From my window, I could see the city lights as we made our descent into Doha in January 2016. I marvelled at how they seemed to go on for miles. It was the first time flying out of my country, the first time being so far away. I was both nervous and excited, my mind going into overdrive, thinking about what awaited me outside of this plane.
I remember being engulfed by the cold as we disembarked onto the runway and onto a waiting shuttle, where we stood in close proximity to each other while holding on to the overhead handles and floor to ceiling bars as we were taken to the arrivals section. The driver was steady with the wheel. Inertia was kind to us.
Someone in our group had been given the contact number of the camp boss by our agent, and after getting an Ooredoo line, our arrival was acknowledged and a driver dispatched. We were taken to Barwa Al Baraha, a vast labour camp for male workers from different companies each occupying different blocks, complete with indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, a supermarket, restaurants, money transfer, a clinic, among other things. A model accommodation for workers; this should be the standard for all accommodations, not the exception.
So, we arrive at around 9 pm. The cafeteria is closed, but dinner was packed in advance. After eating, we wait for a couple of minutes, then we are shown to our rooms. Although we are six people in a room, it's spacious. We settle in well and get some rest. In the following days, in addition to getting three meals a day, we each receive an advance of QR 500 and go through orientation and training at the company's headquarters. We also go for our medical examination and fingerprinting. All this takes place in a span of less than a week and then we are shifted to another accommodation, a villa this time, in Al Sakhama. Here, we are given utensil sets as we will be cooking for ourselves. Living arrangements? The five rooms vary in size. I'm in the largest one, ground floor, with seven more people. The smallest room has only two people. Each of the four rooms has a fridge. Ours has two, on account of the spaciousness and occupancy.
Shopping for groceries is convenient, with scheduled trips to the supermarket provided by the company bus.
I learned that not everyone was privileged to timely salaries. Or complete wages. We were the lucky few.
Our assigned location was The Pearl Qatar, a combined retail and residential area, with its fair share of restaurants and coffee shops, a very popular place. I had a little bit of difficulty adjusting because I wasn't used to being around that many people all the time, let alone standing throughout my 12-hour shift (save for when I got my hour-long break). Summer was the worst, standing for long periods of time, alternating between shade and direct sunlight. Those who were lucky enough to work in the retail area and those who had air-conditioned cabins outside were the envy of the rest of us. Winter was unkind too, especially to those working nights. The cold permeates the layers of your warm clothing and takes advantage of the anatomy you leave exposed. Winter in Qatar mocks your efforts to keep warm. That being said, it's all part of the job. Security is a 24/7 gig and that's part of what we signed up for.
We were lucky enough to receive our salaries monthly, on the due date, give or take a day. Our company also leveraged the Ooredoo Money platform, making it efficient to send money home directly from the comfort of your bed, or chair, or pretty much wherever you were when it was credited to your account. If the rates weren't to your liking, you could opt to go to any of the numerous money exchange outlets.
At the time, during interactions with counterparts from other security companies, and a host of other companies, ranging from construction to hospitality, I learned that not everyone was privileged to timely salaries. Or complete wages. We were the lucky few.
Besides the long hours, exposure to the elements and musculoskeletal hazards from standing for long periods of time, which was part of the job, my stint in this first company was pretty good. I got introduced to a new mindset – one of opportunity.
A part of what contributed to this was having a guaranteed steady income, in the safest place I've lived and the ability to afford things I wasn't previously able to – both vain and essential. What this did is foster an abundance mindset. I still worried about food, but instead of worrying about whether I'd have enough to eat, I now worried about what I'd prepare. That was one of the biggest decisions I had to make constantly. "Hmmm, I wonder what I'll eat today..." For a certain period back home, I used to go to bed hungry, mainly because I didn't have enough to eat, or I'd choose to compromise on food to afford other things. But in Qatar, I'd go to bed hungry because I just couldn't decide what to eat. Or I was too lazy to prepare food. That's just the truth.
Being around and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds, who were earning more than me, helped me get perspectives on careers and life in general. I also got to understand how networking can open doors for you.
But the biggest contributor to this mindset was access to high-speed unlimited internet. Even when working 12-hour shifts, one finds himself/herself with a lot of time. And the internet is where I spent most of my time, as does pretty much everyone else here. (Fun fact: when you look at the percentage of internet users against the total population of a country, Qatar, at 95%, beats China. And India. And the USA. And 10 more countries at the time of writing.)
I had dreams of being self-employed, though it took me a while to figure out what exactly I wanted. I had been saving up for a year and a half, and I went online to see what business I could set up. Or what course I could take to increase my value, get paid more, save more, then set up a bigger business. Through this research, comprising of articles and YouTube videos, I came across a number of TED Talks and similar content which introduced me to the dynamics of humanitarian efforts. The hunger issue, in particular, captured my attention. One video led to another and I found myself engrossed in sustainable agriculture, with the intention of setting up an organisation to alleviate hunger within my region.
I settled on greenhouse farming, and with just a couple of months left on my contract, compelled by an intense calling, AND motivational YouTube videos telling me to quit my job and chase my dreams, I did just that.
I had everything mapped out. The one thing I didn't account for, was human nature. Long story short, my dream was shot down by one man's greed. And I tried to revive it for the better part of a year, failing each time.
Human Resources pulled a fast one on us and we now had to make do with a starting salary of QR1250 for 12 hours, 26 days a month ... you would be paid QR75 for each off-day you worked, bringing the total to QR1550.
A year later, with my savings depleted, no capital to revive my dream, and in debt, I was quickly running out options, but as a last resort, I had one play left: the Gulf, again. I originally didn't want to come back, but I didn't know how else to earn money, other than working security.
I started going through Facebook posts of the well-known recruitment agencies.
