Nepali family spread across Kuwait, Cyprus, UAE

Two generations of a migrant family are yet to break out of the cycle of poverty

Tsering Lama with her son Pemba who was miraculously rescued from the rubble of an eight-storey building after being trapped for five days in Gongabu in the 2015 earthquake.

This is the 38th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad.

Tsering Lama: I was working as a domestic worker in Kuwait when the earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015. My heart sank, and I was worried about the four children I had left at home. Between frantic 'unable to reach' calls and silent prayers, I was also watching videos on YouTube. One of them showed destroyed buildings and a miracle rescue of a little boy from under the rubble after being trapped for five days in Gonga bu bus park. He turned out to be my own son, Pemba. My own son was now on a video of my phone screen, being carried in a stretcher by rescue workers amidst cheers and disbelief. I wept uncontrollably as I realised that my son had escaped death. I would later find out that the other three of my children were also safe.

It was for them that I had come to work in Kuwait. Without the support of my husband or other family members, even providing food to my children had become a challenge. I had already failed the eldest two who had run away from our village. The younger two were headed down the same path if I did not earn for them. So I left for Kathmandu with a new passport and heavy heart. I was lucky to get the job as a domestic worker in Kuwait without paying anyone a recruitment fee. I did not know anything about Kuwait except that it was bidesh and that the work would let me to provide for my children.

The first employer was abusive. Their children were of my children's age, but they also mistreated me. A slight delay in obeying their order for a glass of water or something else was met with taunts and rude words. I felt suffocated and ran away. The agency there placed me in a new household, and this time I was lucky. I stuck with the employer for five years, picked up enough Arabic to defend myself when I felt unfairly scolded. My job was to take care of the kitchen and there were five other domestic workers like myself. Every weekend, the workforce would expand to 20 because the children of the employer would come with their own domestic workers, including multiple nannies. Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankan and Nepali domestic workers hustled and bustled around the kitchen, ran after babies and mopped the floors as the family enjoyed their weekends. 

Diaspora Diaries Kuwait
Tsering Lama in Kuwait where she worked as a domestic helper.

Meanwhile, my own children were growing up on their own back home in Nepal. I had to reassure myself that the sacrifice allowed me to ensure that they went to bed on a full stomach. When the earthquake hit, long distance parenting made me feel even more distant from my children. I was not around when my boy was in the darkness of the collapsed building, silently fighting for his life. 

Pasang Lama: As the eldest, I had three siblings to take care of while my mother was away in Kuwait. The youngest two were obedient, but my brother Pemba is a different breed. He came and went as he pleased from our rented room. He worked in a hotel at the bus park at Gonga Bu and was used to a carefree lifestyle and friends that we did not approve of. When the earthquake struck, I was worried but comforted myself thinking he is a smart kid and would keep himself safe. My other two siblings and I traveled to Kavre for safety, while Pemba was out of touch.

In Kavre, we were glued to the news and to our surprise, we saw our brother Pemba being carried out on a stretcher from underneath the ruins of the hotel. Later I would find out that he and his friend Ramesh were just about to have lunch when the eight story building came crashing down. My brother was trapped in a crouching position for five days before he was rescued. Ramesh's legs had been crushed by a falling beam and had to be amputated. 

I wept uncontrollably. Shortly after seeing him on the news, I received a call from Chhauni Army Hospital and rushed to meet him with an uncle. I was shaken, but once I met my brother who was resting and recovering, I realised nothing had changed. Even in that state, he refused to wear the clothes and shoes I had brought him as they were not of his choice. We started bickering, forgetting that he just had a miraculous rescue.

Diaspora Diaries Kuwait
Pasang Lama who worked in Cyprus with her brother Pemba who is now trying to go overseas to work.

I used to top the class in school, but had to quit in Grade 8 because I had to help my mother. There was no point studying, we were hungry all the time. How could I justify buying a textbook if I could use the same money to buy cooking oil or rice for the family? When you struggle to pay for pencils or shoes, you start losing the motivation to study. After I quit, every other person in my village would ask me why I quit despite being a bright student. I used to be put off by that question, and used to hide when I saw my classmates in school uniforms. I came to Kathmandu and started earning money painting thankas.

When my mother went to Kuwait, I had to care for my siblings. My younger sister was not able to manage things on her own like my mother hand hoped. We managed household expenses from the money I made from painting thanka and the cash my mother sent us. Since I had a job, I had to train my sister to do the household chores. We somehow got by even though my father was present, but always absent, and a mother who tried to be present despite her absence.

We never saved anything, so I also started thinking about migrating for work. I paid Rs400,000 to an agent to take me to Cyprus for a domestic job earning 400 euros a month. Working in someone else’s house takes away your freedom in ways that can feel uncomfortable because you are always under scrutiny. Words and actions that are frowned upon in a professional workplace become normal within the walls of a home. There is no distinction between professional and personal aspects of life, such as work hours or overtime benefits. I later worked at a clinic and realised the tradeoff. When you are living on your own, you are not watched constantly, but then you have to pay for your own food, rent, electricity. After working in Cyprus for over five years, I decided it was time to return. I had unfinished business in Nepal. 

Diaspora diaries Cyprus
Pasang Lama was in Cyprus for five years.(Photo: Sonia Awale)

Tsering Lama: I came home to Nepal from Kuwait for a two-month break but ended up not returning because of Covid. To be honest, I would probably still return if my age was not a factor, since I could do with the extra money. For now I have started a small khaja ghar eatery in Kathmandu, and make enough money to survive.

My girls took over from me doing housework. I passed on my responsibilities to my daughter when I went to Kuwait. My eldest daughter then passed on these responsibilities to my younger daughter to travel to Cyprus for work. And now my youngest daughter is in the UAE where she is working as a receptionist. This is the struggle and reality of a Nepali family these days. Still, we have not been able to break out of the cycle of poverty, and I am not getting any younger. 

Diaspora Diaries UAE
Tsering Lama's youngest daughter is in the UAE where she is working as a receptionist.

My youngest boy is now a student at a monastery and I take solace in the fact that he is under proper guidance and close to God. But I worry about Pemba, my miracle boy. He wants to travel overseas but it has not worked out yet. All I have is a little jewelry that I am willing to sell for his recruitment fee. I want to see him settle down and be financially stable. He survived miraculously, but is still lost and struggling in a world that was not ready to see him go.

Diaspora Daires Kuwait
Tsering Lama's youngest son is a student at a monastery.(Photo: Sonia Awale)

Pasang Lama: My hunger for learning did not end even though I had to quit studies because of my circumstances. I saved some money from our work overseas and returned to Nepal in April which I am investing in education. Fourteen years after dropping out of grade 8, I am now preparing for my SEE. There was a time when studying felt like reaching out for the stars given my background. I am proud of myself for beating the odds.

I ran away from my village after dropping out of school so I would not have to explain myself to every other person about why I had quit school despite being a bright student. But there was no escaping from myself. I have learnt a lot from the practical work I did in Cyprus, which will serve me well, but I still have a yearning for education. 

Translated from a conversation in Nepali. 

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