An agonizing wait for a migrant worker’s final journey home
When the body arrived in a distant country, weeks after the worker’s death, it was almost 9 p.m. and the village was dark.
Since so much time had passed and no one could be sure of the condition of the remains, the family didn’t risk a stop at home. So the truck, quietly followed by a crowd of villagers, drove to the bank of a dry river where men were building a pyre.
There, in the soft moonlight, villagers used tongs and axes to open the coffin of worker Rakesh Kumar Yadav. “Show us his face,” shouted a man. When it was revealed, the worker’s widow, Renu Devi Yadav, struggled to drag her children away and kissed her son on his wet cheek. The flames stood ready in the distance.
In the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal, hundreds of thousands emigrate abroad each year in hopes of building a future out of the country’s deep poverty, a drain so severe that remittances abroad more than make up for it a quarter of the Nepalese economy.
And every year, hundreds of these migrants die — and in an instant, shattering thorny dreams thousands of miles away. Mr Yadav, 40, died while working as a security guard in Dubai. Others work as laborers or drivers in places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. In Qatar, home of the World Cup, migrants from Nepal and elsewhere, mostly from Asia, formed the backbone of years of work to build the world’s greatest football event.
In life, men like these face layers of inequality and vulnerability. It also haunts her on the last trip home. Troubled countries like Nepal have little leverage to expedite the return of bodies that linger in the morgues of wealthy nations. Bereaved families are at the mercy of middlemen, government employees and even harsh mountainous terrain.
The simple desire for a dignified cremation—a speedy completion of the rites shortly after death is central to salvation in Hindu belief—becomes tribulation.
Mr Yadav, whose coffin was delivered to his village in southern Nepal this spring, died three months after arriving in Dubai and before sending any money home.
When his wife asked a recruiter what happened in Dubai, the recruiter gave a simple answer: her husband “couldn’t wake up after sleeping”. The death certificate from the United Arab Emirates attributed his death to “heart and respiratory failure”.
Mr. Yadav had turned to a number of jobs abroad, borrowing thousands of dollars to pay recruiters each time his employment contracts expired, as opportunities at home were extremely limited. The fertile land of his village has shrunk with every flood; the only non-farm job he could find—as a substitute teacher—wasn’t enough to make ends meet.
In search of a better life, the Yadav family lived separately in three places.
When Mr Yadav was toiling abroad, his three teenage children lived in a rented room in the town closest to the village, where they attended a private school. His wife remained the anchor of the family at home: caring for her aging in-laws, negotiating for patience when village creditors knocked and on budget packing vegetables, lentils and rice for the children when they returned home at the weekend came.
Their three little worlds were lonely, connected by the occasional late night video call and a belief that this was a path to stability when the kids graduated and became doctors or engineers.
In the glittering city of Dubai, Mr. Yadav worked as a security guard in a hotel. He sent his family a picture in his new uniform: heels closed as if in military attention, the Fanta bottle from which he drank water visible in the corner of the frame.
During the nightly calls to family, he complained that he wasn’t getting enough shifts to pay off the mounting debt at home.
The last time his son Ram Bikash spoke to Mr Yadav was around midnight on March 9, when his brother and sister were already asleep in the shared room. The video call lasted about 15 minutes.
“He said ‘good night’ to me before hanging up,” said Ram Bikash. “He smiled.”
When Mr. Yadav died the next day, the consequences were felt immediately. What would happen to the children’s education, to their future? Who would pay the tens of thousands of dollars in debt with interest piling up every month?
But before that could be expected, the family had to bring the body home for the last rites.
During the pandemic with flights restricted, families felt happy even if it took months to receive the body of their loved one. Hundreds of others had to resign themselves to the fact that the cremation would take place abroad. Most did not even receive the ashes.
Over a dozen insurance agencies offer migrant worker packages that cover death and injury. Injuries are paid different amounts depending on whether a worker loses a toe, finger, hand or leg. In the event of death, the insurance pays up to $800 in transportation costs, and the family receives a payment of around $10,000.
In the last decade alone, Nepal, a country of 29 million people, has allowed more than four million workers to work abroad – and that doesn’t include millions of others working across the open border with neighboring India.
The Nepalese government has helped bring back about 3,500 bodies over the past five years. Heart problems were the most frequently cited cause of death, followed by other illnesses, traffic and work accidents, and suicide.
When Mr Yadav’s body finally arrived in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, on April 13 – five weeks after his death – the coffin was wheeled out on a stretcher from a side gate of the airport terminal near an entrance for migrant workers.
The coffin was then lifted onto the back of the truck and the driver, Purna Bhadur Lama, tied it with a rope to the left wall of the truck bed. He made the eight-hour drive, winding and relaxing through lush hills, to the family’s village.
Mr Lama had his own migrant story: his most recent sojourn began in 2006 in Qatar, where it lasted only a year and a half.
In his seven years as a coffin deliverer, he transported about 1,500 bodies, he said. He gets about $15 per delivery. Depending on how many bodies arrive, he makes about $230 some months and $270 others. It’s a lonely job, often with just a corpse behind you. Once, at the height of the pandemic, he drove 500 miles on just a jar of ashes.
After Mr. Lama reached the village with Mr. Yadav’s body, Mrs. Yadav cried as she held her wailing younger son and daughter.
After the coffin was opened on the riverbank and Mr. Yadav’s face was revealed, many of the villagers pinched their noses. A woman came in to plant a kiss.
Eventually the women and children began to leave, their wailing disappearing into the village. The men crouched by the pyre and threw whatever wood they could find into the flames, including the coffin lid.
The riverbank was beginning to take on an eerie atmosphere – the sounds of crickets and the soft chatter of men waiting for Mr Yadav’s fire to die out, its flame and crackle a dot in the vast darkness.
Mr. Lama, the truck driver, turned around and started the long drive back to Kathmandu. He had to be back at the airport by 9 a.m. the next morning: another body arrived.
In the months since, the Yadav family’s dreams have evaporated.
Much of the roughly $10,000 they received from insurance went to cover funeral and cremation costs, as well as meals for the guests. Village creditors continue to knock on Ms. Yadav’s door about the $20,000 owed by the family.
She has been unable to pay six months of tuition for her sons, who fear they will not be allowed to sit their final exams if they do not pay the balance.
As so often, the first victim was the daughter Anisha. Ms. Yadav pulled her out of the eighth grade of the private school. She returned to the village to be with her mother and attend public school.
“I dreamed of becoming a doctor. That was dad’s dream too,” said Anisha. “Well, I don’t think my mother will be able to organize money for medical school.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/01/world/asia/nepal-migrant-deaths.html An agonizing wait for a migrant worker’s final journey home