Saving to save my sister

This is the 16th instalment of Diaspora Diaries, a regular series in Nepali Times with stories of Nepalis living and working abroad. 

I grew up in Dang, where they used to call me an awara as I was not doing anything productive. No one wanted to invest in my future.

But one day my aunt offered to help me secure loans so I could migrate overseas for work. Even getting a passport felt like such a hassle back then, as I had to come to Kathmandu. 

Within three months of applying through an agent in 2009, I got my visa for Saudi Arabia to work as a driver. After paying Rs90,000 borrowed at 36% interest, this village awara finally got on a plane to Saudi Arabia. 

My salary was supposed to be 1,500 riyal ($400) as per the contract, but I was paid only 1,300. I was supposed to work as a driver,  but they sometimes made me wash dishes, sweep the floor or do other odd jobs. 

One year just passed like that. When things did not improve for the better, me and five other Nepalis who were also promised better paying driving jobs decided to speak up for our rights. But the mid-level staff would not listen to us. 

It was not about washing dishes or mopping floors being less dignified than driving, this was simply not what we had signed up for. I wrote letters to the owner of the company with just two requests: to let me work as a driver, or send me home. 

But the mid-level staff made sure that the letters did not reach the owner of the company. It was a futile exercise. 

As time passed, I learnt more about the owner. One day I saw him in his car and ran towards it to express my grievances. I knew the owner had a soft spot for Nepalis, and he listened to me intently. 

By this time, I had already learnt Arabic so was able to communicate well. The five other Nepalis with me also spoke up. He was kind and assured us that our concerns would be addressed once he was back from his work trip to America.  

Our mid-level supervisors did not take it well that we had bypassed them, and gone directly to the boss. They started torturing us mentally, and stopped paying even the salary that was lower than the contracted amount. They were rude to us, and made us miserable. 

But as I said, I am the type that will fight for my rights. There was no other way to stop the mistreatment, so one morning at 4AM, the five other Nepalis and I locked all the gates of our company, trapping workers inside. 

The supervisors called the police, and we were detained. It was only after a few weeks that the owner came, and set us free. 

He listened to our concerns, and fired the supervisors. It turns out they were ripping him off, and also cheating us by taking a cut from our salaries. The supervisors were also expats, some with families in Saudi Arabia. Their visas were canceled, and they were sent home. 

The owner was on our side, and the reason he had a soft corner for Nepalis was that previous workers from Nepal had helped his company’s business take off and expand internationally. 

We finally felt listened to. Our salaries were restored to the contracted amount, and we finally got our driving licenses. As a full time heavy truck driver, I felt happy. Things are going to be better now. 

For the next few years, I worked hard at the company, driving my food truck regularly to Qatar and UAE. We got an extra bonus of 300 riyal after each trip. My truck had a small rest room with a small kitchen. These were long drives, up to 4,000km roundtrip and could take days. 

It would get boring on the long highway, and we Nepali drivers would talk to each other on group calls. It was a way to pass the time, and also keep ourselves awake. When not chatting with other Nepali drivers, I would have the music on.

There were other allowances for heavy truck drivers, my monthly salary was raised, and my savings were adding up. 

My dream of buying land and building a house in Nepal was getting closer with every kilometre I drove. For a simple man like me, it was all I could ever ask for. I worked everyday, saved every penny.

This is me in Saudi Arabia. (Face blurred at request of author.)

Life was good. Until everything changed.

My sister in Nepal, whom I had been taking care of, gave birth to a daughter. There was a complication, and the baby had to be put into intensive care soon after. I took care of their medical bills, but while the baby recovered, my sister’s health deteriorated. She was only skin and bones and could not even hold the baby. The doctors in Nepal couldn’t figure out what was wrong.

I stuck around in Saudi Arabia for another year, and kept sending money to pay for my sister’s medical bills. During the long drives, I used to talk to my family about her health and could not hold back my tears. After a year, in 2018 I could not bear it any longer and returned to Nepal even though my company asked me to stay on. 

I took my sister from Teaching Hospital to Bir Hospital to hospitals in India for treatment. She was hospitalised for over a year and the medical bills kept adding up — one expensive test after another. All my savings from years of work in Saudi Arabia were used up.

Her husband, a teacher at a school with a modest salary, could not afford her medical bills. He is a doting husband, and was distraught by her condition. I had to step in to help, there was no one else.

This disproportionate responsibility of paying for my sister did not weigh on me that much. I had always looked after my little sister ever since we were children. My brother-in-law was also doing as much as he could.

Eventually, my sister recovered, and although she is in much better health now she does have occasional relapses. She is still fragile. But most importantly, she is alive. She is with us. 

I am sure we would have lost her, had I not been in Saudi Arabia, earning so I could pay for her medical treatment. What more could a brother ask for? She tells me I saved her life. It is true.

I am now a driver in a car rental company in Nepal, and earn just about enough to survive. I am still poor, and do not have any property in my name. 

The other five drivers with whom I was in Saudi Arabia are also all back in Nepal, and have invested their savings in transport and agriculture businesses. 

All my savings were gone, but I have no regrets. There is no remorse, because what could be more precious than my sister's life? 

I am now trying to go overseas again to recoup my savings. I am still relatively young, and have another few years in me to work hard once more in the desert heat. It is the only way to  break out of the poverty that has trapped me. 

Translated from a conversation with the author, who requested anonymity. 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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