SPECIAL REPORT

Nepalese Migrant Worker in Qatar Torn Over Coming Home After Quake

 
 
Dhurba B.K. attends a gathering of Nepalese migrant workers in Doha, Qatar. B.K. is one of about 400,000 Nepalese workers there, many of whom struggled with whether to stay after an April 2015 earthquake damaged huge portions of Nepal. Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Qatar

For the millions of Nepalese migrant workers abroad, the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal presented a dilemma: Return home to be with family or continue working to support their family. Migrant worker Dhurba B.K. decided to stay in Qatar, but now it seems he will have to stay abroad longer to help his family recover from losses due to the quake. 

DOHA, QATAR — Dhurba B.K. counts himself among the lucky ones. Thousands of people died in an earthquake that rocked much of Nepal in April 2015, but his family survived.

“My house was damaged, and my family is living in a tent, but it’s ok,” he says. “At least they are alive.”

B.K., 33, says he spoke to his wife just hours before the earthquake that devastated Nepal on April 25, 2015. When the quake struck at 11:56 a.m., his wife, their child and his father were shopping in preparation for a family trip to visit other relatives.

B.K. was at work in Doha, Qatar, where since 2007 he has driven a truck that moves heavy construction machinery. He was on the road when he heard from another Nepalese worker that there’d been an earthquake back home.

He immediately started calling his loved ones but he couldn’t get through. Fear and dread filled him.

“I was worried,” B.K. says. “I was scared.”

And he felt helpless.

“I have to think about my family,” he says, remembering the anguish he felt that day. “I have to take care of them.”

It was several hours before B.K. reached his brother, who confirmed that the family was safe. But their home, which B.K. had paid for through his work in Qatar, was seriously damaged.

“I never got to live in that house,” B.K. says.

The older family house next door, where relatives lived, was also badly damaged.

HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

A large number of human rights advocates and international agencies, including the United Nations, have voiced serious concerns over the human rights of migrant workers in Qatar. Labor camps, where huge numbers of workers live, are cramped and unsanitary. Each workers’ legal status in Qatar is linked to his or her employment status. Under Qatari law, employers maintain significant control over their employees, even though the country’s highly-criticized kafala system, which strictly regulated workers’ movements, was technically ended in 2015. Human rights advocates say that system ended in name only, and that tight control of foreign workers in Qatar continues.

Workers face grave dangers on the job. In the construction sector, workers labor on roofs without scaffolding or safety ropes, risk suffocation in enclosed pipes and endure weather-related health problems in the desert heat. In some cases, the abuses amount to bonded or forced labor.

For many of the millions of Nepalese people who were working overseas in April 2015, the earthquake sparked severe distress. Many of them lost much of what they’d worked for years to build.

Now, like B.K., they’re starting again, earning and saving money to rebuild their lives.

B.K. is one of about 400,000 Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, and one of roughly 2 million Nepalese workers abroad. That number doesn’t include the Nepalese workers who cross their country’s open border into India to find jobs.

The money those migrants send home accounts for just under 30 percent of Nepal’s GDP.

With their overseas earnings so critical to their families, migrant workers faced a grave quandary in the days, weeks and months after the earthquake.

“They were of two minds – to come home to their families or stay back and work,” says Sanam Poudel, a psychologist at the Center for Awareness Promotion Nepal, a non-profit organization based in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. “What is the right choice? They could not decide.”

A survey of 408 displaced households conducted a month after the earthquake found that 13.2 percent of Nepalese people who worked abroad prior to the quake returned home after it occurred, according to a government report.

While hospitals were crowded with patients who sustained injuries in the quake and its aftershocks, an untold number of people were also suffering from psychological trauma. (Read our story here.)

Mental health services are “too meager” in the context of post-earthquake Nepal, Dr. Saroj Prasad Ojha, head of the psychiatry department at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital’s Institute of Medicine told Global Press Journal last year. Nepal has about 110 psychiatrists and about 400 general counselors.

People who were working overseas at the time of the earthquake need mental health care, too. Poudel has counseled around 20 female migrant workers, as well as family members, who were traumatized by the earthquake, even though they were working abroad when it struck.

“Migrant workers faced anxiety and restlessness,” she says. “They didn’t know what was happening at home.”

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Bal Bahadur B.K. stands outside his family’s home, which was damaged in the quake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

B.K. was among those who says he felt pulled in opposite directions.

“I was worried for my family, and I wanted to go home,” he says.

But were he to return home, his income would disappear.

He works six days each week, and often adds four hours of overtime on Fridays, which are otherwise his day off.

He was single when he left Nepal in 2007. He returned home in 2010 to marry Rupa B.K. In March 2011, not three months after his wedding, he returned to Qatar.

“I was two months pregnant when he went back to Qatar,” Rupa B.K. says. “It was difficult to give birth and raise a child without a husband. His love is there but he is not physically present.”

In October 2013, Dhurba B.K. made another brief visit when their daughter, Puja, was around 2 years old, Rupa B.K. says. Puja did not know who he was, she says.

“This is our country’s situation,” Rupa B.K. says. “People have no choice. Our government cannot provide jobs. At least people going abroad are finding jobs.”

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Bal Bahadur B.K. sits in a temporary shelter where he’s lived since the April 2015 earthquake. His son, Dhurba B.K., is a migrant worker in Qatar.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

Before he went to Qatar, Dhurba B.K. earned between 10,000 rupees to 15,000 rupees (now $93-$140) a month driving a passenger van. Now, he says, his salary is 1,800 Qatari riyals ($494), but with overtime he earns up to 3,200 riyals ($879) a month.

The family’s home was built with nearly 500,000 rupees ($4,657), mostly in funds B.K. sent home. Construction took three years and was completed in 2014.

In March, Rupa B.K. and her daughter moved into a rented room in another town. Her husband’s mother joined them so she could get medical treatment for ongoing health issues from a hospital near there.

Her father-in-law and sister live in a temporary shelter made of plastic, tin and wood near their damaged home.

“We only use the kitchen to cook and eat,” says Bal Bahadur B.K., Dhurba B.K.’s father, of the older family home. “We sleep outside. We are scared because the house is badly cracked.”

The family received 10,000 rupees ($93) from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and 15,000 rupees ($140) from the Nepal Red Cross Society in post-earthquake aid, he says.

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Rupa B.K., on right, sits with her mother-in-law, Buddhi Maya B.K. in a rented room. Their home was damaged in the 2015 earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

“We sacrificed so much,” Rupa B.K. says. “We put in so much hard work to build a house. And everything shattered in a matter of seconds.”

The family hoped the government would help them rebuild their lives, but little has happened in the months after the earthquake, she says.

“We cannot depend on anyone,” Rupa B.K. says. “We have to slowly do it ourselves. We have to start from zero all over again.”

Dhurba B.K. says he had only planned to work in Qatar for 10 years, and was looking forward to returning home for good in 2017 to live in his new house.

“Now it is difficult,” he says. “I have no choice but to stay back.”

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Bal Bahadur B.K., shown with some of his family members, sits outside the family home. His son, Dhurba B.K., built a nearby house with his earnings as a migrant worker in Qatar, but that house was seriously damaged in the earthquake.

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal

 

Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated four interviews from Nepali.

This series was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of the Persephone Miel Fellowship program.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of Dhurba B.K.’s children. The article has been updated. Global Press Journal regrets this error.