Today, Yemen returnees from Kerala’s Kottayam district will meet the CM seeking that they be rehabilitated. It’s been nearly a month now that more than 4,000 Indians were evacuated from the war-torn country. As Shaju Philip finds, they fled a war only to come home to fight other battles
A war they fled
By the first week of April, the Centre had evacuated over 4,000-odd Indians from war-torn Yemen. Of these, 2,467 were from Kerala, half of them healthcare workers in Sana’a and other Yemeni cities. Some of them — mostly families who had lived for years in Yemen — are eagerly waiting to return while others are hoping to rebuild their lives in Kerala.
As a first step towards rehabilitating those who have been evacuated, the Non-Resident Keralites Affairs Department (NORKA) has asked the ‘returnees’ to register their profiles with the department to prepare a databank of job-seekers.
“The returnees included nurses, office staff, oil industry professionals and teachers. Only after preparing their profiles can the government think about rehabilitation,’’ says NORKA CEO R S Kannan.
He says some of the nurses want to go back. “We cannot stop them, considering the meagre salary offered by private hospitals in Kerala,’’ he says.
Some of the nurses who returned from Iraq and Libya last year have found jobs in hospitals in other Middle East countries, he says.
Many of the nurses who returned from Yemen hail from the central Kerala districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam, which have traditionally been sending nurses to other countries. For many of these families, a nursing job is not just a ticket to a foreign land, it’s the only way out of mounting debts and poverty.
Sini Sandeep, 33
‘I have loans to pay off and an ageing mother and paralysed brother to look after. The situation at home constantly reminds me that I can’t simply sit around’
Sini Sandeep is in a hurry. “I have to go back to Yemen… fast,” she says. The 33-year-old has mounting debts to pay off and the burden weighs down on her with every passing day. For the last eight years that Sini worked in Yemen as a nurse, she had kept two homes running — that of her parents and of her in-laws’, both in Kottayam district of Kerala.
Nine years ago, she had taken an education loan of Rs 1.5 lakh to do a nursing course in Bangalore and soon taken up a job in a private hospital in Belgaum, Karnataka. But the salary she got wasn’t enough to pay off her loan. So she had borrowed Rs 1 lakh from moneylenders and paid an agent to get her a visa to Yemen.
For the next five years, Sini worked extra hard at a hospital in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and managed to repay her education loan. She also sent home money for the treatment of her father, but he died five years ago.
Three years ago, Sini married Sandeep, a taxi driver, and they took a loan of Rs 9 lakh to build a house. “I still have that loan to pay off. Besides, I have to take care of my ageing mother and my brother who is paralysed and cannot work. I also had to give money for my sister-in-law’s wedding.’’
Sini had stayed on in Yemen during the 2011 conflict. “It was dangerous then too but the thought of my debts forced me to stay on. This time, I was sure I would be killed if I didn’t flee. The bombs kept us awake all night. We could see fire raining down on neighbourhoods,’’ says Sini.
She says hospitals in Kerala pay poorly — between Rs 5,000 and Rs 7,000 a month. “At that rate, I would never be able to pay off my loans. I will have to work abroad for a couple of more years to clear at least a portion of my loans,’’ she says.
For now, Sini has been praying for the war to end. “I want to go back as soon as I can. If the doors to Yemen are closed, I will have to go to another Gulf country. The situation at home constantly reminds me that I can’t sit around without a job,” she says.
Jipson Sebastian, 42 & Kusumum Sebastian, 43
‘We took a Rs 8 lakh loan to build a house. To clear that loan, we joined a chit fund but ended up defaulting. We don’t know how we will pay back the loan now’
The courtyard of the single-storeyed Chirakkalthodiyil House at Kalathoor village in Kottayam district is overgrown with weeds and grass. A plastic sheet has been spread over the leaky roof of the house; the rain-battered, stained walls have cracks that run over them like veins. “They call me a ‘Gulf-returnee’. Does this house look like it belongs to one?” asks Jipson Sebastian,42.
