50 Diaspora Diaries in Nepali Times

On International Migrants Day, 18 December we celebrate the journeys of 50 featured Nepali migrant workers

Diaspora Diaries started with a simple mission: to bring out the human side of migration, and how it touches nearly all Nepali families in both positive and negative ways.

50 stories later, we celebrate their journeys on International Migrants Day, 18 December 2024.

Diaspora Diaries are stories of people on the move. The physical act of moving is more prominent in our public narrative, for example in airport departure scenes. But it is really about the desire of migrants and their families for better lives, to move away from the cycle of poverty they are born into.

Migration offers a possibility to change their circumstances and of their children. Hence the fitting description by a worker, “ours is a generation of sacrifices”.

It did not matter where the workers in these stories are headed, as long as it offered a possibility for a better future. A worker recalled, “For us, there was no Qatar or Saudi or UAE, only Arab. And that was where the jobs and money was.” Another said she knew nothing about Kuwait except “it was bidesh and that the work would let me to provide for my children.”

Migration has also been a family affair. A Kuwait-based son of a Saudi returnee said, “When my father turned 50, I decided it was time to bring him back from Saudi Arabia.”

His father, a gardener, passed on the foreign employment baton to him as he headed to Kuwait as a security guard and has now risen to the ranks of an Assistant Managing Director. It took intergenerational migration to break the family out of intergenerational poverty.

Migrants in this series express pride in the awards and promotions that were key milestones in their foreign employment journeys. From getting recognised via awards like “Spirit to Serve award signed by Bill Marriott himself” to rising the ranks including to managerial roles even when they started as helpers.

A Burger King employee studied restaurant manuals like a textbook before rising to a trainer and manager role, while another chef said he frequently had bloodshot eyes out of exhaustion and overwork.

Particularly for workers without the educational or language skills who dropped out of schools or learnt English, these awards help break out of self-limiting beliefs that are common in a foreign land.

But these personal wins also had positive spillover effects for fellow migrants. Nepalis are increasingly occupying positions traditionally reserved for other nationalities, especially in h hospitality. Migrants expressed optimism for the newer crop of youth who have better educational backgrounds.

But not everyone is better off because of foreign employment, as we know far too well. Abuses are rampant. People continue to pay to work and in many cases do not get paid in full for their work. The series also captures stories of dreams interrupted and of foreign employment not just being another life’s reality that failed them, but made them worse off.

A domestic worker rescued from Lebanon said, “The thought of all those 12 years boiling down to nothing financially eats me up every waking moment of every day.” Most recently, students caught in the Hamas attack in Israel are still mourning the loss of their friends who died in front of their eyes, and still looking and waiting for their friend Bipin Joshi.

For many workers, foreign employment did not lead to long-term savings and progress, but the earnings provided much needed support to their families while they were away. They may have come back without much savings but have the hope that the returns of their investment will come through their children’s secure future, lives of parents extended who are healthier.

For many workers, foreign employment is about nostalgia for simpler times. The thrill of rushing to the mailman or the supervisors who used to come with sacks of letters is one of their favorite memories. One migrant said, “My father and I got closer through our letters.” While a mother said she heard her son’s voice for the first time after two years on the phone.  A worker recalls, “We ran out of coins before we ran out of words to say.”

Diaspora Diaries are also stories of firsts. Of the 70 year old mother who went to visit her two sons in the UAE, the first time she had left the country or got on a plane. A coffee barista who now has won international competitions says nothing beats the whiff of his first ever coffee in Dubai, a burger place owner remembers his first burger in Saudi Arabia when he first arrived in his Saudi accommodation.

50 DD full

And first time experiencing the Gulf heat: “the blast of hot air that enveloped me when the airport door slid open in Dubai” or “the overpowering heat on the tarmac in Riyadh.”

Foreign employment is also about missed milestones and tradeoffs that are all too common among transnational families. A son who lost his mother recalls not being there for his mother’s last rites as both he and his brother were in the Gulf.

He says they earned enough to pay for medical bills for her long-term illness “that may have even extended her life” but that they failed to be there in the last moments.

Another worker could not come for his mother’s last rites because of his irregular status, and said: “Before she passed, relatives told me tears would roll down her face for me, even though she could not speak, for her youngest son. Her undocumented son. 

An Israel based mother who managed to educate and send her sons to Canada and the US asks: “But how do you weigh that against not knowing what it is like to be close to your children -- watching them grow up.”

For others, the tradeoff meant being able to save their relatives’ lives. One worker proudly says: “My wife is now cancer free”, while another says he used up all his earnings for his sister’s medical treatment and asks, “What more could a brother ask for?”

Social media has thankfully made things easier, this generation of migrants saw quick transformations from letters to emails to landlines, cell phones to social media.

They also witnessed and contributed to the rapid transformations of the Gulf right in front of their eyes. This is the generation that will remember the vast expanses of sand when they first arrived to the Gulf countries, and left cities with high rises and hosts of international events. We built their architecture.

Many recall a period when there was joy bumping into a fellow Nepali to a present when every other person you bump into is a Nepali. Some shared their stories in verse, others through art.

Migrants recount how poems and letters have been written at labor camps, construction sites, guarding booths. In the desert heat, one poet describes, “Beads of sweat dropped on the page of my diary in which I was writing a poem, making the words illegible.”

Ironically, workers are also employed in places where free expression is suppressed. Some of the most powerful words came from those who chose to share their stories anonymously for fear of retribution. As one worker who returned prematurely after a failed migration experience, in fact our very first Diary who inspired us to start this series says, “That is our reality. They want the quiet ones. The ones who can be silenced.”

A Nepali involved with a trade union in Korea that allows foreign workers to unionise recalls he was standing on the shoulders of giants, including Nepali migrant workers in Korea, who laid the foundation for foreigners like him to fight the good fight. Meanwhile, workers also say the Nepal government itself is suppressing their voices by not letting overseas workers vote: “Our notes count but our votes don’t.”

The question of temporariness of “temporary labor migration” also comes into question when workers are staying for decades. One worker who lived in Dubai for 30 years writes, “I used to be sad leaving Nepal after a vacation, but later started feeling like I was returning home when I boarded a Dubai-bound flight. I cannot pinpoint when that switch happened.”

Eventually, though, many do come back. As one worker aptly described it, “We may stretch our employment until either our employers or our bodies allow it, but we will all come home eventually.”

In the series, we feature stories of workers who are successful returnees who have started businesses in Nepal in construction repair, bakeries, restaurants and trainers. Foreign employment had a role to play via a mixture of social and financial remittances it offered. 

Others share that their skills were wasted back home and they struggle to find a footing, especially after being away for so long. A safety officer who had spent 13 years overseas says he saw red flags everywhere in Nepal including in construction sites.

A camel herder who knows everything there is to know about camels, finds no use for his skills in Nepal. The Diaspora Diary of a Malaysia returnee who runs a garment factory has been translated into 7 languages.

Migrant workers shared their stories without thinking they had anything interesting to share. As one noted, “I do not think my story is that remarkable. I am a simple Nepali who worked hard and made sacrifices.”

But that is precisely why these are such powerful stories.

To read all 50 stories in e-book, click here.