A young man in his early twenties was fed up of spending his life in poverty. He had been raised in a village in Sindh and his childhood memories included going to sleep hungry and desperately yearning for little toys that he didn’t have Rs30 to spend on. In his late teens, he learnt how to drive, secured a licence and set about seeking a job. Most people would ask him if he had experience driving in Karachi, which of course he didn’t. He tried his luck at schools as a van driver, but was told he was too young. He got a couple of low-paying chances along the way; losing one when the family moved overseas and another when he himself took an emotional and irrational decision to quit.
He lived in an extended family of eight adults and six children. The only earner was his elder brother, who runs errands for a private institution at a salary of Rs8,000 a month. Among the adults are two elderly parents requiring constant medical care. Two of the adult women in the family are pregnant. Clearly, costs run high. And so does the stress.
A distant relative suggested the young man try to find work overseas where the pay is generous. He was immediately interested and began exploring the possibility. The relative told him he had a contact in Saudi Arabia and could hook him up. Contact and communication began and soon enough, the young man received an offer: if he paid Rs150,000 in cash he would get a job as a driver with an Arab family in Jeddah. He was excited and began asking friends and relatives for financial help. He felt sure he could raise Rs150,000, which, he was told, was the cost of the visa and an airplane ticket. He begged and borrowed, took help from where he could and handed over the money to a relative of the relative at a private flat in Karachi. Then he had his passport made and was asked by the money collector to go to a travel agency, which would process his visa. The agency sent him off to a hospital for medical screening. Several blood tests were conducted and the agency representative, marking off a checklist, gave him the thumbs-up. A few weeks passed and then he was told by the agency that he had been declared unfit and would only get a clearance certificate if he paid another Rs125,000. By now, after all the running around and dream-building, the boy was adamant to go. He set about money-hunting again. A brother-in-law helped with a loan and so did a friend of his brother. The visa came through and then the agency asked him for another Rs75,000 for the airplane ticket. This time he was dismayed and frustrated. Yet he felt he was so much closer to freedom from the slavery of poverty that he thought he would give it another push. Having exhausted all resources, this time he went to a loan shark and a few days later, he was in Jeddah. He was Rs350,000 in debt, equivalent to 3.5 years of his current family income.
He was put up in a tiny airless room on a threadbare rug on the floor. Next to him on another mat, another Pakistani worker was asleep having worked late into the night. There was a tiny toilet and a single ringed stove in the corner of the room. His balloon of excitement was immediately deflated. Still, he went to work. He was to drive a Saudi man to work and elsewhere, drop his kids to school, take his wife out shopping and then drive anyone of the family members around at night when they went out socialising. They, of course, spoke no Urdu and the boy spoke no Arabic so developing an understanding wasn’t going to happen soon.
The relative’s relative who had arranged his employment had copiously explained that he would have nothing to worry about, his employer would provide comfortable accommodation, three meals a day and sufficient tips that would enable him to send his entire salary of 1,500 Saudi Riyals a month (about Rs42,000) home to his family. After a few days passed, the boy enquired about these facilities and was brusquely told that there was no accommodation beyond the room he was in, no tips and he would have to fend for himself in terms of food. His heart fell further. Homesick, lonely and lost, the 22-year-old began to fall unwell. He developed palpitations and sleeplessness. Two weeks after his departure from home, his father suddenly passed away. In customary style, his worried family hid the news from him and in an age of too-rapid communication, some other villager delivered the news. He was crushed. He wailed and wept in the one-room hole but no one came. There was no soothing ritual to attend, no last glimpse at his father’s face, no participation in a funeral prayer, no gathering of people.
The next day the boy composed himself and asked the representative in Jeddah who arranged the visa to send him home for a week. The once-friendly and chatty fellow offered nothing but a shrug of the shoulders. Not possible for two years, he said, and walked away. Frantically the boy called home, confident his brother would find a way out. The response: if you come back, how will we pay all the debt back, people we’ve borrowed from won’t let us live in this village.
Remittances sent home by Pakistanis are often a headline number in speeches of our prime ministers, and finance ministers. Our overseas workers — about eight million Pakistanis live abroad — send home around $1.5 billion a month and over a fourth of that amount comes from Saudi Arabia. Government officials never miss a chance to gloat about that figure and how remittances are changing the lives of rural dwellers — often measured in government reports by motorcycle sales. That’s all very well. But has any one of these officials ever stopped to think about what our citizens undergo when they go overseas in search of work? These poverty-stricken people leave their homeland in desperation to improve their lot. And from the visa agent to the intermediary to the foreign employer, no one wastes a chance to ruthlessly use and exploit them. These workers are written off and forgotten by their own governments. And like this boy, in silence and agony, they flitter away their youth, burdened in debt and in the search for freedom from poverty, find themselves bound in chains.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 5th, 2015.
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