ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — While taking an afternoon nap on a hot afternoon in July, April Robinson received a phone call that shook her out of her slumber: “April, I found collard greens.”
Robinson, 37, had been living then for three years in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where she works as a page designer at the country’s newest English language daily The National.
Robinson, an African American who grew up in Miami, said she had scoured the Emirates for collard greens and corn bread but to no avail.
“I used to crave corn bread,” said Robinson, a former Lauderhill resident and page designer at The Miami Herald. “When I would come home for vacations, I would take boxes of Jiffy Mix back with me to Abu Dhabi.”
Now, thanks to her colleague, Gilbert B. Dunkley, Robinson has collard greens to go with her corn bread “I bought six cans. I didn’t want to run out,” she said.
Robinson and Dunkley, a former Miami Herald editor, are among thousands of black Americans living and working in the UAE, a desert country comprising seven emirates that is slightly smaller than Maine. It borders the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf (Arab Gulf), between Saudi Arabia on the west and Oman on the east. The most noted of the emirates are Abu Dhabi and Dubai, home of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which is featured in the film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
Other South Florida blacks in the UAE include celebrated architect Gail Thompson, project director from June 1999 to June 2004 of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami.
Thomspon, who lives in the Burj Khalifa, initially was hired in 2008 as project manager for the Dubai Cultural Arts Center. Although the project was put on hold due to the global economic downturn, Thompson has worked as the lead architect or project manager on other UAE projects, including the construction of Zayed University which was completed in July.
“Dubai is an amazing city,” Thompson said from her apartment on the 54th floor overlooking the city’s vast skyline. “Life is absolutely lovely here.”
Americans number between 40,000 and 80,000, about one in four of them a black American, said Fareed Abdullah, an African American press attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi.
Blacks hold positions ranging from CEOs, to doctors, engineers and oil company consultants, to architects, marketing strategists and journalists, rap artists, reflexologists, U.S. government employees and teachers, and there are also some retired military personnel.
They are filling jobs created by the UAE’s rapid growth since it became an oil producer. Americans, other westerners and Arabs from other countries are training native Emiratis to eventually fill those jobs. The temporary opportunity offers an economic lifeline to thousands of Americans who otherwise would be looking for work in the U.S.
A chance to earn handsome salaries, coupled with the adventure of living abroad is part of the allure, according to Thompson.
“One thing I have said is that I do not want to live my entire life in one place,” she said. “I am very proud of myself for having come out here. If the economy had been great in the United States, I probably would not have come. It is great to see so many Americans and African Americans making it here. There is a peace out here that we do not have at home, a peace that says ‘live and let live.’”
Being from culturally and ethnically diverse South Florida helped her to adapt to living abroad, she said.
“I call this Miami East,” she said.
Teachers account for a large number of American expatriates in the UAE. “Two years ago, I didn’t know this country existed,” said Adeyela Bennett, who lives with her husband, Bradley Bennett, their 4-year-old twins, Breanna and Brooke, and 18-year-old daughter, Moremi Akinde, in a skyrise in Dubai. Another daughter, Nuola Akinde, 22, remains in Pembroke Pines. Bradley Bennett, former executive editor of the South Florida Times, is a senior editor in the Dubai offices at The National. The family has lived in the UAE for 1½ years.
“I would say that 99 percent of my experiences has been positive here,” said Adeyela Bennett, a former instructional supervisor with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who now teaches at the American Academy for Girls in Al Mizhar, a neighborhood in Dubai.
“I love this country,” she said. “People have been kind, even generous. With the economic problems we are having now in the United States, the UAE is a good opportunity to get international experience.”
The chance to live internationally has become a dream fulfilled for Alice Haxton, who is raising her 11-year-old twins alone in Al Ain, a city in the Abu Dhabi Emirate. She and her husband Michael Stephens, a social worker, agreed to a separation that allowed Haxton to take the girls, Mischa and Imani, with her.
“Their father is sacrificing time with them because he believes he is providing them with a gift that has benefits that will last a lifetime,” said Haxton, who teaches at Amoriyah School for Girls in Al Ain.
Haxton, who was born in Miami’s Brown Sub neighborhood and taught at North Beach Elementary for 21 years, is in the second year of a contract in the UAE. She intends to renew it for one more year.
The children are learning Arabic and making friends with children from all over the world, they said.
Still, Mischa said, living in the desert makes her yearn for South Florida’s rainy season. But that is not all she misses. “I miss my family and Christmas,” she said.
Imani added, “I miss watching Nickoledeon in English.”
Haxton said she understands her daughters’ ambivalence.
“It depends on what day you ask us,” she said. “One day they’ll say they love it here; the next day, they are ready to go home.” Under her contract, she and the family travel home once a year at the UAE’s expense.
Bradley Bennett is not sure how long he and his family will remain the UAE. “When the job situation improves, I would love to return,” he said.
Thompson, who maintains her home in Miami Beach, said she eventually will return to South Florida.
“I really miss Miami but it might be good to live at least one other place before I go back home,” she said.
While collard greens have brought Robinson some happiness, and the job has given her a chance to catch up on her bills, the day will come when she too will return to Miami, she said.
“They really do try to cater to your every need here, so you don’t have to leave,” she said. “But, for single people, not so much. I want a little bit more out of life than money.”
Photo: Brad Bennett