DUBAI—Aysha Albusmait likes to be called Umm Reem — “Reem’s mother” in Arabic — although her daughter does not look very much like her. The skin of the 5-year-old is more brown and while her eyes are just as lovely, they look different from her mother’s.
Nonetheless, during the three years they have been together, the girl has acquired many of her mother’s gestures. Both move fast, talk energetically and exude happiness. They seem as excited as those who finally find what they had been waiting for.
Reem was born in the United Arab Emirates and adopted when she was 3 years old by Albusmait, an unmarried woman in her 50s. Through her actions, Albusmait is breaking the taboo about adoption in the Gulf and telling the world about it too.
In 2010, while she worked at the Road and Transport Authority, Albusmait won the Emirates Women Award for innovation. She is now director of marketing and communications at Dubai Sports Council.
“I felt that I had achieved a lot,” Albusmait recollects, “but something was missing. One day, I realized that I wanted to be a mother and in the same day I took the decision to adopt.” She smiles remembering that moment: “I was upstairs sitting with a friend of mine and I told her about my idea just like this. I knew it was what I wanted.”
In 2013, she went through the Embrace program, which was developed that same year by Dubai’s Community Development Authority (CDA), the authority responsible for providing care for abandoned children in the Emirate of Dubai.
Her age — she was 47 at the time — was not a concern.
“It is not about the age,” Albusmait says. “I would like to see if mothers in their 30s are doing the same as I do with my daughter. It is about passion. If you have the passion to raise a child you can do it whatever the age you have.”
She also didn’t mind facing parenthood alone. She says that marriage was never in her plan, but also says that remaining single is something most women in the UAE wouldn’t consider because of social pressure or the fear of becoming a single mother. However, single women can adopt children legally in the UAE, something that Albusmait says is very positive.
“Some get divorced, others did not have the chance to marry but they have another chance in front of them,” she says. “The chance to give life and receive life from another person.”
She confesses that after knowing that she wanted to adopt, she worried about how to address the issue with her own mother. Surprisingly, her mother accepted the idea with a smile and reminded her daughter about people she already knew who had adopted. “My mother said that this was more common when she was young.”
Nowadays, Albusmait receives calls from many single women seeking support and counseling about this experience, which she says “changes your life.” She empathizes with the frustration of not being able to bring a baby into this world, and is sure that adoption is the cure.
“Some people don’t know, they think Islam is against this but they are wrong, indeed it is something very supported by the religion,” she notes.
In the UAE and in many other Muslim countries, many people eschew the idea of adopting a child. Some concerns are religious and others are cultural. While Islam highly stresses the importance of caring for orphans, it forbids stripping away a child’s sense of his or her own biological lineage and biological rights, as commonly happens under conventional adoption procedures. In Islam, the preservation of people’s lineage is paramount. Therefore, adoption in the Muslim world means not replacing the child’s family name with that of the adopters’, but instead means to permanently care for another’s child as one’s own, while still preserving the child’s lineage.
The CDA carefully uses the word “fostering” instead of “adoption” in an effort to encourage families in Dubai to participate in the program to provide abandoned children “a decent life and potentially move into a caring and loving family as one of their own,” according to its website.
Albusmait explains that potential adopters mainly have two fears that might prevent them from taking the next step: that people may look at the child differently, and that they may speculate about why the parent(s) are adopting.
The children who are adopted come from diverse backgrounds. An abandoned child is legally defined as one who is found inside the country and whose parents are unknown. The child has “no natural family extension and [is] thus deprived of the warmth and care of the family unit,” according to the CDA.
For cases in which the mother is known, the CDA cannot provide the child with an Emirati nationality, as the child is, by definition, not “abandoned.” In this situation, the CDA approaches the embassy of the mother’s nationality and asks it to issue the child a passport. In most cases, after the passport is issued, the child is deported to the mother’s home country.
The prevailing notion is that most of those who need to be adopted are children of illicit relationships, expatriates working in the UAE on low wages, or a result of rape. The biological mothers in these situations may choose to abandon their children due to cultural pressure or because they cannot go back to their home countries with a child, and they often don’t know what to do.
“They’re afraid of the burden of having children and being deported from the country … or the stigma of having an illegal child,” Huda Al Suwaidi, director of the CDA Family Development Department, told Khaleej Times .
In the most dire cases, desperate mothers may resort to infant killing. The CDA pleads with mothers in distress to avoid this action at all cost, and offers completely confidential services.
“No one is going to judge them, we’re the social sector, we’re not the police or court. Nobody’s going to deport them even,” Al Suwaidi added. The police only gets involved in cases of child abuse.
Albusmait explains that to become an adoptive parent, it is not simply a matter of going to a center and choosing a child from a room of available children.
Through Embrace, abandoned children are taken into safe houses called Alternative Family Villas, run with the help of foster parents. The children are provided with an identity card, and once preliminary procedures are completed, they are in line to be placed with an adoptive family.
“They choose and then you go to meet the boy or girl,” Albusmait explains. “If you like and there is harmony you can say yes, if not they find another. They know them very well so they try to make the right match. Also the orphans have to agree.”
