22-28 July 2016 #818

Uprooted Lives

Photo project depicts costs and benefits of migration for Nepali workers and families
Smriti Basnet

HARD DAY'S WORK: 19-year-old Ujjwal toils as a cleaner in Doha seven days a week. His life after work is limited to an evening meal, playing carrom, watching TV and surfing the Net.

In 2000, a transit in Doha transformed Belgian-born photographer Frédéric Lecloux's perspective towards migrant issues in Nepal. It was then that he understood the seriousness of the matter, when he saw the airport bustling with Nepali migrants hard at work: sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, minding lines.

“A whole generation in Nepal has only one goal in mind when growing up: going abroad,” said Lecloux. Hoping to gain insights into the migration phenomenon, Lecloux set out a year ago to trace the lives of migrant workers in Qatar, their daily realities in a foreign land and those of their families back in Nepal. 

Nani Maya’s* youngest son Ujjwal*, 19, works in Qatar. His two brothers also work abroad: the elder one, a father of two, has been working in India for the last ten years, and the other sibling recently went to Saudi Arabia. Ujjwal is a cleaner, working seven days a week from 7 am to 6 pm, with an hour-long break for lunch. The family currently lives on government-owned land, and depends on the income of their sons.

Ujjwal's mother is worried that her family will be asked to vacate their house, which is on government land. Her three sons all work abroad.

Ram*, a former migrant worker in Saudi Arabia, and his brothers are each building a house with the money their sons sent from working abroad. For this, Ram's son Raghu* toils in Qatar and lives in a camp with 9,200 others, sharing his room with seven Nepalis. During his off-days Raghu mostly spends time in his room, taking the opportunity to connect with his family and friends through Facebook and WhatsApp. Apart from cooking, washing clothes and using the Internet, there is nothing much else for them to do on such days, he told Lecloux. 

BUILDING LIVES: Ram's son Raghu, a migrant worker in Doha, lives in a camp with 9,200 others and shares his room with seven Nepali workers. His family has built a house with the money he sent back home.

Pics: Frédéric Lecloux
Raghu's social life revolves around his mobile, as he stays in touch with friends and families through Facebook and WhatsApp.

Lecloux brought back many personal stories of migrant workers — like Ujjwal and Raghu — and their families from the most affected districts in Nepal, for his ongoing photo project ‘Nepal and Qatar: The Void and the Fullness’, supported by the Paris Center of Fine Arts. “I wanted to highlight the cost of migration, the supposed 30% GDP of the country that comes from these remittances. What is the human cost and the social cost of that money?”

As young men leave Nepal in hordes every day to work in foreign destinations like Qatar, the country is being emptied of its able-bodied labour force. Marital relations become strained, and family members are scattered. Despite being aware of the unfavourable working conditions, families send their sons off in the hope they will earn well and contribute to a better present-day life for those at home. “Most migrant workers told me they don’t have a choice,” said Lecloux at a talk program organised by photo.circle in Yala Maya Kendra last week, adding that most mothers hope their sons can work abroad.

Recording intimate and up-close details, Lecloux's photographs portray little details such as the cellophane tape used to kill bed bugs in apartments, self-made toothbrush holders taped on camp walls, and clothes and personal belongings spilling over in cramped spaces — all pointing towards the sparse and difficult living conditions.

In stark contrast are photographs set in Nepal, of houses being built and new material possessions such as televisions — now affordable with the money received from abroad. Only a few migrants Lecloux spoke to, such as Saraswoti's* husband, want to use the money to fund their children's education.

SEEING HOPE: Saraswoti's husband works in Qatar and hopes that his remittances can fund their children's education.

Extending beyond these portraits, Lecloux also skilfully uses landscapes of Nepal and Qatar to bring out the contradictions in the two divergent worlds. He juxtaposes dilapidated and empty unfinished structures back home against towering sky scrapers and perfectly sculpted gardens in Qatar, providing viewers with a visual depiction of the world that the migrants abandoned, in order to go to the world that they helped build but will never be able to reap the benefits of. 

With the migration issue garnering international attention, especially after an investigative piece in The Guardian about the exploitation of workers in Qatar, Lecloux believes that the time is right to put pressure on the relevant agencies to act. “Photography serves as documentation of my experience with reality. It allows me to produce the vision of the world that I see,” said Lecloux, who is determined to raise awareness about Nepal and its people.  

Frederic Lecloux's ongoing project ‘Nepal-Qatar: The Void and the Fullness’ is part of a series dealing with loss. His work is published by Le Bec en l’air in Marseilles. He currently lives in France.

He hopes to extend his work beyond Qatar, to additional places like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, and reaching out to female workers as well. In October he will spend the Dasain festival with migrants in Qatar, in pursuit of answers to the question, “How do you create a part of Nepal in Qatar?”

*Names have been changed

Read Also:

Everyday epiphanies, Frédéric Lecloux

The Karnali's Children, Marty Logan

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