A new documentary gives us a peek at life inside the labor camps of Dubai

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter and this is "The World." In the oil rich United Arab Emirates, or UAE, migrant workers do most of the heavy lifting. In construction, for example, the workers tend to come from India and other south asian nations. A new documentary focuses on these migrants. "Champ of the Camp" is about migrants who live in migrant camps on the outskirts of Dubai and enter a talent contest called, "Camp ka Champ." Lebanese filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour is the director. He made the film with his wife. Mahmoud, explain if you would, why you wanted to document these men's lives.

Mahmoud Kaabour: I grew up in the UAE and I was always quite baffled by the separation between the labor community and society at large here. Anyone who's lived in the gulf knows that the city often has laborers working in its different corners and its different streets, but people never get to interact with this community.

Schachter: You called the film "Champ of the Camp" after the name of this singing contest. Tell us a little bit about this competition and what happens there after it gets started.

Kaabour: "Champ ka Camp" is a competition that is modeled on a popular television contest format in India called "Antakshari," in which people have to guess a song on the basis of the first word of its lyrics. Sometimes they play a song from a movie and they have to guess who the actor is behind it, or who performed the song the first time. It relies heavily on good knowledge of Bollywood and a love for singing.

[Music]

Kaabour: The competition itself is a brand loyalty scheme that was launched by Western Union, which is one of the most popular companies for remitting money between countries. Western Union's biggest client in the UAE is obviously the manual laborer who workers really hard to send money at the end of the month to his family back in the subcontinent.

Schachter: These are guys who build some of the shiniest and tallest buildings in the world and once they're finished, they will never set foot in those buildings.

Kaabour: That's sadly true and that was true of Adnan, who's one of our major characters in the film. Adnan is a Pakistani citizen and he's lived here for 7 years, during which he managed to save enough money to build a house back home in Pakistan, where he's going to start a family with his wife. Interestingly, Adnan is one of the men who contributed to the building of Burj Khalifa, which until today, is the tallest tower anywhere on Earth. He sees it shimmering on the skyline, all the way from his camp on the outskirts of the city, but he's never been there. We made a point of taking him there.

"Adnan: This is the first time I've come here, and I'm awestruck. We struggled a lot on the project. When I look back, it seems unbelievable that we did the work, but there was a certain fire and passion to get the job done, and it felt good. The people who live on the top, they're big businessmen. Their life is completely different. They enjoy life, they have no problems. It's we who have problems because we can't afford to live in a big building."

Kaabour: I always felt that the story of how these men can manage to provide to extended families back in their villages or slums from which they come in India and Pakistan and Nepal and Bangladesh, often makes the story seem a lot harsher on Dubai at large. I always thought that it's not fair. By no means is that an excuse for some of the cruelties which are sometimes exercised toward laborers, or the certain unfairness - sometimes these men, they get their salaries withheld or they find themselves on the end splinter of a capitalist equation, where a company goes bankrupt and some of these men never see their salaries at the end of 3 months of work. This is all unfair and it's by no means an excuse, but it's a bitter reality that many men accept in order to give a better life to their families.

Schachter: This is, as you say, a mixed story. The guys are earning more money than they would back home, wherever they're from. It's also a fairly tragic story. One of the guys you profile, Shofi - it's heartbreaking.

Kaabour: Shofi is indeed a poor soul. He's someone we came across during one of the many quarterfinal rounds in this competition. He belted out such heartfelt songs that a stampede took place in that camp. Shofi came to the UAE as a youngster, and his biggest attachment in the world was his mother, whom he continued to miss over the years of living here. He's haunted by dreams of her at night that wake him up in tears every night. He actually stated to our camera that he's much happier working in the heat of Dubai summers, where temperatures go up to 125 degrees, just because it takes his mind off how much he misses her.

"Shofi: When I work, I think of people I am doing this for. My mother, my father, my younger brother - they are always on my mind. Sometimes I feel like I have no life. I work from morning to evening. I'm drenched in sweat. I've been here 3 and a half years now. Sometimes I see my mother in my dreams, and then I wake up and cry. But what can I do? I'm helpless. I have to be here. Sometimes, when I call home, my mother says, 'Son, come back. We don't want the money.' But still, I have to be here and work."

Schachter: Are you hoping they change things? I know you don't want to get political, but you're putting it out there. You don't really need to say much, do you?

Kaabour: Despite all of the favors of working in Dubai, a labor camp is by no means a pleasant place. It's made of cement. It's pretty large. It houses up to 3,000 to 4,000 men. It has very basic amenities and it lacks of any sort of color. However, this is the place that made the gulf economies rise, and this is how the gulf came to be. I hope that by opening a window to this world, there will be further scrutiny. On one side, some myths about camps and enslavement perhaps will be debunked, but at the same time, I hope that someone might watch this and think to themselves of how these places could be improved or how the employment of these men and their contracts and the nature of their stay in the country could be enhanced in a human direction.

Schachter: Mahmoud Kaabour directed the documentary, "Champ of the Camp" about migrant laborers in Dubai. From our studios at WGBH in Boston, I'm Aaron Schachter. Thanks for listening. Marco Werman is back tomorrow.