I had feared, for a while, something like what happened in April might happen to me. The incident which hit home this feeling of vulnerability and fear took place last winter.
I was supervising two Qatari girls taking a make-up test. Towards the end, I discovered one girl had cheated–her cheat sheets fell out of her left sleeve on to her lap. I asked her to hand them over. She picked them up, but instead of surrendering them, ran out of the room brushing against me as she did so. (She went and hid herself in the bathroom.) I reported the cheating incident. What came back was a charge, from the parents, that I made physical contact with the girl. The school dropped the issue of cheating and the complaint of making physical contact went away.
To understand how a student and her parents could turn such an incident around, and get away with it, one must first understand the social structure of Qatar.
I found out, not long after I arrived in Qatar, the Nepalese workers in the country are at the bottom of the social ladder and suffer the most. Nepalese workers recruited in Nepal, whether professional or unskilled, because of the agreement between the governments of Nepal and Qatar, are paid the lowest salaries in every single profession. For instance, while a Filipino cleaner might make about 900QR/month (~US$250.00), a Nepalese cleaner, working alongside him and for the same company, might be making only about 700QR (~US$190.00). I think the Nepalese are treated the worst because they are the cheapest and the most visible laborers–they number about half-a-million. In spite of my position, experience and education I was just another Nepalese, and treated as such.
Mohanad’s description of how he and his classmates treated me, mainly because of my nationality, is accurate. (Incidentally, he was talking about only his class–I taught a few other classes too.) But charged with a “duty of care,” I fulfilled my duties professionally in spite of everything, just as Mohanad describes in his testimonial.
When outside the classroom–in the corridors or elsewhere–kids I didn’t teach, would harass me or scoff at my authority again because of my nationality. I would try different but tactful approaches to resolve them, such as talking to them, befriending them while at the same time, making sure to impress upon them that what they were doing was rude etc. While one or other method worked with all other kids, none of them worked with a group of seventh graders. I even tried ignoring them, which actually made it worse. I didn’t know these kids at all, not even their names, let alone anything about their characters and personalities.
On April 15, following two recent and especially nasty incidents, I sat down with them in the cafeteria. It had been about two months since they had been harassing me. I asked them how they would feel if I were to call them “terrorists” adding, “you are CLEARLY not terrorists.” They laughed and giggled and responded,”You can call us terrorists.”
April 16, the fateful day at the cafeteria started with the same exchange as the day before but ended with one of them making physical contact. I was picking up my lunch when they queued up behind me. When they again started harassing me, I repeated the previous day’s conversation. However, instead of stopping their taunting, they continued to make disparaging remarks about me, my nationality etc. At one point, the kid nearest to me put his left hand on my shoulder and, pointing his index finger at me, continued on with the name-calling and disparaging remarks. As there was an Arab colleague nearby, I called her for help. The incident ended with my colleague telling them to stop whatever they were doing. At no time did I use the words “Islam” or “Muslim”; forget one of those words and “terrorist” together or in the same sentence. Joining some colleagues at a table with my lunch, I thought that was the end of it. It would instead be THE incident I had feared.
I thought very little of the request for a meeting from the Principal and Vice-principal the following afternoon. I had heard that the students had had a meeting with them. I thought they were just trying to settle a minor issue the students must have brought up over the exchange. It wasn’t. The two administrators informed me that a parent of one of the students had logged a complaint of “insulting Islam” directly with the Director. When the Principal and Vice-principal asked me to write-up my version of the incident, I thought, “surely that will resolve the issue.”
I submitted my report Thursday morning which was followed by yet another meeting with the two administrators. After the meeting, they told me to go straight home and not come to school until further notice. Even then, the optimist in me kept believing that the misunderstanding would be cleared up. But, an email from them that afternoon advised me to stay home Sunday morning until I had heard from the Director with a time for a meeting.
The meeting with the Director was held at 1:30 pm Sunday, April 21. Both the Director and the Principal were there. The Director started the meeting by asking me if I had anything to say. I realised then that whatever I said would make very little difference to the decision he appeared to have already made. So I said, “No.” The Director told me that I was dismissed. Furthermore, he told me, I would lose out on five-month equivalent of salary-cum-benefits. I was a little disappointed, not for being dismissed, but for losing the money. I asked if he could do anything about the monies, adding how I had been counting on them. He couldn’t.
