2014-07-19 , Issue 29 Volume 11
Photo: Ajo Dhruva
There are more than a million Malayalee nurses tending to the sick all over the world. Since the 1940s, they have been supporting their families back home in Kerala with their hard-earned money. They changed the destiny of their families and opened the channels of migration for their kith and kin. But the state never honoured their contribution or recognised them as an asset to its ailing economy. The penny dropped only when civil war gripped Iraq and many nurses working there started sending SOS signals for immediate evacuation from the troubled areas.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy sensed trouble as the families of the nurses stranded in Tikrit started calling him in panic. Nine of the families hail from his home district, Kottayam. But Chandy felt helpless as he had limited clout with the new BJP-led NDA government. But External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj realised the gravity of the trouble in Iraq and alerted all the Indian diplomats in the region to work for an early solution.
As top officials met at the ministries of external affairs and home, they stumbled on one grey area — India had limited contacts with ISIS militants operating in Trikrit and Erbil.
The nightmare started on 12 June, when the Sunni militants took control of the Tikrit Teaching Hospital. Among the hostages were 46 nurses from India. The rebels took them away in a bus.
“We were not willing to leave the hospital as we were not sure where they were taking us,” recalls Vidya Vishwambaran, a nurse who hails from Theveri village in Pathanamthitta district. “But when a bomb exploded near our hospital, injuring four of the nurses, we had no option. We just rushed to board the bus.”
The rebels’ move to shift the nurses to Mosul came as a shocker to the Indian Embassy in Baghdad. Indian Ambassador A Ajay Kumar, who was in constant touch with the nurses since 12 June, became frantic as he knew that shifting them to Mosul would complicate the evacuation process. But he had no choice.
Meanwhile, Chandy networked with NRI businessmen who are known to be close to the Saudi Arabian government. Rumour has it that EMKE Group’s MA Yusuf Ali used his clout with Riyadh to open negotiations with the Sunni militants. Once he established contact, the chances for the release became brighter.
“I was tense for three days, fearing the worst after the nurses were shifted to Mosul,” says Chandy. “I was in constant touch with Union minister Sushma Swaraj, who used her office to save the nurses. I thank her for her great sensitivity and for playing a proactive role.”
On 4 July, the militants shifted the nurses to Erbil, from where they boarded the Air India flight back to their homeland.
Ironically, not everyone is happy to be back home. Most of the nurses have not been paid for months. “We were not thrilled to return to Kerala,” says Shalini, a nurse who hails from Churulikod in Pathanamthitta district. “We wanted to remain in Iraq and work there for some more time and get paid our dues.”
In Kerala, her mother struggles to make ends meet. On top of it, they have to repay a debt of Rs 2.5 lakh. “We left Iraq with a heavy heart,” says Shalini. “My friends and I were crying when we boarded the flight as our future offers no consolation.”
But Chandy believes that he can find a solution. “I have convened a meeting on 11 July to discuss the modalities to announce a package for them,” he says. “Many NRI businessmen have offered them jobs. It is good sign. We need to take collective steps to help the nurses who suffered in Iraq.”
But the nurses fear that the government’s priority will change when more and more people return from the war-torn country. According to Jasmin Shah, president of the United Nurses Association, around 1,000 nurses are holed up in Iraq.
“The government should ponder why so many nurses from Kerala are risking their lives and going to Iraq,” says Shah. “They are going because they are not getting even the statutory minimum wages in the five-star corporate hospitals run by the filthy rich. If the government had enforced minimum wages in the private hospitals here, these nurses would not have gone to a foreign country.”
For the nurses who hail from poor families, Iraq was an attractive option because of two reasons. “Recruitment agents demand huge money for openings in other Gulf countries,” says Jiji Raj, a nurse returned from Iraq. “For Iraq, they demand only 1.6 lakh, which I could afford. They offered a salary of $750 per month as well as free food and accommodation. For us it was a good sum. In our contract, it was mentioned that we would get our salary after completing three months’ service.”
Even after the ISIS militants invaded their hospital on 12 June, the nurses were under the impression that they would be shifted to other hospitals in Baghdad and their salaries would be paid.
In the hour of crisis, all have a kind word for Ambassador Ajay Kumar, who helped the nurses when they were in peril. “One of the nurses could not bear the tension and had become hysterical,” recalls Jiji. “She started showing signs of nervous breakdown. But Ajay sir told us to be calm and talked to us every now and then. He even recharged our phones. We can never forget him. For us, he was like god in our darkest hour.”
Even as the government scrambles to help the nurses, CPM leader VS Achuthanandan has demanded a package for all the workers who are stuck in the war-torn nation. “They had gone to Iraq risking their lives as a last resort,” he says. “The state government should announce a package to rehabilitate them. Both the state and Central governments are ignoring their plight. When 17 nurses and other workers arrived in Mumbai, there was nobody to help them. As Iraq is embroiled in a civil war, more workers will return. The government has nothing to offer them.”
In Kerala, gloomy days are here again as more than 5,000 workers are likely to return home soon from war-torn Iraq.