She admits that she did not feel a connection with the first girl she was introduced to, Fatma, a 5-year-old from the Philippines. Two weeks together were enough to conclude that it was not working. After that, she was offered a baby, but before Albusmait met her, the CDA changed the plan. Reem came as the third proposal. Albusmait had requested a child less than 1, but Reem was 3. She felt afraid at first to meet her, but the description she received from the center made her interested to meet her.
“They told me that she was a copy of me, that she was very smart,” she said.
Albusmait fell in love with her even before seeing her.
“I was waiting for her to come and I heard her voice. She said that she will bring for me a school bag and I fell in love with her voice. When she came and sat with me I felt like this is my daughter. The CDA working hours finished and I didn’t want to go and leave her,” Albusmait said.
“There was a lot of chemistry between us.”
According to the protocol, the child and prospective mother meet during a transition time, and afterward, a six-month trial period starts in which they live together. After the trial period, official documentation is issued to formally establish the guardianship.
The CDA implements strict criteria for people looking to adopt. A family must be Emirati Muslims residing in the UAE. Couples must be at least 25 years of age, while single mothers must be at least 30. There is also a thorough vetting process of the candidates’ financial, social and psychological status to ensure they are capable of raising these children. At the end of the process, the child is provided Emirati citizenship, proper education and access to healthcare.
“We’re asking them for social, psychological (and) even financial status to make sure they are capable of raising these children and bringing them up to be young Emiratis,” Al Suwaidi told Khaleej Times.
Albusmait says her first three months with Reem were not easy because Reem had some habits that Albusmait wanted to change and others she wanted her to learn. “It was a period of time full of happiness and cries, happiness and sadness, it was a mix.”
A psychologist provided by the CDA helped Reem during this transition time. “After three months we overcome all the difficulties and she started to call me ‘mama’,” Albusmait says with a large smile.
Because adoption is still largely a taboo in the Gulf, there is no community to share experiences and concerns with. After her own frustration on this point, Albusmait launched some social media accounts, such as an Instagram group for the region’s adoptive families, called @osar_hadinah, (which means “foster families” in Arabic) to have a forum in which to connect.
“I am the only one talking about this now, others will come but I am used to be the first opening doors,” she says.
She adds, “I know we are behind other countries on this issue but here in mine I am leading the movement because very few people talk about this, and not only in the Gulf area but in all the Arab world.”
In its three short years, the Embrace program has placed over 13 children with families, and now there is a waiting list for adoptions.
The CDA says it follows up with the adopted children periodically through field visits and phone calls to ensure their happiness and wellbeing are being attended to as well as to monitor how they are adjusting with their new family and environment. This includes looking into several aspects such as social, psychological, educational, health and other possible challenges for both the child and the family.
On occasion, the biological mother may appear asking for her child, which she can legally do, according to the CDA, and the child must then leave his or her foster family.
Although Albusmait knows the details of Reem’s biological family, she prefers to keep them to herself.
“I don’t want to share this,” she said. “Thank God she was well treated, she knew how to deal with people and when I saw her I felt she is decent, she knows how to talk and how to behave.”
She also stresses, “The children are innocent, just coming from a man and a woman who are there, we don’t know.” Albusmait doesn’t care about genetics because for her, “kids are like the ground. If you put a seed for something good, they will be good, and if you put something bad, they will be bad.”
Reem plays with Alexa, her dog, both running around the spacious living room of the villa. Photos of her are on almost every wall. Albusmait explains where this or that moment was captured, and highlights how fast she herself is also growing beside her daughter.
One housemaid serves coffee and cake while the other goes upstairs to help the girl change her clothes. Today after school, Reem has a piano lesson. Her mother wants her to have a well-rounded education, which includes ballet, horse riding and Arabic lessons, and to never feel bored or alone.
In the garden around the house, there is a tortoise and in the fountain, there are some fish. Reem poses for photos with her parrot and goes up and down the main stairs. She lost her shy demeanor some time ago and is now open and cheerful with me. She plays and enjoys the sun while Albusmait tries to get her to pause long enough for me to take some photos of her.
“Does Reem understand that she is adopted?” I ask.
“I talked to her about this three times during these two years. I am not sure if she remembers when she came home because she was only 3 years old, but I keep reminding her,” Albusmait says.
She believes that this is a very important task to carry out for all adopting parents, to let their children know everything and answer questions step by step. “I tell her that I am not her mother in papers, I am her mother forever by heart.”
“Would you have more?” I inquire.
“You know, for me she is enough but for her it is not. She has a lot of imagination and she pretends that she has a sister, she named her. I think it is not fair that I wanted to do something and I did it and she wants something and I don’t do it. I think it’s not that she wants a sister, she needs one.”
A Complete Family
A few months after my visit with Albusmait and Reem, I found out they successfully adopted a 2-month-old infant, Hessa. Albusmait said that although the process was the same, it was much more difficult the second time around because she already had one daughter. Decision-makers generally give preference to prospective parents who are childless.
“They gave me my second baby because they believed that I deserve to have her … and they are sure that I will raise her and take care of her with love as I did with Reem,” Albusmait says.
She says that she involved Reem in the entire adoption process from the beginning. “Reem is so happy to have a sister and she is helping me in raising her. … She can’t wait until her sister can play with her.”
Albusmait says their little family is complete now. “I have my small family with my two angels, and now I feel that I can raise them to love each other as sisters who can support each other in life.”