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Qatar…From Afar: The (Un)expected

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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 the 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!

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This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Hi Dorje – HK times greetings! Only discovered your blog now. This sounds abysmal. It looks like the Qatari easy money has gone to their heads and made those people believe they can stomp on anyone else… Awful. I was there in 2012 at the shiny conference centre and the sheer artificial-ness of the place was breathtaking. What a hypocrisy that they are hosting big global meetings on climate change and trade etc and while callously abusing others on a major scale. Nasty.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Good hearing from you!!

      Wasn’t it though?! But sadly, money talks and buys silence, as I like to say. Silence from those who otherwise would have the reach and influence to change the status quo in that country!

  2. good to hear that you got back safe a well Dorje but one thing you dont know about is that the ‘administrator’ you speak of and display the text message of – you have got totally wrong! I personally was with that person that day – we immediatly came into school to do what ever we could to help you, including speaking to your family and giving what ever comfort and help we could. We were very restricted from what we could do but we did our best and went beyond what our jobs expected of us. I am very saddend by what appears to be putting all this on one person by identifying this person by text message ID. The small section you highlighted is taken out of context and is very misleading. This person did their best to try to have all monies paid to you but it was beyond their control – this person, also made a good contribution towards the collection that was made to help on your return home.

    1. I am sorry to read that you are “saddened by what appears to be putting all this on one person by identifying this person by text message ID.”

      First off, the ‘administrator’ has NOT been identified, as you can see. As a matter of fact, I have made every effort in my blog posts to hide the real identities of people who I have characterized in unflattering terms. Secondly, if you have been reading those posts, you’ll notice that I have NOT put “all this”–by which I am assuming the blame for most of what QA did or didn’t do–on this administrator.

      But I wonder if you, or that administrator, know what some of my experiences inside the jail were like. Here’s a link to the post describing some of the more crucial experiences, published only recently: Qatar…From Afar: The Long Flight to Freedom.

      If you read the post and don’t quite get a sense for the experience, and still feel sad that I have cited the involvement of this administrator (as I have others and will continue to do so in future posts), I won’t hold it against you.

      But, believe me when I say this: it’s just as well that you can’t quite fathom the depth and breadth of some of my experiences. As a matter of fact, I hope you never get to a point where you understand it completely. If you do, then it would mean that you have suffered the way I did too, because an understanding about such an experience comes only from experience. And believe me also when I say this: far from wishing that kind of experience on anyone, I hope no one experiences that.

      Now, having said that, I am NOT implying that the ‘administrator’ is, in some way, responsible for all that.

      While you are saddened, I, on the other hand, have the task of processing and dealing with all that which happened or didn’t happen, processing all that which appears to have happened or doesn’t appear to have happened, processing all the thoughts, all the feelings and emotions associated with everything leading up to the ordeal, the ordeal itself, and a lot of things that have transpired since the ordeal, as a result of the ordeal.

      And writing about it all, I am finding, is the best way to do it. In fact, writing about it has more to do with my attempt at understanding what happened and what is happening–in order to try to make some sense of it all and to help me come to terms with all of it, so that I can move on with my life–than with anyone–including the ‘administrator’–or anything.

  3. This is so sad. I just can’t believe that there is so much evil in humans especially children. I cannot imagine what kind of things their parents teach them to make them behave this way. No awareness whatsoever. Sad primitive things

  4. i am so sorry, what has happened to you is an absoute travesty and it is good that there is now an international spotlight on the country and a greater awareness of the society and culture along with the injustice that is a common occurence there. I wish you the best. Thank you for writing about your experiences

  5. Dorje, what a mess it all was. Sam, I have to agree: the message is strong – International teachers beware, take care.

  6. School should pay you really , its not good record for the School , kids should behave . the good thing is that you are back home and safe you are a hero to many stay safe keep doing the good job you are doing

    1. Dear Duncan, Thank you.

  7. This is terrible and unfortunate. It is amazing how you are writing about it and letting the world know what is going on. The school should pay you compensation for how badly they dealt with all this, and those children… they should know that what they did is very wrong. This is a very awakening call for International teachers in certain countries… be very careful and ask yourself: is it really worth it?

    1. Dear Sam,

      I felt I needed to write about it because I can. Apart from highlighting what happened at the school, pretty much every single other Nepalese (and other Asian workers) exploited and persecuted in the Gulf cannot. I will be writing some their stories too. I have already written about one of them. They have no voice and as a consequence suffer grave injustices in silence.

    2. I am very happy in China my classrooms have CCTV. This crap of “touching” is a ruse school’s use to steal your salary. A high five and a pat on the back on a 13 year old male student, coming to school at the main gate was reason the Thai school used not to pay me. Now i understand if I put a pat.on his head, that would have been different. But the pat on the back? The judge ruled it was not inappropriate and the school lost the judgement. The school still hasn’t paid. The costs to recuperate my pay is about the size of the legal fee. Imagine having this school tell future potential employers I was fired due to “inappropriate touching?” Think of the connotation involved? I promise you any future employer wouldn’t think about a pat on the back being “inappropriate..” They would be thinking of something else and far more sinister than any “pat on the back.”.I can only imagine the terror imposed through false testimony in an Islamic country. As teachers we fight ignorance every day. It’s especially tough when ignorance is institutionalized. I don’t care how big the salary is, I will never work in an Islamic country or Thailand ever again..

  8. Seems unfair how the school treated you, I’m surprised they took 5 month salary away and am depressed by the lack of due process. I am concerned for all international teachers and wonder what insurance policies can be deployed to protect us into the future.

  9. Hi Dorje, I totally feel for you. You might feel alone but this is not an isolated case. I’m sure there have been many more unreported cases which don’t make it to the public. Im so glad that the community and the world rallied together and assisted in your release. I also went through a similar situation, different accusation but similar severity. From what I can see you deserve a lot better than how QA and Qatar treated you and handled the situation. Wishing you all the best! It would be great to have a chat with you.

    1. Yes, luckily for me the ordeal lasted only 12 days. I am sorry to hear that you also suffered from a similar incident. I’ll inbox you to carry on our conversation.

  10. So sorry you had to go through this

  11. absolutely heartbreaking

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