I had stayed on at Qatar Academy, in spite of all the difficulties, mainly for the money. The five-month equivalent of salary–amounting to about 30% of my total savings in Qatar–would have gone a long way towards supporting my new career and my family (of seven adults and a toddler, my incredible little nephew). In living and working abroad to support my family, I was no different from the hundreds of thousands of Nepalese migrant workers. If I were to use that money for the education of rural children, such as those attending Raithane School, for instance, it would have covered the tuition fees of the school of 300-plus kids for a whole year! Or, the money would have allowed my family of eight to continue to have a really decent life style for about three years, without my having to worry about finding a paying job! But, if he couldn’t do anything, then he couldn’t. I accepted that.
He informed me that the board would have to approve his decision, but that it was really just a formality. Additionally, that I could not make departure plans until he had heard back from the board. Following the board’s decision to also sack me, I returned to school, Thursday morning, for another meeting with the Director and another administrator to prepare for departure. Because I was leaving for good, I had to surrender my Qatar ID, Qatar Foundation ID, my parking permit and my passport for them to complete all the necessary formalities. They had to cancel my Residence Permit (RP), my health insurance and my visa in my passport. Only then would I get my passport back with an exit visa. We all agreed that the best departure date was Friday, May 3. I don’t know whether they were, but if they were aware of the impending criminal charges against me, they did not let on.
In some ways, I was actually relieved at the prospect of leaving. I decided to make a quiet exit without much fuss, without creating or causing any more trouble and anguish for anyone else at the school. With that in mind, I didn’t share any detail about my dismissal etc. with anyone except one friend. Little did I know my wish to leave quietly was just that…wishful thinking!
At around noon Monday, April 29, I received an email assurance from an administrator saying they expected the exit visa and passport to be ready for pick up that day, and if not “tomorrow latest.” The following morning around 10, I received yet another email assurance saying that they would have them by 1 pm that day. But 1 pm came and went, and instead of the passport, I received another email saying the passport wasn’t ready for pick up. Apparently everything had been completed but because “a stamp was forgotten,” they still retained it. “It can be picked tomorrow [Wednesday, May 1,] about 2:00 pm,” added the email. As my flight was leaving Friday morning, I needed my passport to arrange shipment of personal belonging. But that, it turned out, would be the least of my concerns.
I received a phone call on my mobile (!) phone from the “Captain” of Al Rayaan Police Station. It was the morning of Wednesday, May 1. Completely in the dark about the reason and having returned my rental car, I asked a friend to give me a lift. The school sent an Arab-speaking staff to meet us at the Station. He was no help since, as soon as we arrived, they took me to a different room.
I was accused, again, of having “insulted islam.” The interrogators couldn’t speak English very well. According to the charges filed by a parent, I was alleged to have said, “Islamists are terrorists,” amongst other things. I again repeated my version of the incident, told them my whole professional and relevant educational history and personal life, explaining to them I would never make such a statement to students. At the end, they asked me to sign a hard copy of my statement. I refused since it was all in Arabic. Following the interrogation, after being made to wait around, alone, in a room with electronic locks for over two and a half hours, I was dealt the big blow!
First I was asked to surrender all my belonging in my person (keys, phone, wallet, belt etc.), and then I was lead into a big private jail cell. The large iron door closed behind the warden with a loud bang, leaving me in the half-cleaned, dirty and wet cell. It had a single metal-frame bed with a very dirty, and old, mattress with no linen to speak of–no mattress cover or sheet, no blanket, no pillow. The attached bathroom was dirty and wet and stank. The heavy metallic door had a hatch–one of those contraptions you see in Hollywood movies through which wardens communicate with the prisoner within, in solitary confinement! It was no later than 3:30 in the afternoon, but I lay down on the bed and tried to sleep.
Until I had walked into the cell, the situation at Qatar Academy had indeed driven me “to the edge.” Professionally and personally, I had hit bottom. Jailed in a private cell, my long held fear had materialized, and the bottom had just given way!