Dubai: The buzz of familiar conversation fills the air as #Pinoy takes a stroll through Al Satwa, a small Dubai community that takes up only 2 square kilometres of space but is home to 40,228 people.
“Bili ka na, ate (Buy now, sister),” a vendor calls, beaming his megawatt smile at passers-by.
The sidewalk is teeming with people from all walks of life: waiting for the bus, dining al fresco, having a watch repaired, buying vegetables, carrying bags of groceries, crossing the street…
“Nagpadala ka na ba? (Have you sent money yet?)” a woman asks her companion as they approach a remittance centre.
“Kain muna tayo (Let’s eat first),” a teen tells her friends as they head towards a popular Filipino fastfood chain.
For a minute you think you’re in a busy street in the Philippines.
Rediscovering Dubai’s top Filipino hotspot
If there’s one place in Dubai that is beloved by expatriates, particularly Filipinos, it’s Al Satwa.
The place has transformed from a small business strip in 2001 to become a high-density area where apartment buildings and shops sit right next to each other in an exciting chaos.
Why does Al Satwa feel like home to Dubai’s Filipino population?
‘It’s like the Philippines’
Geraldine Tuangco, 46, says she makes a weekly trip to the area to feel closer to home. Tuangco has lived in Dubai for almost three years and says a stroll through Al Satwa never fails to lift up her spirits.
“Satwa is where my heart goes because we have lots of Filipinos here and… most of the Filipino food is here. It’s like Philippines; it’s like Manila,” she tells #Pinoy.
Just like Manila? You bet. It even has a newly built building named just that.
Filipino products everywhere
There’s a lot of things you can find in Al Satwa that is close to Filipinos’ hearts (and wallets!): Food, shopping and more food!
Groceries sell a myriad of Filipino products, and if you don’t feel like cooking, there are plenty of Filipino restaurants and fast food outlets that dish out Filipino favourites: from traditional viands to street food.
It’s also a mini-shopper’s paradise with its collection of art galleries, perfume shops, pre-loved clothing stores, auto accessory shops, tailoring shops, jewellery stores and gift shops.
There are specialised shops, too, that you won’t find in malls, and they’re just a walk away: a second hand bookstore, used furniture shops, curtain shops, plant and flower shops, pet shops, watch and shoe repair shops, a film processing store, carpentry shops, electronic repair shops and more.
You can even pick up vegetables from the sidewalk!
Buzzing with activity
“Here in Al Satwa it’s always buzzing with activity because all of the shops are open 24/7 and you can enjoy it all the time,” says Danielle Labrias, 19.
The teen had just stepped out with her family and friends to pick a place to eat when #Pinoy met them.
Patricia Labrias, 21, says although they don’t live in Al Satwa “we always come and visit our friends”, particularly during family occasions like Christmas or New Year.
“We always celebrate it with them because we know that it’s really fun here and there’s a lot of noise and there’s a lot of Filipinos so it always reminds us of home,” says Patricia.
Part of what draws expatriates to Al Satwa is its close proximity to Dubai’s newer hotspots.
“Bus stations are near here and it’s easy access to the Metro and back,” says Patricia.
“You can go anywhere faster… like [the] church or Dubai Mall,” according to 29-year-old Jeff Cruz, who admits he still likes visiting Al Satwa everyday despite moving out of the area last year.
“I like Al Satwa because it’s the centre of everything… I can buy Filipino food… everything is near, that’s why I like Al Satwa,” says Rosalinda Pelibino, a resident of the area for the past 13 years.
Pelibino says there are more Filipinos here now than a decade ago, but she can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Filipinos are everywhere
Danielle Labrias explains: “You feel more at home… and when there’s Filipinos around it’s more fun and energetic and it’s just nice company.”
Al Satwa is also home to expat communities like Indians and Pakistanis. It is that community vibe that is a big draw to Filipinos, who are used to a culture of tight family ties.
Is it possible to feel homesick here?
“No. There’s so many Filipinos around Al Satwa so you never feel homesick,” says Elaiza Lubao, 20.
Efren Gatchalian, 42, has called Al Satwa his home for more than five years. He likes to cycle around the area with his wife.
“I chose to live here in Satwa [because] everything is here… no need to go far, everything is here: restaurants, banks, food, people... food especially,” Gatchalian says, before cycling off. “I have to buy my cat some pet food,” he says, with a grin.