Saturday, 21 March 2009
Doctor for the distressed
They were all there, homeless, unemployed and with no money for food as I walked in that day. I had stepped into the Indian consulate office in Dubai for my personal work when the staff there asked me if I spoke the Telugu language. Telugu being my mother tongue, I nodded. The Amnesty programme was underway and they needed somebody who spoke the language to communicate with the labourers who were caught during the raid. The Amnesty programme in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was a month long programme intended to catch illegal immigrants and send them back home.
What started out as a simple help in translating and communicating soon began to mean much more to me as I started preparing food for them. Initially I used to prepare food , put them in packets and distribute it to the homeless men outside the Indian High School in Dubai.
Presently, I cook around 20kilos of rice, 20 kilos of Dal and add some vegetables in as well for its nutritious effect. I give packets to around 100 people. My day starts before sunrise as I get up and prepare food for these labourers. Some of the packets are distributed in the Karama and Bur Dubai parks where some of the labourers sleep.
In the night I take these food packets to the series of labour camps in Sonapur in a second hand car that I have rented out for this purpose. I take two packets per person for these labourers so that they have dinner and can have breakfast as well, the next day. I go to the camp with the food packets by 9pm and return by 12 am or sometimes 1 am.
As time passed, I realised that these labourers had other pressing needs as well including the fact that some of them needed urgent medical attention. There were elderly as well as sick workers. While some of them were injured while working in the construction sites, others have long spells of unattended illness.
The rest of Dubai would perhaps know Sonapur as a place where labourers stay in company provided camps. But I have seen men here who find daily survival a challenge.
Winters in Sonapur are tough as they sleep on the cold sand in a large compound with only thin cardboard sheets as their blankets. As my car stops at the entrance of the compound, these homeless men come running to me. While some of them wait for their food packets, others would like to know when they can go home.
I started helping these people by providing food and medicines but today I also help them in processing their out passes and in getting their tickets sponsored. When some of these labourers die, I make arrangements to send their bodies back home to their families.
Most of the labourers who come here , just know their names. We probe into their history and then realise that the company would have withheld their passport. To retrieve the passport, we would have to sometimes pay their company PRO (Public Relation Officer), large amounts as fines.
Slowly, I also started preparing food for men who did work on daily wages but sacrificed meals to save money.Initially, I started helping out Telugu speaking labourers but today I not only prepare food for Indians but also for Bangaldeshis and Nepalis as well.
I also travel nowadays to the neighbouring emirates of Abudhabi, Al ain and Ajman as well as visit illegal immigrants in the different jails and provide food to them.If provided with documents and the money for their ticket, these people can exit to their respective countries.
I do not know how frequently the Indian embassy visits these people or know how bad their condition is.But I do know that they are not very kind towards them or provide them with the requisite support.The UAE Government is quite considerate and do not collect money for documentation but the Indian Embassy not only collects the initial charges but also takes unnecessarily long time to cancel their visas.
Unaided , these labourers are made to go through a lot of trouble with their embassies. Sometimes, cancellation takes as much as 15 to 20 days.The employees at the embassy do not realise the graveness of the time delay as these labourers , deprived of a place to stay , end up in parks and subsequently in jails.Any embassy is responsible for the safety and security of its respective citizens. These labourers are not at fault for being in the state they are.
Financially, I am not only hard pressed for needs but have run into a huge debt now with my credit card bills, rent charges, electricity and other bills. I get offers for sponsorship sometimes but that would be just for that one instance.
Initially, I had taken up a room for some of the labourers to sleep but now they sleep in my clinic which has lost most of its business because I rarely am able to spend time there.
Many of the sponsors promise to help and then fail to fulfil their promise. I end up paying them as I hate to disappoint them.
I have approached many successful businesses for sponsorships but they refuse to pay directly and instead go through the embassy so they can approach the embassy for their own personal favours. A reputed Indian school here in Dubai agreed to provide sponsorship if I made arrangements to publish an advertisement in the newspaper that the school together with the Indian embassy donated the amount.
Often I fail to get sponsorships because genuine sponsorships lack any commercial viability.
I have two children , a son and a daughter who study back home.Initially they did not like my work but now they understand what I do.My husband used to beat me for what I would do because all our savings were being used for this work but he has become more understanding now.
I do not know how long I can go on but I will do as long as I can.
-As told to Jethu Abraham
P.S : Dr Shashikala can be contacted on on 00971503592608 if anyone is interested to help her.