Selfless help at any time: The story of Indian social workers in the Gulf

Many social workers juggle their professional and personal time while offering services like repatriating bodies and rescuing stranded labourers, without expecting anything in return.
Social workers in the Middle East
Social workers in the Middle East
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If not for a group of good-hearted people, 87-year-old DBN Murthy, a native of Karnataka, would have struggled to make it back from Oman. He broke his hip while on a solo tour to the Arab country in December 2019. After a taxi driver voluntarily took Murthy to a  hospital, members of an Indian community in Oman’s Salalah city regularly visited him at the hospital, tending to his needs. 

Help also came in the form of an Indian social worker in Oman — Mohammed Ijaz. “He would ring me several times a day to reassure me that my father was being looked after,” said his daughter Laxmi, who recounted the experience on Facebook. Ijaz also simultaneously dealt with the local police and other government agencies to get the clearances and other certificates to ensure Murthy had a safe flight back to Bengaluru.

“This is routine for social workers like me in the Middle East,” Ijaz tells TNM.

A fond farewell from the nurses at Al Raazi hospital, Salalah, Oman. On right are Saneer, who accompanied my dad all the...

Posted by Laxmi Murthy on Monday, January 6, 2020

In fact, helping residents of all nationalities in times of trouble has become a second nature to many Indians who are employed in the Middle East — be it repatriating dead bodies, offering legal, financial and emotional support to those incarcerated, renewing passports or assisting those stranded due to job fraud.

Juggling work and personal time, these Indians also take on the role of a social worker, mostly without any monetary benefits and social recognition, offering altruistic services to fellow Indians and people from Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They act as the pivotal link between the Arab government, Embassies, the residents and their families back in their native country.

They fully understand the cost of engaging in such social work in an Islamic country — dealing with stringent laws and local officials, communicating with the affected party’s family in India, coping with work and sacrificing their time with family.

TNM spoke to four such Indian nationals to explore their life as a social worker in the Middle East —  Mohammed Ijaz (Oman), Naseer Vatanappally (United Arab Emirates), Shaji Mathilakam (Saudi Arabia) and Divakar Poojary (Qatar). 

One moment of inspiration

Incidentally, most of these social workers have engaged in community work back in their natives in India. But extending the same benevolence in a Gulf country, which is armed with strict laws, is a different ball game altogether. However, it took one incident to inspire them again and surmount all legal barriers to help an expatriate.

Shaji Mathilakam had been proactively engaging in social work until he left his native in Thrissur district of Kerala. When he reached Saudi Arabia in November 1992, Shaji, like any other expatriate, decided to just focus on his work at a photo studio; but not for long. 

“I became acquainted with a regular visitor to my studio. Eventually, he stopped coming to the studio. When I enquired, I found that he was in Saudi police custody. With the help of a Saudi national, I went to the police station and got him out,” he recalls the defining moment in his life in the Middle East.

In 2009, Ijaz went to a hospital in Oman for a health check-up. At the hospital, he met a man from Kerala, who was undergoing treatment but did not have anyone next to him. 

"In India, there will be a line of family members, relatives and friends to see a person in a hospital. Here, people are busy with their work,” says Ijaz, who decided to be the man’s bystander. He gave him food and attended to his needs with the help of nurses, thus marking the beginning of his role as a social worker.

It was Naseer Vatanappally’s curiosity that gradually made him the go-to person for anything from repatriating a dead body to rescuing Indians stranded in Dubai. 

“Once, I went to visit my friend at his textile shop in Dubai when I saw a large gathering in the area. A young man was found dead in his room. At the time, a foreign national's death in the Middle East meant a lot of hurdles, unlike today. I was told that a man from Kerala, who was in his 40s then, was aware of the procedure to procure all relevant government documents to send the body to India,” recalls Naseer.

A curious Naseer went along with him to the police station and forensic department to understand the document work, including getting the death certificate, booking cargo flight and embalming. “Gradually, as I started getting involved in such initiatives, people started calling me for such work,” he adds. 

