Migrant worker returns to create work at home

Duped by an agent who promised work in Kabul, former security guard fulfils his dream back in Nepal

This is the 29th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

The last time I counted, I had done 23 odd jobs by the time I was 22. From teaching computer classes to running a digital photo studio, to even performing in a dance bar, I had done it all.

But nothing stuck. I discontinued my undergraduate in humanities because I did not find it practically useful. On the advice of the principal of the school I was teaching in, I applied for a job in Afghanistan via an individual broker who had also sent his son there. After the series of failures I had faced in Nepal, going overseas felt like the only remaining option. After paying 3.5 lakhs for a visit visa, I was en route to Afghanistan in 2010 via UAE.

Or so I thought.

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I was instead transported to an abandoned house in Ras Al-Khaimah. There were about 60 people like me crammed in that windowless house who were sold the Afghan dream. A few had failed in previous attempts to travel to Afghanistan but were determined because the agent was good at exploiting their desperation. There were no pillows or blankets in the rooms, just thin mattresses.

From day 1, I knew I was in trouble. A sinking feeling of hopelessness tugged at my heart. We tried at least to make our situation bearable, and some of us used whatever money we had to cook our own food. It helped us to kill time.

On the 20th day, a foreigner finally came to interview us. I was selected but instead of Afghanistan, he wanted to send me to Iraq. I declined.

I complained loudly to my agent, and he reluctantly allowed me to leave the house. I used that opportunity to go to an internet café to print resumes which I passed on to Nepalis that I met along the way. I helped my friends do the same. A Nepali security guard came through and 14 of us were invited for interviews at a hotel opening. On the 26th day in the UAE at the interview venue, we finally got to eat good food for the first time. Seven of us passed the interview.

Read also: Adventures of a Nepali coffee aficionado, Laxmi Prasad Timilsina

The agent tried to prevent us from taking the job by holding onto our passports and, later, from repaying our recruitment fees, claiming credit for our job placement. I was not having any of that, so I returned to Nepal and took back every paisa I had paid the agent. After two months, our new employer sent us our work visas and we went to the UAE again to work as a housekeeper in a hotel.

I did not understand the concept of dignity of work, and hid from my family how I was making beds in a hotel for a living. As a former teacher, I did not want them to see me as a failure and pressure me to return home.

The hotel allowed us to cross train, and I tried out the engineering department where the Sri Lankan supervisor was impressed with how I answered his technical questions and completed his construction related tasks. As a grandson of a carpenter and mason, I grew up with construction tools and had picked up skills.

Every day, I would do housekeeping for 9 hours, and spend another 5 to 6 hours in the engineering department. My passion for what I was doing fuelled me despite the long hours. That sense of belonging had been missing when I was a teacher, a housekeeper, a pastry maker and even a dancer. I started applying for jobs at other hotels and got a call from the Marriott in Qatar and got a job in the MRT (Make Ready Team), a standby for all types of maintenance work.

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DD 29

I worked extremely hard at various Marriott locations and received Best Employee of the Month awards regularly. I even got a Spirit to Serve award signed by Bill Marriott himself. Later I would find out that a German long-stay guest in one of the Marriott apartments had sent a glowing reference about me to headquarters as I helped with maintenance work in the couples’ apartment. She was short-tempered with a record of formally complaining about other Marriott staff including the GM himself, so it was quite flattering that the couple was impressed with me.

After spending four years in Qatar, I again transferred back to the UAE where I worked as a senior technician at a Marriott there. When Covid-19 hit, my life priorities changed. The virus demonstrated the fragility of our lives, and I just wanted to be with my wife and daughter. My managers did their best to keep me back, even offering to let me take a six-month leave. But I just wanted to come home, as being away for 11 years was too long. With travel restrictions, coming home was not as easy, and it was a while before my name was finally in the Nepal Embassy’s list of people eligible to travel.

My insistence to return home could also have been driven by my confidence about job prospects, especially in maintenance and repairs in new hotels. I had a niche to fill. 

Today, my company in Kathmandu Complete House Repair and Maintenance Solutions provides a one-stop service for all kinds of maintenance and repair services including plumbing, painting and electricians. Clients do not have to rely on different individuals or companies for different construction services or to manage schedules.

Word of mouth has worked well for me, and my customers include Marriott, Hotel Dragon and Palisade. Good work can take you far as we can rely on happy clients to bring us more business. This is an important lesson I learnt from the Marriott culture that is serving me well now. I also took a Building Electrician test (Level 2) and taught a practical electrical course at Bageshwori College. Frustrated with how youth are underrepresented in politics, I am also now an elected member of the Suryabinayak Municipality.

My business is going well, but it is difficult to build a professional team in Nepal that cares about the basics, like punctuality, dedication, safety wear, and feels a sense of responsibility about finishing work in a timely manner as we commit to our clients. I find it especially surprising because the same Nepalis in Qatar or UAE that I worked with are recognised and valued for our work ethics. The wage difference, I am sure, is a factor to drive motivation, but so is the overall work culture in shaping work ethics.

Read also: Baking as a metaphor for life, Aliza Basnet

DD 29

I have come a long way from the first time I entered the UAE in 2010 as a victim of fraud. Today, I am in a much better position, with knowledge and finances that are serving me well in Nepal.

Reflecting on my journey makes me emotional. The friends that I am in touch with from the crammed building in the UAE are also doing well for themselves. One is in the UAE working in the kitchen of a Sheikh’s family. Another works in a hotel in the Maldives. And the third who worked in the laundry department runs a tailoring store back in Nepal. I have not forgotten them, and our deeply disappointing start 13 years ago as migrant workers hoping to get into Afghanistan.    

Read also: Prisoners of the Green Passport, Mahendra Thulung Rai

Translated from an interview with the author. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with 'Diaspora Diaries' in the subject line.

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