No country for young men

For four high schoolers in Nepal, overseas work is the only way out of their station in life

From left to right: Nirajan, Rajan, Niraj and Bisan.

It was their last day of high school, and as is the custom, the four students were writing messages on each other’s shirts.

The students, Nirajan, Rajan, Niraj and Bisan, posted the pictures of the messages on their uniforms on social media meme groups, but never imagined that they would go viral across the country and abroad. 

The messages in Nepali read ‘Have a safe journey to Japan’, ‘Safe travels to Korea’, ‘Hope you have a good overseas journey’ or  ‘See you in the Gulf’, reflecting the actual plans of the four friends to go abroad. 

Nirajan and Niraj want to migrate to Japan, while Rajan and Bisan want to work in South Korea under the Employment Permit System. The Persian Gulf is the last resort for them.

The four left their homes in Kavre, Ramechhap, Sindhupalchok and Lalitpur to study at Bageswari High School in Bhaktapur. 

“We don’t have many course options in our village to study,” says Nirajan. “Here, at least the teachers show up regularly, and when a teacher is absent, there are substitutes. Our principal is also very hands-on.”

Finishing up Grade 12 is an important milestone, and foreign employment is the natural choice for many young Nepalis. This is reflected in the scrawled messages on the students’ shirts.

“Our families took care of us so far, and we also worked part-time to cover our expenses. But once you finish 10+2, it will not be the same. It is our turn to become providers for our families,” says Bisan who, like the others, feels that a bachelor's degree in Nepal is not a viable option. 

It will be expensive to work and study in Kathmandu, and they believe that although it will be a struggle for a few years overseas, they will be set for life.

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Dreaming big
Nirajan, Rajan, Niraj and Bisan, and the viral images of their shirts with messages ‘Hope you have a good overseas journey’, ‘Safe travels to Korea’, ‘Have a safe journey to Japan’ and ‘See you in the Gulf’.

The boys have already got a glimpse of just how untenable combining work and studies can be in Nepal. Niraj works as a waiter and has struggled to balance college and work. Despite working 12 hours a day sometimes in a party palace, he makes only Rs500 daily. 

Not only are wages low, the work is also demanding and does not leave time for studies. He says, ”If I have to struggle, I might as well do it in Japan because at least it will lead to something. Living in Nepal can be great for the well-off, not for people from our background.”

There were times in their lives when the students aspired to be lawyers, engineers, accountants or journalists. Nirajan always wanted to work in a bank growing up because he was good at accounting. But his grasp of the subject declined during Covid lockdowns when he could not adjust to online classes and this was reflected in his SEE scores. So he gave up his dream of working in a bank and joined humanities.

The photos of the students writing messages on each other's shirts were widely shared on social media for the same reasons as pictures of migrant workers lining up at the airport do: it reflects the government’s inability to retain the youth in Nepal itself. 

But they also showed the lack of support systems for the students as they make critical decisions about their futures. But questions to the students about who they aspire to be, or what led them to decide on Japan or South Korea, are met with silence or generic answers. 

They are unable to articulate why those countries, other than mentioning a distant acquaintance or the friend of a sister who is doing well in Japan or Korea. They view these countries as more realistic dreams than the US and Australia, which are out of their reach due to cost and because people they know have not chosen that route. 

The possibility of exploring scholarship opportunities for university abroad or in Nepal, is not on their radar. But their educational background has given them the confidence to dream beyond the Gulf and attempt language tests for Japan and Korea. 

Three of the four have immediate family with Gulf migration experience. Rajan’s brother is in the UAE, Niraj’s father is a former Qatar migrant, and Bisan’s brother is a gym instructor in Saudi Arabia. 

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Niraj is the son of a Qatar migrant returnee who spent over a decade overseas to provide for his family. “Things were much easier for us financially when my father was in Qatar compared to now when he is back,” he explains. “Now my father wants to send me to a better-paying destination country like Korea or Japan.” 

To this Rajan adds, “Even if we do end up going to the Gulf, we will make sure we take proper skills training and go there as trained workers, most likely in hospitality which we already have work experience in.”

The students are surprised how widely their social media posts of shirt-signing went. But they want it to turn into tangible action. They want the government to pay serious attention to the dreams and future of the 500,000 plus Nepali students taking Grade 12 exams every year, for whom the education certificate does not amount to much to get jobs with liveable wages. 

In less than a month, they will take their final board examinations after which they have important life decisions to make. There are uncertainties ahead, including who will be the first to leave amongst this tight-knit group of friends, or what the ultimate destination will be. 

What is certain is that sooner or later, they will all leave. Chances are, they will see each other in the Gulf indeed.

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