‘I went to Iraq to save my family… I returned with nothing’
Smithamol Surendran | 30 Mannackanad, Kottayam
When the Air India flight carrying 46 nurses from Erbil in Iraq landed at the Kochi International Airport on 5 July, Smithamol Surendran cried in silence. The grand welcome accorded to her did not relieve her tension. She knew that her mounting debt was going to haunt her forever. After working for five months at the Tikrit Teaching Hospital in Iraq, she did not have a single paisa.
“I thought I was the unluckiest girl in the world,” she says. “I went to Iraq to repay my education loan and save my family from peril. But I returned without getting my salary. I borrowed from my sister to pay Rs 1.6 lakh to the agent and spent another Rs 40,000 for my travel. The civil war has destroyed my life.”
Her father Surendran, who used to be a daily wage labourer, is suffering from urinary bladder cancer. Her stepmother Shanthamma has been an asthmatic for the past 15 years. “I need money to treat my father and stepmother,” says Smithamol. “They don’t take any medicine because they have no money. I have been working for the past seven years. But I could not earn enough to build even a proper toilet. I never told my friends that I’m from such a poor background. I lived with my problems.”
Smithamol lost her mother when she was just eight. Her dream was to become a teacher and she graduated in English literature from Mahatma Gandhi University with second class. But her sister, who is also a nurse, persuaded her to pursue nursing as it would offer her instant employment. “I studied nursing only because the banks offered loans for the course without any security or surety,” she says. “But that loan has trapped me.”
On her arrival from Iraq, her tears moved Kerala. The CPM’s Kottayam district committee gifted her a cheque of Rs 3 lakh for repaying the loan. Her neighbour Sunny Joseph Valiyamalil has offered five cents of land to construct a new house. The Marangattupilly panchayat has promised to raise money for the construction of the house. Nowadays, ministers are visiting her house and national television channels are waiting for her sound bites.
“Finally, things are falling into place,” she says. “I have realised that I’m not alone in this world. But I won’t go back to Iraq even if I starve. Enough is enough.”
‘I may return to Iraq if I don’t get a job elsewhere’
Sunita Gopi | 27 Thidanadu, Kottayam
Sunita Gopi is scared that a flash flood will wash away her small house on the banks of Meenachil river. Whenever the monsoon fury flooded the river, she used to spend the night at a friend’s place. Her dream was to build a house for her family far away from the river and she was willing to risk anything for that.
“The civil war never scared me,” she says. “Even when we were asked to vacate the hospital and board the bus with the militants, I was not worried about my life. I had just one regret — that I may have to leave Iraq without getting my salary for five months. For me, $3,750 is a lot of money. I have never seen such a big amount in my life. It was my lifeline as I have to repay my educational loan of Rs 3 lakh with interest to the Catholic Syrian Bank.”
After her return to Kerala, the bank sent her a recovery notice. “I don’t blame the bank as I could not repay my loan,” says Sunita. “When I first joined a hospital, I received a monthly salary of Rs 6,000. Then my father had a heart attack and needed a major cardiac surgery. I borrowed money and arranged for the operation. I decided to go to Iraq as the job there offered a decent salary. If I had worked there for two years, I could have repaid all my loans and also raised money for my marriage.”
But life took a tragic turn when ISIS militants invaded Tikrit.
“On 12 June, we went for the morning duty and found that the hospital was deserted,” she recalls. “All the doctors and management staff had left. After spending a few hours, we were told to return to our hostel. In the evening, three militants came to the hostel and told us that they had taken over the hospital and we should work for them. We told them that we haven’t received our salaries for the past four months. They told us that they would pay our salaries if we come and work for them.
“We were the worst-hit. A majority of the nurses were from poor families who had incurred huge debts to fund their education. We opted for Iraq as the last option to save our families from the debt trap. Why else would we have gone there?
“If the civil war had been delayed for a few days, we would have received our salaries for three months. But it was our destiny to return home to India without money and grace.
“If I don’t get a job soon, the only option left is to commit suicide. I have had enough of this miserable life. I have never committed a crime in my life and helped everyone who came my way. But look at my life… left in loneliness and worries.
“I may return to Iraq if I don’t get a job elsewhere. Not because I love Iraq, but because I want to repay my loan and build a house for my parents where they can sleep without fearing rains or floods. Then if I have any money left, I will spend it on my marriage.”
Sunita has confidence and an iron will to change her destiny.
“I studied nursing as it offered a ready job,” she says. “I started working when I was 20. But I could not save enough money to free me from the debt trap. So I don’t care where my life ends.”
‘We were at the mercy of militants for more than three weeks’
Even in the middle of chaos in Iraq, Angeleena Luke Thottunkal never lost hope. She knew that she had to return home dead or alive. Even when a bomb exploded near her, she was not scared.
“I boarded the bus with blood all over my dress,” she recalls. “A splinter had struck my forehead. I covered my injury with a cold water bottle and rested my head on a friend’s lap. I didn’t feel much as we had no idea where they were taking us. The only relief was that we were all together and ready to face death.”
