Nepalis leaving cool of Himalayas to build soccer stadiums in far-off Qatar

Most people live on less than two dollars a day and many work abroad in Gulf

The Khalifa Stadium in Doha which is  preparing to host some of the matches for the 2022 World Cup. In the summer, in Qatar, it can be 40 degrees for days on end. Death rates among Nepalis working in the Gulf are high. Photograph:   Getty Images

The Khalifa Stadium in Doha which is preparing to host some of the matches for the 2022 World Cup. In the summer, in Qatar, it can be 40 degrees for days on end. Death rates among Nepalis working in the Gulf are high. Photograph: Getty Images

 

At first glance, the village of Dhaitar, about three hours by bus along a potholed road from Kathmandu, the capital of this impoverished, mountainous country, looks idyllic.

Women gather at the village well, their talk and laughter punctuated by the sound of washed clothes being slapped on stones. An elderly man with a child on his shoulders wanders through the bright green rice paddy. In the distance the snow-capped Himalayas are etched against a cobalt blue sky.

“Do you see what you don’t see?” says Sabin, a wiry looking 25-year-old back on a brief visit to his village from his job, building football stadiums in far-away Qatar. “There are no young men – they are all working and saving their money abroad. There are so many wives without husbands, children without fathers.”

Most people in Nepal live on less than two dollars a day. Over the past 20 years more than 3½ million Nepalis – well over 10 per cent of the population – have left to work overseas, mostly in Malaysia or in the Gulf states.

In April and May this year a series of powerful earthquakes hit Nepal, causing more than 9,500 deaths and destroying hundreds of thousands of houses. Winter has arrived and many, particularly in villages like Dhaitar, are still living in corrugated iron shelters.

“I saved up for three years abroad to build my house and then it was destroyed in the earthquake” says Sabin. “If I stay, where will the money come from to rebuild? But if I go, there is no one to do the heavy work, no one to put in the electrics, no one to do the pipes – and my wife and child will be spending the winter in a hut.”

Resilient people

Most, like Sabin, come from mountain villages where the air is clear and temperatures are moderate. In the summer, in countries like Qatar, it can be 40 degrees for days on end. Death rates among Nepalis working in the Gulf are high.

“Some die because it’s too hot,” says Sabin “But others die from the cold: after hours working in the heat labourers take a break and go into an air conditioned place. Some fall asleep and never wake up. We call it the killing room.”

Gulf states

A friend, also back for a visit, joins in the conversation and talks of other aspects of life as a labourer in Qatar.

Controversially the small, oil-rich state has been awarded the football World Cup in 2022. The country is trying to build up enthusiasm for the sport, but few Qataris seem interested in attending matches.

“Sometimes we earn a little bit of extra money when the football clubs pay us to go to matches and pretend to support one team or another,” says the friend. “Most of the time I don’t know what’s going on.”

Sabin points to a pile of rubble that was, until the earthquake, his house. The shelter where his family and his wife’s parents now live is dark and musty. Goats wander in and out. A large flat-screen TV, a gift purchased in Qatar, is propped against a wall, unconnected to a power supply.

It is time for Sabin and his friend to leave; bus services are infrequent these days. After a 10-year long, bloody civil war, a new constitution was promulgated recently. People living in the south of Nepal, along the border with India, say the constitution discriminates against them and have mounted a blockade.

As a result there’s a chronic shortage of vital supplies of fuel, medicines and other imported goods. Many in Kathmandu accuse big brother India of bullying tactics and of orchestrating political unrest.

The evening light is turning the Himalayan peaks a light pink. The bus honks its horn. Sabin and his friend climb aboard, leaving their mountains and rice paddies behind – to return to build football stadiums in the heat of the faraway desert.

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