From letters to landlines, phones to Facebook
+ When Kalim Miya in the UAE and Bhumika in Kuwait found themselves stranded abroad after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, they took to social media via Facebook Live videos to seek help. Both of them are back in their villages in Nepal now, and attribute the early repatriation to their online outreach that drew them widespread attention.
+ The Nepal Embassy in Malaysia holds weekly Facebook sessions with updates and answers to questions which are viewed by hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrants in the country.
+When a video of a Nepali security guard getting beaten up mercilessly by his supervisor in Malaysia went viral earlier this month, it drew attention of the Malaysian authorities, even though similar cases happen on a daily basis and go unnoticed.
+ Soon after the explosion in Beirut, Nepalis based in Lebanon were quick to inform their families and each other about their safety via social media.
These are just a few of recent examples where social media has played a key role in spotlighting stories of Nepali migrant communities and their families cope with this unprecedented global crisis. On the one hand, the pandemic demands isolation but on the other the Internet offers connectedness across borders.
“It barely feels like we are abroad these days because we are in such close contact with frequent real-time updates,” says Yubraj, who is working in Qatar and the son of Kuma Bahadur, a 60-year-old returnee who had himself worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s.
Yubaraj recalls growing up and writing letters to his father in longhand and mailing it by post. It would sometimes take months to get a reply.
“My father tried to write at least once a month. I remember he used to be very curious about tiny details about the condition of our farm and the livestock,” Yubaraj says. “He did not share much about his life in Saudi Arabia.”
Perhaps Yubaraj’s father had nothing to say about Saudi Arabia because he never got to see much of the country. He was brought straight from the airport to the majara farm where he worked, and after a few years he was taken right back to the airport to fly back to Nepal.
Yubaraj’s letters to his father were mainly messages from his younger siblings, trivia from the neighbourhood, whose water buffalo gave birth, the harvest, and updates about his studies.
“There wasn’t anything new or exciting to share about our lives, and the letters were more to keep him connected to home, and to let him know we missed him,” adds Yubaraj, who went to the local post office every two weeks to see if there was a letter from his father. He used to get anxious if there was no letter for over a month.
Three years after Kum Bahadur left for Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, the village got its first landline phone. One day the didi from the shop rushed to Yubaraj’s house to say there was a call. My grand-aunt spoke to my father first and broke down when she heard his voice for the first time in years.
“It was an emotional moment,” Yubraj says, adding that the calls were expensive. “Phone calls were short and rare, it was just to hear each others’ voices. The details were in our letters.”
Years later, in 2007, it was Yubraj’s turn to seek his fortune in Qatar. By this time, there was already a landline in his house, but calls were still expensive. So, he still wrote letters to his father, but this time their roles were reversed – his father was in Nepal and he was abroad.
“I still remember the first letter I wrote to my family from Qatar,” remembers Yubraj. “I told them about my struggles in the desert heat and the stark contrast with the cool air of Lamjung. I also described to them showers did not help cool off because the water was warm no matter which knob I used.”
He tried to sound positive in his letters, just like his father, so his family would not worry too much. But he also wrote to them that he could have achieved more in Nepal itself, had he been willing to work as hard as he did in Qatar. One day, Yubaraj saw his manager get a new Nokia 6300, but it took him two years to be able to save enough to afford one so he could stay in touch with his family.
Kum Bahadur used to farm in a majara in Saudi Arabia, growing watermelon and camel fodder. He had never understood what a majara was until he visited Nepalis toiling in a farm in the desert.
He says: “It brought tears to my eyes, thinking about how hard my father had to struggle in Saudi Arabia. We have it much easier now. At least we are in close touch.”
In his 24 years in Qatar, Kareem Bakhsh Miya has seen how advances in communication technology have changed the way migrant workers communicate with families back home.
“We used to send letters or cassettes with 60 minute voice recordings to our family members,” he recalls. “I even had pen-friends all over Nepal to whom I wrote frequently. I spent a lot on postage because my letters were so heavy. As a loyal customer, the post office rewarded my family so they were able to send six months of letters for free.”
Phone calls were not that frequent, and the closest shop with a landline was 22km from his house in Tanahun. Miya’s family had to be notified by the shopkeeper via messengers, including drivers of mini-buses or shoppers, about the day and time when they had to come to the shop for the next call.
“The calls were very expensive, and I had to make chit-chat with the shopkeeper to return the favour,” says Miya, adding that a call usually meant there was some kind of emergency. Finally, Miya was able to send home a mobile phone in 2007, after which they could call more often.
“Look how times have changed,” he says, “it is more expensive to send letters now than to make video calls.”
Tilu Sharma, who also spent 16 years in Qatar used to send detailed instructions to his family about how to call someone from his labour camp who had a mobile.
“We dreaded calls. For me and other Nepalis in the camp, we knew that if there was a call from home, it usually meant bad news.”
Tilu did not write too many letters home, but when he did, he made sure he sent regards and remembrances to everyone in the community, without leaving anyone out. He also knew that the letter would be read and re-read aloud many times, so it was a public document and had to be simple and legible.
“You didn’t just write to your parents and siblings, the letter had to include your neighbors and extended family out of respect,” recalls Tilu, who used to send letters with other Nepalis going home.
Om Thapa was in the UAE from 2001-2005 and Saudi Arabia from 2007-2016 and received the first photos of his newborn daughter by mail in the UAE. “I only got to see her for the first time when she was three. I missed a lot of her early years growing up,” says Om.
Om still remembers the rush of excitement when a colleague used to walk in with a pile of envelopes, and call out the names of recipients. “There is nothing like the depth of words and emotion exchanged via letters with my wife in those days, they felt like actual conversations,” he remembers.
When his second child was born, Om was working in Saudi Arabia. But by this time there was social media, so he felt more connected because of Facebook.
Pictured left, Om Thapa in the UAE in 2001.
Bishnu, a seasoned migrant has worked in Malaysia for the past 20 years, and seen the Nepali migrant population grow rapidly since then. He remembers how the Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood of Kotaraya evolved to be ‘Little Nepal’ because Nepalis hung out there on their days off to meet in Nepali restaurants.
“Before Facebook and phones, this is where we came hoping to meet friends and exchange news from home. We received or sent letters home through acquaintances. It was also a spot to find out if there are newcomers from our villages which was always very exciting,” Bishnu remembers. “Now we have all the news from home and information about Nepal through social media.”
But Bishnu misses the old days: “There was beauty in the simplicity and longing in receiving hand-written letters, meeting someone unexpectedly from your village, or the monthly phone calls that we eagerly waited for.”