Reproduced below is the interview published in in the December 28, 2013 issue of Kathmandu Post. Links are my own additions.
Out of the circle
Dorje Gurung had been shocked when, in May this year, he’d been thrown behind bars. One day he’d been teaching in class at the Qatari school he was employed at and the next day he was in a jail cell. Bewildered, Gurung says he could barely process at the time what was happening and why.
Gurung—originally from the village of Tangbe in Mustang—had had to work extra hard as a young boy at St Xavier’s School in Kathmandu. He would soon become the first in his entire extended family to ever complete high school, and eventually topped even that when he was granted the prestigious United World College (UWC) scholarship to study in Italy, after which he headed off to the US to complete his undergraduate studies at Grinnell College.
It had always been Gurung’s dream to travel all over the world, so when a former teacher of his offered him a teaching position at the UWC of the Adriatic, he accepted right away. That set off a string of teaching stints in a number of different countries, including Hong Kong, Norway, the UK, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, Malawi, the US, Australia, and Italy, among others—over 50 countries in 25 years. But nothing he’d seen over that period would prepare for what was to happen when he started work in Qatar in August of 2011.
What had landed Gurung in prison, it was later revealed, was an incident that had taken place several days ago at the Qatar Academy, an international school where he taught chemistry. After several months of enduring mockery and catcalls from one of his students, Gurung had told the child, who’d been calling him ‘Jackie Chan’ over and over again: “How would you feel if I were to stereotype you, characterise you?” The boy had then gone home and told his father that his chemistry teacher had branded all Muslims as terrorists. A complaint had been issued from the parent to the school, and school authorities had promptly dismissed Gurung. Gurung, resigned to his fate, had quietly conferred with fellow teachers and decided that the best thing to do would be to exit quietly and return to Nepal. In fact, he’d been in the process of packing to do just that when the police had called.
Gurung was told that he was being imprisoned for allegedly ‘insulting Islam’ in his remarks to the student, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. For someone who had himself condemned the kind of over-simplified and degrading stereotyping of Muslims around the world after 9/11, and who had come to the Middle East because he was fascinated by the culture and history of the region, the accusation was the irony of all ironies. “I never believed in the characterisation of Arabs as terrorists, and I would never discriminate against them…but then I ended up being discriminated against and victimised myself,” he says.
Luckily, news of his imprisonment was leaked fairly quickly to his family and friends in Nepal and the US. While he languished in jail for 12 days, his supporters were campaigning tirelessly for his release. Widely covered by the media, Gurung’s arrest was then denounced by the international community; coming under heavy criticism from foreign governments, the Qatari administration eventually agreed to set him free. Without that pressure, Gurung says he would probably have been rotting in the bowels of the Qatari justice system to this day. Once out, he’d flown immediately back to Nepal with a newfound determination to do some good.
Gurung says his time in the Qatari jail opened up his eyes in a number of ways. After realising he wasn’t the only Nepali there, he’d met and heard of many other fellow citizens, migrant workers mostly, who’d been jailed on similarly preposterous grounds. Inmates also spoke of the violence they were subjected to outside prison. All these stories of cruelty, persecution and lack of due process made it clear that his own case had been just the tip of the iceberg.
Qatar has three times as many immigrants as it does native Qataris. Most of these immigrants comprise poor migrant blue-collar labourers from countries like Nepal who are crowded in filthy, unhygienic accommodations and are treated with little respect. Gurung says that after his release, a lot of people had asked him why no one seemed to have bothered to verify his young accuser’s claims, taking place as the confrontation had in a public place and in front of many witnesses. “This is a country where the children call their maids by the Arabic equivalent of the word ‘animal’,” he says, illustrating how foreign workers are perceived and treated in general in Qatar.
The Nepali men and women who leave their homes to find better opportunities in regions like the Middle East—usually uneducated and unskilled—risk being deceived and abused practically every step of the way, whether it is at the hands of heinous recruitment agencies that abandon them in the host country, or the employers who seize their passports and documents and exploit them as they please given how these workers are rarely aware of the level of protection offered to them by the existing foreign employment laws. If like Gurung, they were to be thrown into prison for some reason, most labourers would have little chance of getting out—they wouldn’t know the first thing about asking for their rights.