After returning home, she is busy visiting churches one after another, offering prayers for helping her safely reach home.
“I have to repay a loan of Rs 4 lakh,” she says. “But I’m alive and will be able to repay it if I get a job. I’m grateful to god who protected me during this mess. We were at the mercy of militants for more than three weeks. We heard gunshots and explosions near our hospital. When a bomb exploded, we go together and prayed. Even Hindus joined our prayers. When you face death, you don’t remember which god you are praying to.”
Angeleena never informed her parents about the turmoil in Iraq.
But she relayed information to her twin sister, who is working at Baghdad Medicity Hospital. Both of them had gone together to Iraq.
“In December 2013, I got a job offer from the health ministry of Iraq,” she says. “I delayed my travel for my sister who was waiting for her offer letter. She was lucky to join a hospital in Baghdad; she gets her salary. But we never got ours. Now, I’m worried about her as the militants are moving towards Baghdad.”
Born in a poor family, nursing was her natural choice as two of her elder sisters were already in the profession and banks were willing to offer education loans. “I educated all my four daughters by availing bank loans,” says her father Luka. “Now I owe Rs 4 lakh. I thought my worries were over when two of my daughters got job offers from Iraq. It turned out to be a disaster.”
Despite being 70, Luka is plying an autorickshaw for the sake of his family. He has vowed not to rest until the loans are settled.
“I saw my father doing all kinds of jobs to feed us,” recalls Angeleena. “My mother used to rear cows to earn extra money. I wanted them to take rest in their old age, but the war ruined our lives. However, the turmoil in Iraq helped me to face challenges with a cool heart. Now I can face any challenge in my life.”
But Iraq is not on the list. “After living on the razor’s edge, who will dare go back?” she asks.
‘I need a job urgently… or else i will go mad’
PS Sabithamol | 29 Kollad, Kottayam
Ever since she returned from Iraq, all that Sabithamol has done is cry. Her father Sasidharan and mother Valsamma take turns to console her. Her husband Krishnakumar, who is working as a nurse in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, could not come because he did not get any leave.
Sasidharan had taken a loan of Rs 3.5 lakh when his daughter joined the nursing course, hoping that the degree would help her get good employment opportunities abroad. Now, the loan amount plus interest has ballooned to Rs 6 lakh. And Krishnakumar had taken a Rs 2 lakh loan to send Sabithamol to Iraq.
“I had tried my luck with all recruitment agencies,” she says. “I was selected by the Saudi Arabian health ministry. But I could not go there as the agency demanded Rs 3 lakh as visa processing charges and commission. Iraq was my last chance.”
She was eager to go to Iraq as working in a foreign country is much better than her career prospects in India. “Had I been able to work in Iraq for two years, I could have repaid all my loans and saved some money. But we got caught in the civil war,” she says.
As Sabithamol fights her tears, all she can see is a bleak future.
“I need a job urgently,” she says. “Or else, I will go mad.”
‘We were ready to work in some other hospital in Iraq’
Litty Joy | 26 Manjoor, Kottayam
When the news broke that Litty Joy was among the nurses held captive by the ISIS militants in Iraq, her mother Aniyamma spent her days and nights in prayer. She prayed to all the saints to save her daughter from further danger. Her prayers were answered on 5 July, when her daughter arrived in Kochi.
But Litty was not so happy to return from Iraq. She left the war-torn country because she had no choice. She was loath to leave the hospital in Tikrit without getting her salary for five months.
“We were ready to work in some other hospital in Iraq,” says Litty. “Not because Iraq offered us great working conditions, but because we needed to send money back home to repay our loans. Senior nurses who had gone to Tikrit earlier had salary arrears of only two months. But our condition was the worst. That is why we pleaded with the militant leaders to settle our dues. But they could not because we were employed by the health ministry.”
According to Litty, the nurses working in the Tikrit hospital were aware about the militants gaining control of neighbouring areas. “Our Iraqi technician told us about the war going on outside Tikrit,” she says. “He also warned us that the militants could invade the hospital. But we had no choice.”
Litty was working at a private hospital in Kolkata before shifting to Iraq. “If you are working as a general nurse in India, you have no future,” she says. “Despite the fact that we have to put in 12-hour shifts or more, nurses are paid a pittance at private hospitals. So, when I got a job in Iraq, I dreamt of a good life. But the dream was short-lived. Everything ended in a tragedy. I shudder whenever I think about my last days in the country.”
Her father Joy and brother Lintu are working as drivers and her mother is a housewife. The poor family had taken a huge loan to cover the expenses of her nursing education and travel to Iraq.
“When Litty got a job offer from Iraq, I thought that our miseries were going to end. Now, I realise that it was only the beginning. I don’t know what to do. One way or the another, we have to move forward. I believe in god. He will show the way,” says Aniyamma as she kneels before the statue of Virgin Mary.
Once again, it is prayer time. When the sky is falling, what else can they do?
(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 11 Issue 29, Dated 19 July 2014)