Jennifer and Steve Parenteau lived in Qatar for six years before coming to Singapore last year. This is Part Three of their three-part story about migrant workers in Qatar.
By Jennifer Parenteau
Initiatives for Bridging the Gap
Living in Doha taught us so much about the inequalities of our world. Picture a place where young men are gifted with Lamborghinis before they even have a driver’s license, where you can come across a gold Land Cruiser circling a roundabout on two wheels, (just because it can), where brand new cars can be found upside down after a night of desert racing fun, where money is no barrier to living a playboy life. In one day we would cross paths with some of the richest families on the planet and in the next breath we would observe human beings barely living and struggling to work in extreme hardship for slave wages in disgraceful conditions.
This body of workers and their appalling conditions seem to remain mostly invisible to the local people. They are ignored and forgotten about by most as Qataris drive past endless groups of hard-working men, or hand their increasingly large pile of shopping bags to a trailing maid-servant in large shopping malls.
In the meantime we were working during the week in very privileged schools where sons and daughters of the Royal Family attended. How to bring these two worlds together was the challenge in front of us. Fortunately, the prestigious educational International Baccalaureate program at our school requires students to participate in community service projects. This was a wonderful opportunity to perhaps bring these two very different groups together. But how?
With awareness came much discussion among some of the students who passionately signed up for a meaningful community service project, involving firsthand exposure to life in Qatar as opposed to simply gifting money to organized charities with no personal involvement.
First was born the Worker Appreciation project, started right there within the Queen’s school in Education City. The idea was for a student to meet and interview a worker, then prepare a personal profile to place on a public bulletin board. This in itself was a life changing experience for some of our students as they began to discover that the men and women who had previously been quite invisible to them actually had sad if not horrific, or even astonishing positive stories to tell about children back home, dreams about their futures, hidden talents. Soon the students were asking what they could do to help, and out of this discussion was born the idea of Worker Appreciation Games. Students discovered that many of the workers just like themselves, loved to play sports! Our wonderful school had a large sporting facility sometimes available on weekends, so why not organize games between workers and students, have a meal, give out some prizes?
Over the next 4 years we managed to organize many wonderful events involving students from the school and various groups of workers. (We even had events where the students’ own domestic workers were invited in.) Some days instead of staying within the school grounds we would meet at a local shopping mall where the workers would be treated to activities like ice skating, bowling and a fast food meal, or a drive to a distant beach, snacks at a cheap restaurant, or a sneak peek at an unguarded public boating facility.
The men and women who participated in these rather infrequent activities all left with a larger than life smile in their hearts and a memory that will remain a very powerful one. To be recognized and to be thought of as a fellow human being is a gift greater than any other in the harsh world they had found themselves in. We observed so much courage, caring, resilience and determination during our sporting events but none more than the day we took a large group of Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indian men to the ice skating rink. None of these men had ever experienced such a thing. We watched as men struggled endlessly to stand, to move, to help each other, to enjoy this sport. It was a day we will never forget!
Out of this project grew another more ambitious idea, that of donating old (and even new) laptops to workers. Those of us caught up in keeping up with the newest and best technologies, soon have used items sitting in boxes or on shelves getting dusty! So once the plight of the workers was revealing itself, as we came to know people from different camps, we realized that nothing could be more appreciated in the stagnant workers’ lives than a technology tool that gave access once again to seeing the faces of their families back home by skyping their spouses and relatives, or just plain having the taken-for-granted option to see a film or listen to a music video in a language they understood. And thus students, teachers, families, businesses started contributing to the distribution of these wonderful gifts!
In our first year of operation the students managed to clean up, add useful programs and distribute 20 laptops. We were very pleased with this beginning. Students particularly enjoyed downloading music and movies in other languages for workers to access. Workers were chosen from the various groups of men and women we had found in camps around the place, or from random meetings – Tomas from Kenya was given his first laptop when he mentioned that he wanted to teach the children in his village IT skills. He has since proudly carried it home! By the time we left Doha, over a period of 4 years we managed to distribute over 300 laptops. The number of waiting recipients far outweighed the number of donated laptops, but we made a start on a project that we hope becomes a yearly practice as companies turn over their old stock. We are not there any more, but perhaps those students will carry the practice on in their own lives. We hope so.
It is incredible to us that so many workers are adrift in this world, having left their children, parents, loved ones behind while they toil away in extreme conditions in order to send small amounts of money to keep their families alive. How would our larger world be if we all had to do this? The sacrifices of our migrant workers are too painful and too unjust to think about. No matter where you find them, maybe we can remember how selfless their lives are and how much they are missing out on.