Valsala’s Plight: A Haunting Tale Of Isolation & Fear In Lockdown
When this story was filed, Valsala PK, a Keralite domestic worker, had spent 75 days alone in a hotel on Kish, an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf.
She knows neither Persian nor Arabic. She can speak only Malayalam and a little Hindi. So the only five people she has been talking frequently during the last 75 days is to me, Thayyil Habeeb, a Lok Kerala Sabha member in Oman, Saraswathy Manju, a charity worker in Oman, Mini Mohan, a psychologist in Kerala and Manu Mohan, a Keralite working in Kish island.
Habeeb introduced Valsala to me in March the second week over the phone. I got Saraswathy involved in raising money for Valsala’s food and accommodation. Mini took care of helping Valsala to stay strong mentally. And Manu in Kish was meeting Valsala every third day to make her feel that there is somebody for her on the ground.
Manu was introduced to me by one Nishant Jacob in Muscat. Manu is Nishant’s cousin. When I had posted a note about Valsala on Facebook, Nishant came forward and said that Manu, his cousin, is there in Kish and he could help Valsala.
Valsala had gone to Oman to find a domestic worker job on a visit visa. And when she found one, as she had to be on a job visa, she was sent to Kish by her employer. If you are on visit visa and want to get it changed into job visa, you have to exit the country and re-enter on a job visa.
People who have money to spend, fly to Dubai and return to Oman on a job visa. But those look for cheaper options, fly to Kish island.
Valsala was sent to Kish by her employer in Oman. And she had a ticket to return on February 26, a late night flight to Oman.
But as COVID-19 started to take lives in Iran from the second week of February, Oman banned flights to and from Iran on February 27. And eventually, Valsala got stuck on the island, with nowhere to go and nobody to call.
“First few days, my Arabab was able to support me. He was giving me hope that this COVID-19 would end soon and I can come back. But, now, for more than two months I am here. I am getting tired. I am becoming weak. Some days, food is also a problem,” Valsala told me.
It was during the second week of March, that Habeeb called me over the phone and asked if we could do something to help in Valsala’s case.
I called Valsala and heard her story. Valsala was from Kozhikode in Kerala. She had gone to the Gulf to work and look after her family back home. Even though she had not migrated through official channels, she was lucky to find a good employer. But unfortunately, she got stuck in Kish.
When I called her, India had not gone into lockdown. India was operating emergency flights too from Iran. Even during the last week of March, India had brought back students and pilgrims from Tehran.
But as Valsala was in Kish, which is around 1000 km from Teheran, and there were no domestic flights she could not reach Teheran. Moreover, she was confused, as to whether she should go to Oman to work or return to India halfway, giving up the job.
“I presumed that COVID-19 would end soon. But it didn’t. Both in India and Oman, the situation was turning bad. I read WhatsApp forward messages that India is going into lockdown on March 23 and Oman had declared COVID-19 as a community spread. I was losing hope,” Valsala said.
When she called me during the fourth week of March, she was running out of money.
Her Arab employer was also struggling to remit money. He was supporting her for more than one month. He was paying for her hotel stay and also for food. But as his business was down due to lockdown in Oman, he was struggling to raise money and remit it to Valasala.
Valsala told me that she had not had food for two continuous days.
“The hotel manager had gone to some other place. I don’t know the language. The other staff was not clear on money remitted. They said, there was no money, so they can’t give me food. But they were kind enough not to throw me out of the hotel. But they didn’t bother whether I was starving or not,” Valsala said.
I was clueless at that time as to how to help a person in Kish. What I needed was money to support Valsala and somebody who could attend her distress calls. The next thing was to help her to get out of Kish.
This made me seek help from Saraswathy, who has helped several times while I was a reporter in Muscat. Whenever I do stories on workers in distress, Saraswathy and her team would chip in to extend help.
In this case, too, she was ready to raise money. She managed to raise some Rs 15,000 within hours and remit it to Valsala’s hotel account. Meanwhile, Mini started to call Valsala and started to give her mental support.
In between, I started to contact my sources in MEA to get help for Valsala. But efforts did not bring in any positive results.
An official from MEA said that “only after lockdown is lifted, something could be done.”
The same was repeated by MEA officially during the second week of April.
Moving these people will heighten the risk of spreading COVID-19 in the country where they are as well as in India, a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, adding that these “are difficult times”.
Valsala understood the situation. She sent a message thanking us for the money and the food. She would pray for my children, for Saraswathy and Mini, and send us those prayers too, she said.
Meanwhile, my friends are constantly in touch with the Indian embassy in Iran to include her also in the repatriation list. Manu has included Valsala’s name in the list of those who want to go home and had sent it to the Indian embassy too.
Even though she is Hindu, she even started to observe Ramadan fasting to overcome a tough time.
But a woman alone on an unknown island without knowing the language and nobody to speak to can breakdown mentally.
Yesterday again, she broke down.
Early morning at around 5 am, my phone rang. It was 4 am then there. I could only hear her crying.
“Sir, I have not had food for the last two days. Hotel people are not giving me anything as it is Ramadan. I don’t know to go out and buy anything. I heard that a ship is coming from India, please get me on board. I don’t want to die here,” she said.
I told her to be calm. I will arrange food, I said.
I texted Manu in the morning itself. He called me back. He agreed to rush food personally.
He was on duty. But he took a few hours’ break and drove to the hotel where Valsala is staying. He met her and got her food. Valsala sent thank you messages.
More than lack of food, we could understand that what was happening to Valsala is that she was losing hope.
She sent me a video message again pleading with the prime minister and the chief minister of Kerala to rescue her.
Through this report, I hope to awaken the government to the plight of poor migrant workers like Valsala, poor domestic workers.