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Saudis Tweet: Be Kind to Foreign Workers

September 5, 2011 15 comments

This is an excerpt from Arabnews, an English language daily paper from Saudi Arabia:

JAZAN: A number of Saudis have launched a campaign on Twitter asking their compatriots to be kind to the foreign manpower living with them and to spread awareness in society about humanitarian treatment to foreign laborers.

They also tweeted that Saudis should congratulate them on the occasion of Eid, as they do their relatives and friends, and make them part of the local celebrations in order to help them mark Eid as they would in their homeland, Arabic daily Al-Watan reported on Friday.

I applaud progressive Saudis who take initiative when those in power don’t. It’s Saudis like these who are hopefully the future leaders of the kingdom. However, I think it’s sad that someone had to go and start a Twitter campaign to treat foreign workers with respect. I’m ashamed that the situation in Saudi Arabia has come down to this; to remind each other via messages to respect other people. This kind of issue is something one would expect to hear in a speech or Friday sermon. It’s not something one would expect to be the central cause for an awareness campaign.

Treating people with respect and kindness is one of those virtues like cleanliness and honesty that should be deep-rooted and nurtured in a person from childhood. This campaign hangs on the shoulders of parents and teachers; so they should always use an encounter with another person, whether a Saudi or expatriate, as an opportunity to set an example that would teach children to respect all people regardless of race, religion, or status.

A Saudi passing by an expatriate worker. Image courtesy of Galen R. Frysinger.

Samuel Johnson once said:

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

Many of my friends are skeptical about this campaign, saying that this is yet another PR exercise by the Saudi government in order to clean its image after Indonesia stopped sending maids to the country and the Philippines possibly following suit. Others are hoping the ‘campaigners’ would take to the streets as well, since Twitter alone cannot reach all the masses. But all are hoping that this campaign reaches every Saudi and expatriate and brings out the good in people. As for me, I’ve learned to take anything about Saudi Arabia in the media with a grain of salt, but I truly hope that this is the start of many positive changes in this beautiful country.

Saudi Sponsorship System – Modern Day Slavery

August 28, 2011 90 comments

The night was young and the cool spring breeze sent a chill down my spine as I wrapped my arms around myself and exited the warmth of the mosque. Isha prayer had just finished and I thought of my evening plans as I tried to locate my sandals among the heap of shoes and slippers at the main door. “Dude, use the damn shoe rack next time” I thought to myself, as I found my sandals and proceeded to walk home, a mere 50 meters away.

The neighborhood street was eerily quiet, but started showing signs of life as people slowly exited the mosque and went back to what they were doing before prayer. There were no birds flying around, no cars moving in sight, save for the few worshippers who came to the mosque with cars. Another sudden breeze blew leaves off the nearby trees and carried with it that unmistakable tangy smell of the nearby Arabian Sea. A little kid blew past me on his BMX bike, looking back and waving at me for approval, to which I responded with a big smile and two thumbs up.

As I walked past the houses, mothers and sisters were busy preparing dinner and the different smells emanating from the kitchen windows tingled my nose and I had a sudden craving for shawarma. I decided to call Ali and ask if he was down for some shawarma followed by some diet-killing Krispy Kreme donuts and that’s when I met Mohammed, my neighbor. He was walking back home from prayer and had just come back to Saudi Arabia from Malaysia a couple of days back. He told me that he has a long semester break and would be in Saudi Arabia for a couple of months and will renew his iqama before heading back to Malaysia. We talked for some time and had to cut our chat short as Ali rolled into my street. A couple of weeks later I went back to Malaysia.

Little did Mohammed know that he might never make it to Malaysia. What was supposed to be a couple of months turned into 4 months and he’s still stuck in Saudi Arabia as I type this.

But first, for those of you that don’t know, Saudi Arabia does not have your usual residence permit system for expatriates. Expatriates have to obtain an iqama (pronounced iqaama), a residency permit that allows them to work and live in the country, through a legal citizen of Saudi Arabia who becomes their kafeel, or sponsor. This kafala system, or sponsorship system, binds the expatriate worker to that kafeel and he has the power to alter the employment contract and/or transfer the sponsorship to someone else. The expatriate worker has no power or say and is under the mercy of his kafeel. Kafeels are normal people like you and me, so majority of them have a healthy relationship with the people they sponsor, but there are always the ones that go out of their way to wreak havoc on people’s lives.

Image courtesy of The Crazy Jogger @ Flickr

Some kafeels, in seeing that the person/people they sponsor are totally under their mercy, exploit them by blackmailing them and forcing them to pay them money. Some of them simply decide to get them deported after the pettiest of misunderstandings. An expatriate can file a legal suit against their employer or sponsor, but often times they are deported before their cases are even reviewed by judges. Other kafeels simply ignore their duty towards the people they sponsor by refusing to get their papers signed for renewing or any other legal processes. Something similar happened to my neighbor Mohammed and his family.