Divakar Poojary from Karnataka, who works as a finance manager in Qatar,  started using two basic resources at his disposal — a driving licence and a vehicle — to take people to hospitals, embassies or anywhere they had to reach urgently. “I also used to volunteer at events for a social cause, like blood donation, beach cleaning and medical camps in Doha. Eventually, seeing me at these gatherings in Qatar, the residents started calling me for help,” he recalls.

Divakar Poojary is active in community services in Qatar

Contacting officials, paperwork: The initial days

The willingness to help a person is just not enough in a Gulf country. Any act of benevolence in Arab monarchs involves understanding the strict Islamic laws and rules, entering government buildings, interacting with local authorities and getting an authorisation letter from the Indian Embassy or Consulate.

“Earlier, other than a Saudi national, no other nationals could enter a government office. There have been instances where I have been falsely implicated, when my intention to help a person was misconstrued. The officer then realised I was innocent and let me off. But I feared going back to the police station or other government offices. In another instance, where I was caught while helping an Indian who faced some document issues at the border, the Indian Embassy intervened,” Shaji says.

The Indian Embassies issue an authorisation letter each time there is a case where a social worker's services are required. The letter shows that the person is a representative of the Indian government and is authorised to handle the case. “This attestation letter gives us the confidence to enter government buildings and meet the officials,” says Shaji, who was recognised as a social worker by the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia around 20 years ago.

“Of course, they (the embassy) see if I am genuine, or if I extort money from people,” he adds.

Shaji eventually learned the Arab language to communicate and gradually established contacts. He also studied the labour laws and penal provisions of the country. 

When it comes to visiting the Indians detained or arrested in jails, Shaji says no one has the liberty to get legally involved in the case, not even the Indian Ambassador. “We cannot appeal to the Saudi Arabian government to expedite a hearing. Until the judgment is pronounced, the person will have to spend time in prison, where he may not have enough food or proper space to sleep,” he says. 

Oman, too, has similar procedures, although it is more relaxed. “Unlike in India, we cannot put the person who has met with an accident in a vehicle and take him/her to a hospital. We have to wait for the Royal Oman Police to reach the spot and do the needful. We can help the person only after this,” says Ijaz. Although it requires a lot of paperwork, the police try to provide whatever help is required, he adds.

The system has considerably improved over the years, say the social workers, although it varies for countries.

“We get good support from the Dubai police. If the death is under normal circumstances, all processes will be completed within three to four hours. Even if it is Friday, which is a weekly holiday in the Gulf countries, the government will issue death certificates,” says Naseer. 

Naseer Vatanappally (center, wearing the white robe) helping expatriates with paperwork

The Dubai Consulate has also formed groups with social workers. “The Consulate works beyond its working hours to cancel the passport of the deceased before repatriation. They also convene a monthly meeting with us, where we can express our concerns,” he adds. 

Figuring out procedures, logistics

Repatriation of dead bodies and migrant  issues are some of the common cases where the services of a social worker are sought after.

According to Naseer, five to six deaths of Indians are reported per day in UAE, including Dubai, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman and Fujairah.

Unlike other countries, electronic communication or documentation is sparse in the Gulf countries. “The process requires the wife's consent letter and a notary-attested letter, stating the family does not have any suspicion in the death of the person. If the person is a Muslim, his/her body can be buried in Saudi Arabia with the family’s consent,” says Shaji. 

Non-Muslims cannot be buried in Gulf countries, although in some circumstances, it is allowed.

For instance, in November 2019, when a commercial boat capsized off the coast of Qatar, Divakar had a tough job at hand. Out of the 29 people who died, the majority were Indians. “For a month, we struggled to identify all the bodies and repatriate them to the respective families. Finally, we managed to either send bodies back to India or bury some in Doha with the relatives’ approval,” recalls Divakar, who is part of a social forum called the Indian Community Benevolent Forum (ICBF) in Qatar.

Sometimes, if there are traces of blood, the body is sent for postmortem. But the report takes at least two weeks to one month.

“The hospital will then send the report to the police, who, in turn, will send it to us. Once we translate it, we send it to the Embassy, which will issue a non-objection letter to send the body to India. This letter should then be translated into Arabic and submitted to the police. It is only after the government approves this letter that we can embalm the body,” Shaji explains.

