ABU DHABI // With Christmas three months away, Leah Ventura is busy putting together a balikbayan box for her family in the Philippines.
The 25-year-old sales assistant in Abu Dhabi has sent home seven boxes packed with gifts since arriving in the capital about three years ago.
She tries to include something for every member of her family: perfume for her father Amor, a purse for her mum Virginia, clothes for her brothers Russel, Lee and Marvin and sister Nicollet, and chocolates and clothes for nephews and nieces.
“Everyone is anxious to open the box as soon as it arrives,” said Ms Ventura, who is from Candaba in the Pampanga province, about 70 kilometres from Manila. “When it’s opened, we can see the excitement on their faces over Skype.”
The Filipino tradition of sending care packages is a way for overseas relatives to stay connected with families left behind.
Leah’s sister Lara, 24, who joined her here in September last year, is now an expert at packing balikbayan boxes, and keeps a lookout for sales items.
“We always take advantage of any promotions, get great value and save a lot,” she said.
The sisters have so far filled one box with packets of nuts and chocolates, boxes of cookies and pasta, cans of tuna, instant coffee and coffee creamer, a perfume set, washing-up liquid, bottles of body spray, toothpaste and children’s clothing.
While all these items are available in the Philippines, for the 10 million expat Filipinos these boxes represent their hard work and sacrifices.
The box is a tangible sign of their love for their families, said Michael Barney Almazar, director at Dubai-based Gulf Law.
“The box is the physical manifestation of one’s love to their families who they have not hugged or kissed for years.”
Last month, plans to open and manually inspect the boxes sparked outrage among Filipinos living and working overseas.
Many took to social media, fearing customs inspectors would rummage through the boxes and steal items. “When I heard the news, I stopped buying more stuff for the box,” Ms Ventura said. “My father later assured me that there won’t be any random checks.”
Mr Almazar said customs officials would only inspect and check the value of the goods in the presence of freight forwarding company representatives.
“How can the customs steal if the forwarding company is present?” he said.
“If it contains no dutiable items, the box is free to go.”
Only if an X-ray scanner shows something suspicious will boxes be opened for inspection, according to new rules.
“The box holds a special meaning to us and our family back home,” said Ms Ventura. “It warms our hearts seeing them so happy.”