Growing up in the United Arab Emirates


When Jennifer Hansen and her family wrote this piece for Middle East week just a little while ago, her family was settled and loving their life in Abu Dhabi.

But suddenly their circumstances changed.

Still, the Hansens have been kind enough to share gorgeous family photos taken in the Arabian desert as well as tons of wonderful information about the diversity of the United Arab Emirates.

So join us in wishing Jen and her family well in their next steps, and get ready to learn lots of facts about their time in a land of both exciting advancements and deep cultural history.

Growing up around the world: A series

Tell us a little bit about your family.

We are a Canadian family of four: Dwayne, Jen, Josiah, and Abby. Dwayne and I have been married for 18 years, Josiah is 12 years old, and Abby is 10.

Before moving overseas, we most recently lived in Chilliwack, BC, where Dwayne was a middle school teacher, and I was a part-time pastor. The kids attended a wonderful public school in our community until we made a switch to homeschooling a year before leaving the country.

I left my job to be back home with the kids, and then life took a turn in an unexpected direction when Dwayne accepted a teaching position in the United Arab Emarites. If you want to know the long story of that journey, you can read about it here. 🙂

Tell us a little bit about where you live and how long you’ve lived there.

We live in the United Arab Emirates, in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, and the city of Al Ain.

Emirates are the equivalent of states or provinces, and there are 7 emirates in the UAE.

The city of Al Ain is about 90 minutes from Abu Dhabi city and 90 minutes from Dubai, which are the biggest cities in the country. We have lived here for two years.


What do you think is unique and special about living where you do?

One of the most unique things about the UAE is that over 80 percent of the population is made up of expatriates, meaning they are not native-born Emiratis. It is an incredibly diverse country where you live next door to lots of people from multiple nations.

The UAE also seems to be on a quest to have the biggest and fastest everything! Here in this little country you’ll find the word’s biggest building, the world’s biggest mall, and the world’s fastest roller coaster.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of history and you can also find 5,000 year old tombs, centuries old irrigation systems in the oases, and old boats used for pearl diving a hundred years ago.


What languages are spoken there? If it’s different from English, can you help us learn a few common phrases?

Arabic is the national language, although, because of the cultural diversity, you can hear a dozen different languages on any given day.

Also, even though Arabic is the national language, English is spoken by almost everyone and so we have not had to learn Arabic in order to get by here. (Although, we are trying.) It’s a very difficult language to learn, with a different alphabet and a number of sounds we don’t really make in English!

One of the best phrases to learn here is “As-salaam ‘alaykum,” which means “Peace be upon you.”

This is the common greeting used here in the UAE. You respond by saying, “Wa alaykum salaam,” which means, “Upon you be peace.”

It’s a beautiful way to greet one another. Another common word used here is “Inshallah,” which means, “In God’s will.” It is used often when speaking of the future as a reminder that what we plan for will only happen if God wills it. So, if someone says they will see you tomorrow, they will add, “Inshallah,” to remember that all of life is always in God’s hands.

Another good word to know is “Shukran,” which means, “Thank you.”

What are some traditional foods there?

Hummus and Arabic bread are common and traditional arabic foods. When you shave chicken or lamb meat, roasted all day on a spit and wrap it with hummus on this delicious arabic bread, you have shawarma. Delicious!

Meat, rice, and bread is also a very common meal.

Not a lot of food grows in the desert, but one thing that does grow in abundance is the date palm tree. So dates are a very commonly eaten treat here in the UAE, and though we didn’t really eat dates back home, we have fallen in love with them since moving here.


Tell us about the climate where you live.

It’s hot! The UAE is in the Arabian Desert, so the temperatures in the summer will soar well over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), somedays getting closer to 50 degrees (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

We honestly don’t know how people handled living here before air conditioning! In the winter, the daily highs are still just under 30 degrees (86 degrees Fahrenheit), but it cools down to less than 10 degrees at night (50 degrees Fahrenheit), which actually does feel cold when you’ve adjusted to the heat!