When The Guardian recently released a report on the conditions of construction workers in Qatar employed in building projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it had caused quite a stir, with immediate cries for reformation. But with the Nepali economy so reliant on the remittance from these workers in the Middle East, there are no easy solutions here. While many have returned with horror stories to tell—of terrible work and living conditions, of non-payment of salaries and ruthless employers who still abide by the kafala system of exerting complete control over their workers, disallowing them even from leaving the country without the company’s consent—many more still continue to pit their lives on the line to fly out to those very places, hoping that they’ll be among the lucky ones, although that is very rarely the case.
Making a commitment
Gurung understood, especially after his own harrowing experience, how essential it was that workers be taught what to expect when they landed on foreign soil, and how to best protect themselves against possible exploitation and trickery. He also saw what the absence and deaths of sole bread-earners—as these workers often are—did to their families back in Nepal; already burdened with the huge debts incurred in arranging for the job in the first place and now with no income source to speak of, most are forced to sell all their possessions to pay off their loans. Gurung was especially mindful of the children in these families, whose studies were bound to suffer under such stressful circumstances. With no education, they were doomed to fall in the same traps as their parents, in a vicious, unending circle, and Gurung knew that the only way things could change would be to bring the kids back into classrooms.
In that very vein, soon after arriving in Nepal a free man early this year, Gurung had begun collaborating with COMMITTED (Community Members Interested), a pro-education NGO, to organise events designed to promote awareness regarding the plight of Nepali migrant workers in countries like Qatar and the challenges faced by their families at home. As the Education Programme Director at the organisation, Gurung says it’s his dream to ensure that every child has access to free, quality education. In fact, almost immediately upon his return, he had worked to raise over $30,000 to bring that dream somewhat closer to fruition. “With the funds we raise, we want to make sure these little ones are not beholden to loan sharks, don’t get duped by unscrupulous recruiters in Kathmandu and end up in places like Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” he states adamantly.
With his friend and co-worker Jayjeev Hada, Gurung has been making sure the children of Raithane School in Thangpalkot, Sindupalchowk and their community receives the best possible holistic development through educational and sustainability projects. Extensive comprehensive community planning processes instigated by COMMITTED has also begun Social Business for Education (SBE) projects such as a fishery in Thangpalkot and vegetable farming and sale of electricity generated by solar cells to adjoining communities in Bhaktapur that will run and support free, mandatory and quality education at these schools. SBE also supports the School Improvement Program, which will fulfil the resources, infrastructure, and funding needs of the community school. While the SBEs are in the process of being set up, COMMITTED has been implementing projects to improve the infrastructure, resources and quality of teaching. The organisation has set up libraries in all four schools in the VDC. Raithane School has also been provided a fully furnished Science lab. Gurung’s specialty being Science, he has plans to integrate the project with the science curriculum, to teach the students practical skills and to bring science to life for them.
Also set up is a student sponsorship programme that allows people to sponsor children who are in danger of dropping out of school due to financial constraints. As soon as the organisation receives information about a family struggling to cope, they try to find a sponsor or some means of helping to keep the children in school. Currently, COMMITTED sponsors the education of over two dozen students in Thangpalkot VDC.
“The support we’ve received up till now has been a real godsend,” Gurung says. “It’s incredible to see how people rally together when someone needs their help. People from all over the world have donated to COMMITTED…companies like NCell, Western Union and Bank of Kathmandu recently funded several projects that will really make a difference to the communities we work with.”
Three new events have also been planned in the coming weeks to raise funds for COMMITTED’s scholarship programme for children whose parents or siblings have died working overseas as labourers—ticketed dinners at Capital Grill in Bhat Bhateni on January 3 and the Radisson Hotel on January 4, and a free concert at the Basantapur Durbar Square on January 11 featuring acts such as Kellee Maize, Amazon.com’s number one female rapper of the year, and Feyago, winner of the India’s Got Talent TV contest as well as local acts like Kutumba and Albatross, to name a few.
But this is only the beginning as far as Gurung and his colleagues at COMMITTED are concerned; he believes there is much more to do if children around the country are to be granted the right to chart their own destinies and dream big.
“All we seek to do is help these children so that they do not suffer the same way their parents did because of a lack of education,” he says. “These kids are our future, and that’s something we need to protect as best we can.”
COMMITTED can be contacted at www.cminepal.org
Posted on: 2013-12-28 09:20