Sebastian and his wife Kusumum, 43, were among the 4,000-odd people evacuated by the Indian government from Yemen last month and who now stare at an uncertain future. Kusumum, a nurse who worked for the last 13 years in a hospital in Sana’a, says she had to return empty-handed from the war-torn country.
“We were at risk of being caught in the fight between the Houthis and Saudi forces. At night, we could hear gunfire and the sound of bombs being dropped. We had no option but to abandon all our belongings and flee. I could not even take my certificates and clothes,’’ she says.
While Sebastian was airlifted to Djibouti, from where he boarded a flight to Mumbai and a day later to Kochi, Kusumum could only leave two days later.
Without any source of income in Kerala, the couple are at a loss. “We were struggling there too. My wife used to stay in her hostel attached to the hospital while I stayed by myself in a rented accommodation. But our situation here in Kerala is worse,’’ says Sebastian.
He has his widowed, 72-year-old mother to look after, a pending home loan and no hope of finding a job. “We took a Rs 8 lakh loan to build a house that has been under construction for the last nine years. To clear that loan, we joined a chit fund but ended up defaulting on the payment. We don’t know how we will pay back the loan now,” says Sebastian.
Kusumum says that ever since they returned to Kerala last month, she has been walking in and out of hospitals looking for a job.
“Nurses from Yemen have good professional experience, but hospitals here only want fresh hands because they can hire them for meagre salaries. I went to five hospitals for interviews. But in each of them, I was subjected to four rounds of interviews and written tests. Such a process is only meant to deny us jobs,’’ she says.
With a diploma in general nursing and midwifery, Kusumum had gone to Yemen 13 years ago after spending Rs 90,000. After her marriage, she had taken her husband Sebastian to Yemen where he worked as a clerk with a manpower firm. Sebastian, a post-graduate in chemistry with a B.Ed degree, says he joined his wife in Sana’a as he found no jobs in Kerala.
Sitting in his ill-lit living room, Sebastian says, “These window panes cannot be opened. Their frames have been eaten into by termites and the glass could just collapse. Villagers think since we have worked in the Gulf, we must be rich. Despite toiling in Yemen all these years, we only earned $900 a month between us.’’
EG Manoharan, 51 & Sushama, 48
‘I went to Yemen not because I had a great life there or to strike it rich, but only to survive. If the situation improves, I will go back’
Nine years ago, after spending much of his youth looking for a job in Kerala, E G Manoharan of Kuravilangad village in Kottayam left for Yemen to join his wife Sushama, who had been working as a nurse there. A graduate, Manoharan got a clerical job at a shipping firm in the Yemeni city of Hodeida. “The hospital where my wife worked and the shipping firm were part of the same management. So I got a free visa. But we lived separately — she in the hostel run by the hospital and I in a rented accommodation. It’s only last year that we got a family accommodation,’’ says Manoharan, sitting in his house. “It’s not fully done,” he says, looking around the room somewhat embarrassed.
Manoharan went to Yemen in December 2005, two years after his wife. Manoharan also took with him their three-year-old son Manas.
“But after his Class IV, we decided he would be better off in Kerala and we spent all our money getting him admitted to a prestigious boarding school in Kottayam. Last year, when my wife got a family accommodation, we thought things were finally looking up. We only earned $1,000 a month between us but at least we didn’t have to spend on house rent. But then the war broke out and we had to flee. We don’t know what will happen to our son’s schooling now,” says Manoharan, 51.
He says he tried his best to stay on in Hodeida, but when the clashes neared the city, he thought it was best to flee. “There was a major clash 2 km away from where we lived and around 40 people were killed. That forced us to change our mind.’’
With no TV or newspapers at home, he says his mother Nandini had no clue about the crisis in Yemen and the evacuation of Indians. “So she slept peacefully until we reached here,’’ laughs Manoharan.
Given an option, he says, he would go back to Yemen. “Who will give me a job here at this age? My shipping company colleagues are still in touch with me. I went to Yemen not because I had a great life there or to strike it rich, but only to survive. If the situation improves, I will go back,’’ he says.
He says he has no hopes of his wife Sushama, 48, getting a job in Kerala unless the government intervenes.
