the years she was promoted twice – first to restaurant supervisor and then to manager of multiple kiosks across Dubai. When forced to look for jobs during the 2008 recession, Laurilla took the opportunity to pursue a lifelong interest in event management. What began with modest means (her first event was a birthday party), eventually morphed into Laurilla strategizing and planning major events for corporates. When the pandemic hit the Filipino community (many of whom work in hospitality) especially hard, Laurilla took a leap of faith and launched her first business venture, Filpreneurs General Trading – an online trading platform for people from her community to sell their products under an umbrella license. In less than a year, hundreds of people signed up, using its services to supplement their incomes. “This became a starting point for us to survive and continue to fight, to live and dream,” Laurilla says. “And this is my new beginning.”

Manju Mandal
Sales executive and board member at SmartLife

Manju Mandal photographed in a labor camp in Dubai by Ankita Chandra, Francisco Dautant, and Rohit Sabu

One of four brothers born to a farming family on the outskirts of Kolkata, India, Manju Mandal left school at 14 to help supplement the family’s income. In 2011, he moved to Dubai with a dream to start fresh, working as a cleaner in a restaurant while living in a labor camp, where he was photographed for this story. A chance encounter introduced him to the NGO SmartLife, which works to empower and better the lives of people in labor camps. Mandal started to learn English and soon after found work as a deliveryman for a bank. He quickly rose through the ranks and today is employed as a sales executive at Emirates NBD. Even though his circumstances have improved, Mandal still contributes to SmartLife, organizing food distribution programs and teaching meditation to laborers. He works closely with 20 labor camps across Dubai, facilitating welfare and educational programs, including teaching Arabic and managing a Covid helpline. “I’m learning and improving every day,” he shares. “One day I’ll make my dream of building a hospital in my hometown come true. For now, I love Dubai and I’m proud to call it my home.”

Luz Villamil
Deputy director of Cinema Akil and breast cancer activist

Luz Villamil photographed inside Cinema Akil, Alserkal Avenue by Ankita Chandra, Francisco Dautant, and Rohit Sabu

Born to a Palestinian father and Colombian mother, Luz Villamil had a rough childhood in Colombia, where gang violence was commonplace. In 1998, her father was kidnapped by guerilla outfit FARC and only returned three months later. Shortly after that,
her brother went missing while on vacation, never to be heard from again. Grappling with the profound loss and to escape a life of uncertainty, the Villamil family moved to the UAE in 2002. Her true “new beginning” happened at 31, when she went through a divorce, got diagnosed with breast cancer, and lost her father – all in one year. Navigating this extraordinary time in her life has been an enlightening road to self-discovery, she says.

“I finally got to know myself through my illness. I saw myself bare in a way that I never expected to: physically weak, bald, without my eyebrows or eyelashes, with an implanted breast and four scars that saved my life. I found gratitude. I was grateful for the strength of my family, for my friends, for my body for having coped with so much prodding, endless drugs flowing through my veins, transfusions to sustain my blood levels… I was grateful for life.” Villamil has since dedicated her blog, Lopsided Life, towards breast cancer awareness, with a focus on young women’s mental health during and post treatment through articles, podcasts, and panel discussions.

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Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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