The State of Pahang is in the heart of Malaysia, 200 kilometres from the capital of Kuala Lumpur and 30 kilometres from the nearest town. In this state there is a place immersed in the equatorial climate where the choir of a Malaysian church has dedicated a Christmas concert to the personnel of the construction site. It happened on December 23 of last year, opening the Christmas festivities at the camp of Ulu Jelai, the dam where 3,500 people work directly and indirectly.
Alessandro Stefanoni, who for the first time is working as technical manager of a big construction site far from home, remembers those days with a touch of emotion. “It was beautiful, special ,” he says. “Because I was passing Christmas with my wife and two children of three and five years. On the evening of the 24th we ate all together and at the end of the meal the children sat around a table (with others of their age) and pretended to play cards. That image has stayed with me: there were Italian, Malaysian, Indian, Ethiopian, American children, all gathered round a table.” It is a scene that repeated itself on December 25 with lunch and the handing out of gifts to the children. “I see my family three, four times a year,” says Stefanoni. “Spending time with them during the holiday season was a very important moment. I was able to bring here the Christmas warmth and feeling.”
Thousands of kilometers away from home, family no longer means those who are closest to you but also the colleague who works alongside you, who joins you at the site, the professional of a different nationality who works with you.
“We are an enlarged family,” says Francesco Gaeta, manager of health, safety and environment at Ulu Jelai. “And our Christmas started a few days ago, on December 4, with the celebration of Santa Barbara, patron saint of miners, makers of explosives and people who work in construction. From that day, after the mass and the blessing and the lunch with everyone, we started breathing the Christmas spirit.”
These days at Ulu Jelai, in addition to the tunnels, the spillways, the dam and the concrete, the men have begun working on the decorations. They put them everywhere: in the offices and around the gazebo in a simple manner that repeats itself every year but reminds people that the holidays are a special moment for everyone, independently of ethnicity and religion.
“For this Christmas Eve, we are organizing a cocktail that will start at 7 (p.m.) in the evening,” says Gaeta. “The organization is meticulous to the point that the site manager will distribute a week before a draft of the menu that has to be agreed by everyone. For example, I always expect tortellini in broth, while Indians and Malaysians have completely different tastes. After the cocktail there will be a raffle with prizes provided by the (Salini Impregilo) Group, an exciting moment because all nationalities at the site take part (Italian, Ethiopian, Malaysian, Spanish and so on) and each number is read out in every their language. Listening a number being read out in three or four different languages is confusing but it’s nice to be all together. This is a second family to us.”
This sense of togetherness is an important feeling that goes beyond one’s nationality. Domenico D’Agostino, administration and finance manager at Ulu Jelai, remembers his experience at a Salini Impregilo construction site in Nigeria.
“Lights, trees… these are things that we use to make us feel closer to home,” he says. “We become like an enlarged family, with Africans, Asians, Americans and Europeans. It’s very nice to see that other cultures also enjoy Christmas. But maybe this is the true meaning of the celebration.”