I originally wanted to work in the UAE, as I heard things were better there. From the pay to living conditions and opportunities for career advancement. The UAE jobs, however, weren't as plentiful as the Qatar and Saudi Arabia jobs. With my current situation, the luxury of waiting for a better deal wasn't feasible, and so I took the first reasonable thing that popped up. QR1500 for 12 hours, 6 days a week. An unofficial industry standard for security guards. Some companies pay higher. Way more pay lower.
During the briefing, instead of the QR1500 as advertised, Human Resources pulled a fast one on us and we now had to make do with a starting salary of QR1250 for 12 hours, 26 days a month. Overtime wasn't guaranteed, but you would be paid QR75 for each off-day you worked, bringing the total to QR1550 if you worked 30 days, essentially the whole month, without taking an off. They said they would be "reviewing our performance" every six months and adjusting our pay accordingly, with guaranteed promotions for those who exhibited potential. And if for some reason, you didn't manage to get a promotion or a bump in your pay during your two year period, you would receive a QR250 "senior guard allowance" upon renewal of your contract. Also, your deployment would be based on your performance during the training and subsequent assessments. For example, if you did well during these assessments, you would get to work in hotels, residential properties and at the airport, and these would come with extra allowances of up to QR150.
When they sold it to us like that, it was much easier to buy. The reduction of the advertised salary seemed justified. And with that, I put my best foot forward in the interview, leveraging my previous work experience. I was so confident I managed to negotiate with them to recommend me for a supervisory promotion if the vacancy arose.
With the interviews done, contracts signed and recruitment fees paid, we counted down the days to the flight, in anticipation of financial stability and the promise of a bright future.
...we arrived at this unsightly accommodation, with trailers, buses and other seemingly unroadworthy vehicles parked on either side of the dusty, filthy street.
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Everything went downhill as soon as we landed, at approximately 11.30 pm. This was September 2018. We had been told to look out for someone carrying a sign with our company name at the arrivals. We saw no such thing. I was the one who noticed our company's name and logo on a security guard and approached him, telling him we were joining the company and there was no one to receive us. He told us to have a seat while he looked for his superior, who, when he showed up, told us to stay put. As it turned out, there wasn't any dedicated transport for us and we had to hitch a ride with the outgoing shift when their bus came for them several hours after we arrived. And by bus I mean the big white ones; the monstrosities used to ferry manpower to and from construction sites. With great difficulty, we managed to haul our luggage onto the bus, and off we went.
As we left the airport and joined the highway, I couldn't wait to get some sleep, and by the look of things, we were headed for Barwa Al Baraha. Imagine my bewilderment when the bus flew past the exit it was supposed to take. While still processing that, the monstrosity rolled on for a while, then took an exit, this one leading towards the Industrial Area. A couple more turns and we arrived at this unsightly accommodation, with trailers, buses and other seemingly unroadworthy vehicles parked on either side of the dusty, filthy street. I've been here before. But last time, during my stint with the other company, I was on the other side of a screen, in disbelief, as I watched international media document these conditions. Dread wasted no time accosting me.
In a poorly lit room, adjacent to his office, the camp boss, after addressing us, relieved us of our passports for "safekeeping" purposes, took our names and then had us ferried to another camp 10 minutes away, as ghastly as the first. I can't remember what time it was. Definitely an ungodly hour, 3 am or thereabouts. Without even so much as a glass of water, we were shown to our respective rooms. I unwillingly climbed onto the top bunk I had made rather haphazardly, and as I lay there, thirsty, fatigued, my stomach desolate, I wondered, "What have I gotten myself into?"
Woke up the next morning with a splitting headache, mouth dryer than the Sahara, but I wasn't hungry. I had been in that situation lots of times before - going to bed hungry – and I had built up a sort of resistance if I do say so myself. We were supposed to be given an advance of QR200 upon arrival, but that didn't happen until a couple of days later. We survived on the generosity of concerned colleagues, who shared their food with us at times or lent us their utensils and ingredients to prepare food for ourselves while they were at work. This went on for some days, and when we finally received the food allowance, we were notified that we would have to survive with that QR200 for the whole of the coming month, as payday was a couple of days away and as we hadn't yet been deployed, we weren't going to get paid anything. Interesting logic. Needless to say, there was too much month at the end of the money. Oh, and also, that QR200 was deducted from the salary we received the following month.
In the middle of all this, we attended a five-day security basics training and did various assessments. Remember those which were supposed to determine your deployment location? Yeah, that was a tall tale. Since then I have worked in multiple locations within five different industries and moved six times. Moving was the worst. There wasn't any dedicated moving transport. We were required to shove everything into the same bus or minivan we were travelling in: mattresses, suitcases, beddings, pillows, kitchenware in plastic crates and plastic bags containing who-knows-what. It was a mess, and from my vantage point somewhere near the back, it always seemed like we were heading for a landfill.
Transport heading to and from work wasn't any more efficient. In some cases, a single vehicle would ply a particular route, dropping and picking people from different locations and sites. This compounded the commute time, resulting in fatigue when adding the 12-hour duty.
Accommodation generally has not been the best. I touched on that in my other articles. The only good place we lived was at Barwa Al Baraha, albeit temporarily when we were subcontracted to work on the Qatar Rail Project. If it was up to our company we would have been 10 people in a room, instead of 4, as the client requested.
All those inconveniences, however, seem to become irrelevant on payday. Our company, like my previous one, pays monthly. We are fortunate enough to enjoy this, as other people aren't as lucky.
Yet another month endured, as a message from the bank confirms payment of wages. Some draw closer to the things they're running to. Others, further from the things they're running from.
Each of us trying to make the best of what we got ourselves into.
Photo Credit: David McKelvey