Armaan Ireland is a new first year student at St Andrews who will be arriving in September to study International Relations. He writes a short story echoing his experience of working with an NGO in Dubai on the issue of migrant laborers. We hope to receive more pieces from Armaan in the future.
Karama Kanteen: Beacon of Hope
I gaze out of the window at grey asphalt. A shadow darkens the curb…a tour bus. A voice carries over – new, but I have heard these tales of transformation before. A dozen i-Pads and cameras are raised. Click, click. Glass facades wink conspiratorially. Progressive Dubai memorialized for posterity. I return to the road.
I squint at the looming wall in the bright sunlight as I jump off. There are a few glances as I leave, eyes flicking quickly over the barbed wire top. Yusuf will be around the corner, going through the trash. I clear my throat loudly before turning the corner. Nobody likes being seen going through trash and Yusuf is no exception. I grasp his hand firmly in greeting, barely noticing the cloying stickiness that bothered me the first time we met.
Brown powder coats my hand as I grasp the door-knob. I flick it off as it no longer bothers me. A familiar smell of stale sweat greets us as we pass a small room. Rickety bunks creak as nine men shift uncomfortably on them, still dressed in stained work clothes. The real Dubai.
We settle down and I open my bag of samosas and reach for one.
“Have one”, I casually invite.
Yusuf does not accept ‘charity’ but he will share a meal. An unstained but creased picture of a little girl floats down to the mud. Yusuf grabs the picture and carefully smooths it out.
“Your daughter?” I ask.
He nods, pride evident in his face.
“She’ll be about 7,” he says. His voice breaks, “I haven’t seen her in years.”
His dreams for his daughter’s future come tumbling out and I listen to the mixture of angst, pain and frustration that color his tone. No one here works for more than a pittance – he can barely live off his earnings himself. My heart pounds and a thousand arrows dart in my head. I cannot do anything to ease Yusuf’s pains. I am inadequate.
I look at Yusuf’s face with its’ lines of pain and worry etched on it and remember my father’s face coming home from work. A dozen episodes clamor for attention. Forced to work overtime. Berated at government offices as another stupid South-Asian expatriate. Familiar frustration settles in. Frustration with the decades of laws that justify migrant exploitation. Frustration at the censorship in the community and the media that would never allow people to catch a glimpse of this Dubai. Frustration at my inability as a foreigner in this country to remedy any legal or economic practices. My seventeen years weigh heavily on me – surely, as an adult, I can do more.
Yusuf interrupts my thoughts. “She’s like you, you know,” he says, optimism in his voice. “Smart. She’ll become a doctor.”
I grin. “I’m thinking about government,” I say.
Yusuf grabs my hand, aghast. “No, no,” he insists, “How? You listen. You care…about this. About us. Like your friend… he comes and listens” he adds.
I nod. It’s probably someone from Karama Kanteen. I introduced it to my peers at school after meeting Yusuf two years ago. Acceptance was slow but picking up.
“You both are …” he pauses, searching, “…determined. You will be doctors and make life better”.
I chuckle, ironically. One had to be determined to fight the unbelievable apathy I had received on the issue. My mind drifts to the sarcasm of newspaper editors at my photo-reports and building managers when I put up flyers. Maybe it was fear. This was Dubai. Here today, deported tomorrow.
I shake my head and stand up. Yusuf gets my “Eid gift” – telephone cards, food and toiletries. I exclaim over the pencil pouch I receive in return. As I leave, I pause with my hand on the filthy doorknob and look back. He ambles back around the corner, fewer lines creasing his forehead, humming a song.
One step at a time.