My uncle died in Qatar

US-based Nepali physician on why he is not watching the FIFA World Cup in Qatar this year

Growing up in Gulmi district, I was obsessed with football. Our village was perched on top of a staircase of terraced fields, none of them large enough for a football field.

We played improvised, barefoot games in vacant rice paddies every day after school, running after a deflated volleyball while modelling ourselves after our favourite international stars.

Mine, of course, was the Brazilian legend, Ronaldo. In 2002, I had  watched the 2002 World Cup on a tiny colour television at home. The event gripped the country, and brought almost everything to a standstill.

Growing up, the pressures of life in an impoverished country began to set in. Many joined the workforce, or went to India. By a stroke of luck, my father, a high school teacher in the village, won a diversity visa lottery to the United States.

My family left Nepal when I was 13. When I was in medical college in Texas, most of my childhood friends back home were looking for jobs as menial labourers abroad.

Nepal’s economy had stagnated during and after the decade-long insurgency, endemic corruption and political failure. Jobs were hard to find.

The Persian Gulf was hiring, but the work required long hours in the heat for a few hundred dollars a month to send home. Others took less well-paying jobs in India, working as domestic help or in agriculture.

One of them was my uncle, Pitamber Bhattarai, whom I met after years in 2010 while on a study trip to Delhi. He was working in a restaurant, and travelled hours to find me.

We met in a sweet shop because he wanted me to try the famous Delhi confectionery. We spent hours reminiscing about my late mother, his older sister, whom we both missed dearly.

I was seven years old when we had lost her to an unknown illness. The hope of preventing such tragedy from befalling others is what later drove me to become a doctor.

For those few hours with my मामा in the sweet shop my mother was alive again, and I felt profoundly moved. As we parted, my uncle told me about his plans to take a better-paying job in Qatar. He was the sole provider for his mother, wife and three young children back home.

Two years later, I learned that my uncle had died while working in Qatar, and his body was being repatriated to Nepal for the final rites. I was shaken to the core. It felt like I had lost my mother all over again.

His death made no sense to me. He was young and healthy, full of life. The death certificate provided by his employer in Qatar only listed ‘cardiac arrest’ as the cause.

The author's uncle Pitamber Bhattarai

I was just starting my medical studies, and I knew that cardiac arrest is not a cause of death but rather the end itself. Despite our family’s efforts to find answers, there were none.

I started reading up on the conditions of migrant workers in The Guardian and other papers. It led me to wonder if my uncle’s death was also due to working conditions. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released reports at that time detailing some of the atrocities migrant workers face, including the kafala system that permitted employers to seize workers’ passports, effectively making them bonded labourers.

I also learnt that on average one coffin was returned to Nepal with the remains of somebody’s family member every single day from Qatar. It was not just Nepalis, workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and numerous African countries faced the same fate.

As a physician, I travel to Nepal frequently to conduct global health work in emergency care. On a recent flight from Kathmandu to Qatar, I sat next to a 27-year-old man from a remote village in eastern Nepal.

Nervous and excited, he told me how, through connections from relatives working in Qatar, he found an agent in Nepal who arranged a two-year contract to work for a company called Ipas.

They had promised to pay him $275 a month with a $82 food stipend. To arrange the job, he had already paid an agent in Nepal $1,500 -- more than four months’ salary. His first job would be as a paint scraper, and he was promised 8-hour-day shifts with a day off every week.

His story was not unique. The flight, one of four from Kathmandu to Doha every day, was full of men like him. Many Nepalis died constructing infrastructure for the FIFA World Cup, but accurate statistics are impossible to find.

Some estimates put the number at more than 6,500. Every one of them leaves behind a bereaved, bereft and already destitute family, now with fewer options for survival than before.

Meanwhile, FIFA is estimated to earn nearly $6 billion from this year’s World Cup. World Cup stadiums built in Brazil, Beijing and South Africa had raised similar concerns.

The Qatar experience has affected my family personally, but the issue of FIFA turning its back on human rights violations is not new. The football governing body must be held accountable.

When the world learnt in 2010 that Qatar had won the FIFA hosting bid, questions were raised about how a country with only three stadiums would host the globe’s biggest sporting event. But Qatar had a plan. That plan included the blood, sweat and the lives of migrant workers.

Desperate workers plucked from South Asia and Africa were flown in, their passports taken, and they were put to work. So what if a few died? There would always be other desperate people trying to provide for their families.

In fact, young men have headed out to work in Qatar even after their own families have received dead bodies of their loved ones, or their uncles or fathers were sent back due to ill health caused by the heat and poor on-site conditions.

Nepalis are quick to blame their own government also for this situation. The country’s economic instability has affected millions for decades. Successive governments in Nepal must be held accountable for allowing hundreds of thousands of workers to be exploited in these overseas worksites under false pretenses, and for not advocating more for the rights of its citizens abroad.

But employers in Qatar and FIFA must also be held to account, especially for the indignities and injustices wrought upon these workers after they landed in Qatar, and began toiling on infrastructure for the World Cup.

I am not watching the World Cup this year because cheering on games being played in buildings that so many of my people died constructing feels a bit like I have cheated them. And because memories of my uncle do not allow me to.

My personal boycott will not mean much, but I hope my uncle’s story will provide perspective about the individual human tragedies involved.

Was there really a need in this day and age for the World Cup to rely on egregiously unsafe bonded labour? By placing profit over justice and decency, FIFA has undermined the positive values that give football its global appeal.

I love football. I want Messi to win. Football is a religion in Nepal. This year, however, the joy I once found in the beautiful game is haunted by the ghosts of workers.

Ramu Kharel is an Assistant Professor at Brown University in the United States and an emergency medicine specialist. He is the founder of  Health Advance Programs to Serve All,  HAPSA Nepal

TikTok @namastedoctor, Instagram @namastedoc, Twitter @erdockharel

This is a Sapan News syndicated piece.

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