He says he has a lot of unfinished tasks — the house, his son’s schooling — but with no earnings, except for the money that comes in from the MNREGA jobs that Manoharan’s mother Nandini finds, he is at a loss.
Then, he shares another of his “dreams”: “In the late ’80s, my father had mortgaged 45 cents of our land to avail a loan of Rs 15,000. I am emotionally attached to the land. It’s where I grew up. But my earnings could never catch up with the soaring land prices, so I had to keep that dream on hold.’’
Now that dream looks more distant than ever before.
Rajee Rajeev, 27
‘Our house has been under repair for the last two years and we have defaulted on our loan. We can be thrown out any day now’
“Every night I hear my daughter cursing her luck,” says Rajeev P N, sitting on a plastic chair outside a shed that’s been their home for the last two years.
His daughter Rajee, who worked as a nurse in Sana’a, had come home on a three-month leave but is now stuck.
“Several Indians, including a few from Kerala, are staying on in Yemen despite the conflict because they have little to fall back on. My visa ended early April and I had to come back to India for three months before I could apply for a visa again. If it wasn’t for the war, I would have returned to Yemen next month. Now, who knows when I can,’’ says Rajee wistfully.
Rajee and her parents have been living in the shed ever since the roof of their house collapsed in the rains. Rajeev had taken a loan of Rs 85,000 from the Coir Board to set up this shed on the understanding that they would use it as a small-scale unit to make coir products. The family had hoped to repay their debts and repair their house with the little money Rajee sent home. “The Coir Board can take action against us any time for living in this shed. I should not have come back from Yemen,’’ says Rajee.
As the conflict intensified, Rajee had to leave behind many of the things she had bought for her family. “We were only allowed to carry 8 kg each. One of my textbooks, which I wanted to bring home, weighed 5 kg. So I had to leave even my clothes behind,’’ she says.
Rajee had studied nursing in Vijayawada on an education loan of Rs 1.25 lakh and worked in the city for three years. She says she has paid Rs 76,000 towards interest on the loan but the principal amount is still outstanding. Two years ago, her parents borrowed Rs 1.20 lakh from local moneylenders to send her to Yemen.
She soon got a job that worked out to Rs 25,000 INR but that was hardly enough to repay the family’s debts. “I went to Yemen as a last resort to save my family. The house has been under construction for the last two years and we have defaulted on our Coir Board loan. We can be thrown out any day,’’ she says.
“If only we had enough money to fix a door to our home, we would have left this shed,” says her father who recently started a small tea shop that earns him about Rs 100 a day.
Rajee’s younger sister Rakhi too is studying nursing in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, after taking an education loan of Rs 2.80 lakh.
“Opportunities for nurses have shrunk. I think I committed a blunder by sending Rakhi for this course,’’ says Rajeev.
He says there have been a few marriage proposals for Rajee, “but they all go back when they get to know that we don’t even have a house. We had pinned our hopes on our daughter but this war has shattered all our dreams.”
Ebin Kurian, 26
‘I haven’t saved anything in the last seven months. If I had continued for a few more months, I could have at least got back a part of the money I spent on the visa’
Last September, Ebin Kurian joined a hospital at Aden in Yemen after several attempts to find a nursing job in Kerala. He says he decided to go to Yemen because visa charges there are among the lowest of all the Gulf countries.
“I paid Rs 4 lakh to an agent for my visa. Any other Gulf country would have cost me more than Rs 10 lakh. I was promised a monthly salary of Rs 50,000, but the actual salary was only Rs 21,000. I am yet to get my last salary. I haven’t saved anything in the last seven months. If I had continued for a few more months, I could have at least got back a part of the money I spent on the visa,’’ says Ebin.
He is the only son of Kurian Joseph, who works for the State Beverages Corporation, and Molly, a homemaker.
Ebin says that when they were leaving, the hospital at Aden tried to keep them back and promised them better salaries. But, he says, he feared for his life and fled.
He says he has realised hospitals don’t want male nurses. “Managements fear male nurses would create trouble for them and seek higher wages, so they don’t want them,’’ says Ebin, adding that he is preparing for examinations conducted by the health ministries of various Gulf countries.