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Ship Carrying Shattered Dreams of Hundreds Sails for India

September 30, 1996

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ Camelo Mendez has nothing to show for the 22 years he spent away from his family in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates except a missing finger and a shattered dream.

``I don’t know how I’m going to face my family after so many years. I’ve failed to fulfill the promises I made and now I’m going home empty-handed,″ the 53-year-old Indian said in frustration as his compatriots nodded in sympathy.

Mendez is among thousands who came here two decades ago, each seeking a life better than the one left behind.

The government estimates there are 120,000 illegal workers, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, in the U.A.E.’s seven emirates.

The abundance led the government in July to pass a law granting an amnesty window during which they may leave the country without facing prosecution.

Like Mendez, many of the foreigners had not seen their families in years and jumped at the opportunity to return home without having to pay hefty fines or face imprisonment.

Now, the Seawolf 103, a 2,000-ton cargo ship, will carry Mendez and some 1,200 others home. It set sail Monday evening.

Mendez arrived in 1974, lured by oil money and plenty of work. He was among the hundreds of thousands who helped turn the U.A.E. from a backwater of fishing villages into a modern metropolis with four-lane highways and glittering skyscrapers.

But their dreams, based on false promises of higher income, never materialized.

Mendez, who lost his right index finger while working as an air-conditioning mechanic, rarely wrote to his wife and two children back in Bombay.

``How could I write when I didn’t have any money to send to them?″ he lamented.

The government originally said the workers would have to leave the country by Sept. 30. But huge numbers of workers from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the Philippines requested exit permits, and the government extended the deadline.

Illegal workers now have until Oct. 31; after that, they will be fined, jailed or deported. Likewise, employers hiring illegal workers will face fines of $2,740, jail terms and confiscation of property.

Monday, some of the foreigners helped load the Seawolf 103 with tons of food and water. Others simply watched the vessel with tired, weary eyes.

They were scattered all over Hamriyah port, some sitting on stools, others under trees, seeking shelter from the scorching rays of the sun.

They yearned to go home.

Sharif Abu Baker, 26, clutched a plastic bag containing all his belongings.

``I’m very happy to leave and I’m not worried about working illegally anymore,″ he said. ``I will not come back here.″

Update hourly