Mohammed’s father is a retired engineer who used to work for the oil giant Saudi Aramco and a respected member of the community who has lived in the same house in Saudi Arabia since the early 70s. Mohammed was born in Saudi Arabia and has lived his whole life there. He has nowhere else to call home. All of his friends are Saudi.

When the time came for the family to renew the iqamas, they found out their kafeel was on vacation in USA. They didn’t worry, thinking he’d be back in time for them to start the renewal process. When a week passed and he was nowhere to be found, they tried reaching him through his numbers, but to no avail. They tried his family. No luck. They tried reaching him through his company and siblings. Still no luck. As each day passed, and with the threat of deportation looming over them, the family decided to take matters into their own hands and try to obtain a new sponsor. As of this moment they are still working on that solution, and I pray it works out for them.

This kafala system is nothing short of modern-day slavery. How is it different from historic slavery where people were tied to a ‘master’? It is a primitive idea that hinders human potential and breeds hatred toward Saudi Arabia in the hearts of the millions of expatriates living inside and outside Saudi Arabia. Sadly, sometimes even children  even exposed to this ideology and understand from a young age that they are not equal with their Saudi peers.

Other Gulf nations have seen the error of their ways and have either done away with the system or ensured migrant workers get justice. Abolishing it will instantly improve Saudi Arabia’s battered image in the eyes of the world and provide it greater influence and flexibility in the global arena. Getting rid of this archaic system which is open to all sorts of abuses will not only win the hearts of the millions of expatriates who suffer the indignity of being under a Saudi sponsor’s power, but make them fall in love with the country and its people.

There’s an Arab proverb that goes along the lines of:

Write bad things that are done to you in sand, but write the good things that happen to you on a piece of marble.

Too often have the winds of time blown away the proverbial writing in the sand; the cries for equal treatment from the expatriate community. Saudi Arabia should change for the better and become a home for all, instead of a home for a few and a prison for many. Saudi Arabia, being The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and a leader in the Islamic world, should be  beacon of hope and a model for human rights and equality.

Islam teaches us the great reward for releasing a slave. King Abdullah has the opportunity to release millions.

Free Burma!

October 4, 2007 Comments off

Free Burma

 

No one is free when others are oppressed.

Sam’s Take On Malaysia

January 16, 2007 17 comments

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this joint and you can pick any guess as to what kept me from writing anything. Being in Malaysia for two months now…I’ve been busy doing everything but sight seeing; pretty ironic huh…

Aside from entering a university and renting a house, I’ve had to do a lot of traveling between KLIA, KL, Cyberjaya, Putrajaya, and Melaka (a somewhat historic city). Although cheap if your consider a couple of trips, taxis can make a huge dent in your wallet if your require several trips a day, so I had to rent a car for most of my stay here. Some might ask why not use the metro, but all this traveling is for newcomers, both family and friends, who are also applying for universities or want to start businesss here, or simply to enjoy a two week vacation; who want someone tey know to help them out. So the metro isn’t the best way to go about in such cases.

KL isn’t as good as others have told me; due to a couple of factors. One; it requires deep pockets if you want to venture out into the center. Some taxi drivers can be plain assholes by refusing to use the meter and charge exorbitant prices if they think you’re a tourist. Some even feed on people’s desperation at rush hour times or simply depending on how much of a hurry the person is in; painting a pretty bad picture for the majority of the nice taxi drivers who strike me as some of the best in the world.

Another thing that seriously annoys me is the toll plazas we face every few miles between cities. I’m glad my trips aren’t daily and don’t have to commute through tolls to the university every morning, as that by itself can amount to a fortune.

The third thing…although not everyone shares this opinion with me, are the organizers of the Visit Malaysia 2007 who continue to exhibit extravagant fireworks displays for tourists at night time while over a hundred thousand victims of the recent floods have nowhere to call home and sleep at makeshift camps at schools or underground car parks. This strikes me as hypocritical…seeing how the Malaysian government says it cares for its people while the organizers of these tourist events are going overboard with entertaining foreigners. Why not donate that money to help those who have lost their whole houses and means of earning money? I’d say that…at times like this, as a foreigner and part tourist, I wouldn’t expect to be entertained by the tourist industry. Why…what would a tourist think when they see all these extravagant displays of fireworks and the next moring see in the front pages of local papers pictures of flood ridden towns and people swimming through dirty waters trying to salvage whatever is left of their homes?

On a lighter note…Malaysia’s pros outdo its cons greatly. One thing I like about the locals here is that as a foreigner, when I try to speak Malay, they’ll go out on a limb to make me feel closer. Oh…the food! I love food…and the variety here is great. One can never get lost here; because there are loads of street signs and boards guiding you every few miles; although each district and town has several ways to get to, making it somewhat confusing. The people here drive safely, and unlike KSA, the folks here make good use of their turn indicators.

I’ve been told I’m missin one of the coldest winters in KSA and neighboring countries. Just my luck…my favorite season is winter and here I am in tropical Malaysia…