AAMBHANJYANG: When 17-year-old Shanti Maya Dong decided to quit school and go work as a maid in Kuwait, her parents tried to talk her out of it. But eventually, their daughter wore them down.
A month after she left this Nepali village, Dong wrote back saying she was doing well. Twice that first year, she sent her parents about $360 — doubling the family’s annual income. And then the letters stopped.
Five years after her departure, Dong finally came home in 2010 — paralyzed, and in a coma. The desperate family learned from news reports that she had leaped from the fifth floor of a building and had been in a hospital for four years. But no one seemed to know why she jumped.
In recent years, Nepalese have become increasingly alarmed by the price paid by thousands of migrants. Some suffer depression as they leave tiny rural villages and travel alone to foreign cities where they don’t speak the language. Others face abuse ranging from long hours to beatings. Each year, hundreds come back in plywood coffins.
Still, the risks haven’t discouraged many young Nepalese from dreaming of going to work overseas. Among them is Dong’s youngest brother. Last fall, he began to think about leaving this village in central Nepal.
“There are no jobs here, and there is no other source of income for us,” said Amit Kumar Dong, 20, in an interview in November.
As he spoke on the porch of the family’s home, his comatose sister lay in a dark room upstairs, covered in a dingy blanket. Her mother fed her a thick fluid made from ground soybeans and chickpeas through a tube in her chest.
“After democracy was restored in 1990, Nepal made it fairly easy for everyone to obtain a passport,” said Ganesh Gurung, a sociologist who studies migration patterns. “The Gulf was just starting to grow at the same time and there was a shortage of labor. So, that made the region appealing,” he said.
On a recent day in Katmandu, about 2,000 people were lined up outside the Department of Foreign Employment, seeking to get work permits, or renew existing documents. At the front of the line, young men and women were pressing against a dilapidated metal gate, screaming at the female police officer to let them through.
Many in the crowd said migrant labor had provided them with better lives. “I work only eight hours a day and get 35 days of vacation,” said one man, Ek Prasad Gurung, who is employed as a security guard at the US Embassy in Kabul. “My work is safe, I make a good salary and we have good facilities for food and shelter.”
Krishna Bahadur Malla, who works in construction in Qatar, said, “the company I work for is good, and I make about $520 a month” — ten times the average earnings in Nepal.
But for other workers, the quest for a better life ends in tragedy.