Then comes the cost aspect. In UAE, repatriation of a body costs at least UAE dirham (AED) 6,500 (over Rs 1.26 lakh). This includes 1,100 AED for embalming, 1,850 AED for the coffin, 125 AED for the death certificate, 2,000 AED as cargo fees and additional expense for the tickets of the persons accompanying the body.

“If the person is from a financially poor background, the family will submit a letter to the Consulate, which, in turn, will issue the social worker a letter, exempting the cargo fee and giving a return ticket for the accompanying person. The other costs for embalming, coffin and death certificate, which works up to 3,000 AED (approximately Rs 60,000), will be reimbursed to us. This allows social workers to go ahead with their work,” explains Naseer.

In some cases, Naseer says, in order to establish the identity of the deceased person in the absence of a relative, he puts the news of his death on Facebook and attempts to trace the family. “We need the consent of their family to receive the body. There are a lot of such cases especially from Kerala and Telangana,” he says. 

In order to establish contact among the residents, Ijaz says he publicises helpline numbers during camps (like blood camps), at airports and hospitals. “If anyone is stranded or need help, irrespective of nationality, they can contact us,” he adds. 

Chipping in for others

While social workers are able to get a huge sum reimbursed from the Embassy, some offer extra financial help, both to the expatriate and their families. 

Most expatriates go to the Gulf to earn some money and send it back home. These social workers also set apart an amount from their salary every month to be used for emergency cases. This is in addition to the funds they manage to raise during events and from social forums.

Shaji uses a part of his salary to help expatriates in prison. “Prisons do not allow food from outside. Instead, I give the person some money to buy food from the canteen within the prison premises. Since there are families who financially depend on these imprisoned members, I manage to send them some money as well,” says Shaji, who is the marketing director of an undergarment export company. 

Besides the financial and legal assistance, people like Shaji also offer emotional assistance. “As per the law in Saudi Arabia, only the sponsor or a blood relative can speak to the inmates. But as social workers, we can meet them. So, we relay messages from their families and even give them pep talks,” he says.

According to social workers, more labour issues are reported than criminal cases, where people are denied wages for months, and subjected to mental torture. Ultimately, many end up taking their own lives.

Shaji Mathilakam (in suit) raised funds for this man who lost his job due to an accident

“But before it reaches that situation, I try to motivate them, talk to the Ministry of Labour and Financial Court. If the verdict is not in their favour, I try to find another job for them. But when we get a favourable judgment, it is an inexplicable feeling,” says Shaji, adding, “We don’t take money for this. A simple ‘thank you’ from them is satisfying.”

What it takes to be a social worker

“One of the greatest challenges of becoming a social worker is being prepared to take calls at any time of the day and be ready to extend necessary support at all times,” says Divakar. “Sometimes, it becomes difficult as I am committed to my job, too, which is our main bread and butter. In fact, that is the reason we are in this part of the world, which we should not forget.”

According to Shaji, ideally, one case takes about two to three days, and the time spent attending to cases of varying urgency is unpredictable. “So, I cannot give any commitment to any other events,” he adds.

Naseer started his own travel firm as he realised he would not have the liberty to attend to all distress cases if he worked for a company. Although he runs his own company now, his schedule remains packed. But, he found a way around. “I employed two staff and delegate work, especially to handle the paperwork,” he says.

Ijaz and a group of social workers under the Indian Social Forum also follow a similar mode of functioning. “Whoever in the group is free at the time will attend to the person in need. In the evening, after work, we extend further help,” he adds.

Some face threats, too. Shaji recalls a case where five years ago, a gang of Arab youth killed an Indian in a supermarket in Saudi Arabia. “The gang threatened me to withdraw the case and offered me money. Since the deceased’s family wanted legal recourse, I proceeded with the case against them. But the threat was so grave that I eventually had to resign my job at a five-star hotel and find another job,” he says.

Even as they continue to selflessly engage in helping people, these social workers urge more non-Indian residents (NRIs) in the Gulf countries, especially Indian associations, to help each other and look out for each other.  

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