Since this is the desert, it’s also sunny most days of the year. It is definitely hotter than we’re used to, but coming from the Canadian west coast where all the beautiful greenery is paid for with a whole lot of rain, we sure do appreciate seeing the sun almost every morning when we wake up here.

What does school look like for the majority of kids where you live?

Local children attend public schools here, with both Arabic- and English-speaking teachers. Dwayne actually teaches math at a public school here.

Expat children attend private schools, and there is a small contingent of expat homeschoolers as well.

What does school look like for your family?

We are homeschooling. We do the majority of our academic work at home, following the BC curriculum, but we are also blessed to be part of a homeschool co-op where we meet once or twice a week with other homeschool families to do activities together.

Parents take turns planning and hosting things that are suited to their passions and skills and we always end with lots of free play time for the kids to run around together.

We enjoy things like art, cooking, yoga, swimming, music, games, and field trips.

Are there any special festivals or traditions you’d like to tell us about related to where you live?

Well, as I write this article, Muslims around the world are celebrating Ramadan, which is the Muslim month of fasting. They fast from sun-up to sun-down, which means that expats also don’t eat or drink in public during the month. Life changes a lot here during that time, as restaurants and stores are mostly closed during the day and it feels like all the action starts at 8 p.m.!

Ramadan ends with a celebration called Eid Al-Fitr. This is a very special time with prayers and visits to family and friends. Families usually give gifts to their children during this holiday.

In the UAE specifically, the country’s birthday is December 2nd, and there are generally 2-3 days of celebrations, called National Days. In December of this year, the UAE will turn 45. There are always lots of fireworks and parades and events all around the country.


If you ever had to move away from where you live now, what do you think you’d miss most?

We would miss spending our days with people from so many different countries and cultures. We’d miss the beauty of the desert, dates, sunshine, our apartment, camels, Arabic hospitality, our church family, and the slow, relaxed pace of life in Al Ain.

That only scratches the surface, but most of all, we’d miss the friends we’ve made here.

Do you have a favorite book that takes place in your region/country?

One hundred years ago, this region was sparsely populated, and the locals survived primarily on the pearl diving industry. Life was simple and resources were few. Then the Japanese began making cultured pearls and it seemed what little way the people here had to make a living was gone.

There were many hard and lean years until 1958 when oil was discovered. In an incredibly short period of time, this tiny little corner of the world has been completely transformed.

The story of the nation is really interesting, and the book Rags to Riches by Mohammed Al-Fahim is a fantastic first-hand account for adults of what that journey was like.

Fast Facts about The United Arab Emirates

UAE flag

  • It’s estimated that only about 13 percent of the people living in the UAE are its citizens – the remainder are expats.
  • The United Arab Emirates’ capital is Abu Dhabi
  • Want to learn more about Dubai – the largest city in the UAE and home to the tallest building in the world? Check out this video (Note: Religious beliefs mentioned):

Thank you so much, Hansen Family!

About Jennifer Hansen

Jen and Dwayne have been married for 19 years this summer, and they have two super great kids. Josiah is 12 and Abby is 10. Dwayne is a teacher and Jen is a former pastor, turned homeschool mom. Both kids were born on the cold and beautiful Canadian prairies before the family moved to the west coast and lived for 8 years in Chilliwack, BC. In 2014 Dwayne accepted a teaching contract in Abu Dhabi, and since then they have been on the roller coaster ride of expat life in the desert. Jen writes about their adventures at Behind the Vines.


  1. Glen & Linda Markusson says:

    Hello Jennifer – I enjoyed reading about your life in the UEA. My name is Linda Markusson from Foam Lake and I was a close friend and neighbor of your Grandmother Leanor who was such a wonderful person. She talked about you and your fmaily often and was so proud of you. My husband Glen & I would sometimes give your Grandma rides to Calgary for her to visit your mother and uncles.
    I just wanted to say that I feel like I know you from your grandmothers stories and that I enjoyed hearing about your exciting life. As-salaam “alaykum” “Peace Be with You”

Share Your Thoughts


CommentLuv badge

Never miss a blog post,
PLUS get Jamie’s FREE ebook: