A chartered flight from Doha to Goa brought in 171 Indians on July 8 — out of these, many were in distress, out of jobs and rent money, till the Goan diaspora came together as a community and helped them return.
While Vande Bharat mission flights have been repatriating long lists of registered Indians to most parts of the country, Goans were too few in number to fill an aircraft, making it difficult for the mission to direct a flight to the tiny state.
This was when the ‘COVID-19 Stranded Qatar Goans Evacuation Team’ stepped in.
“It all started with an SOS message on WhatsApp, and soon, a group of like-minded people came together,” says John Desa, the convener of the forum. “A chartered flight was our only option. We had to seek several clearances from several government agencies in both countries, and even fund the tickets of many distressed people.”
Thus began a week-long exercise, with June 30 as the deadline. “We chose that date as in Doha, one pays the rent in advance or one can lose the accommodation. And rents aren’t cheap – just one bed in a shared room starts at $200 and room rents can go up to $800.”
Many who needed repatriation had lost jobs, and couldn’t afford the rent. Slanney Lucas, one of the passengers, lost his position as bartender in February, and a new job he found didn’t materialise. “The last few months were tough. I plan to remain in Goa for a year at least now. Such events play on your mind and it is tough to return,” he says.
A woman passenger who didn’t wish to be named added, “I returned to Goa as it was difficult for my husband to make rent. He is still in Doha and has shifted to a one-bed accommodation in a shared room with bachelors. I worked in a company which hired women as office executives, but now it is shut.”
A total of 55 such Goans were found. Desa and his team approached several airlines, but were told they needed at least 170 people to fill a flight – no one was willing to fly at half capacity.
“It was then that we realised there were people from Mumbai and bordering towns of Maharashtra, and many from Mangalore, who were stranded here and would find it easier to make their way home from Goa. So now, groups of the three states came together, and between us, we found 171 people, and chartered a flight for 1,95,000 rials. Phones calls started and all arrangements were made.”
In all this, the June 30 deadline was missed. So the group also helped people pay their rent.
Desa says “many frantic calls” were made to the Goa government and other agencies. “People were in dire straits here, many were facing eviction. With oil prices taking time to correct, many companies will take months to turn around. Local news has confirmed that corporate earning has gone down by over 30 per cent and in an international market like Doha, which relies on expats to work in most sectors, it is tough.”
Desa says contribution from Goans who still have jobs helped. Some people paid for their own tickets. “It’s not something we do every day, so we felt nice,” he adds.
An excel sheet is now being circulated for the second such flight — with logistics worked out better through the experience of the first flight.
One of the co-ordinators of the flight, Tina Fernandes, an advisory council member from the Indian Community Benevolent Forum under the aegis of the Indian Embassy, Doha, says the experience has been overwhelming.
“Many people were left homeless, so other Goans accommodated them. For example, if there were stranded women, we found them rooms with other Goan women. Even food was arranged. We really got together as a community. There were pregnant women, elderly citizens whose work visa was getting over. Even the fee for their testing and quarantine in Goa was paid for. All of them have tested negative.”
Fernandes says the flight was not easy as a lot of paperwork kept getting rejected, and it took a “collective and coordinated effort” in the end, and also support from the Indian Embassy, to get the flight home.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines