An Unequal Exchange

Education City has an undercity of workers that keep its cogs clean, its chains moving and its grandeur intact and growing.  Construction workers raise new buildings almost overnight in their long half-day shifts.  Security guards silently watch in every building, a seemingly unneeded measure given EC’s perimeter checkpoints.  Cleaning crews wipe down the behemoths that Doha calls buildings, keeping the campus in a pristine state.  While these construction workers, security guards and cleaning crews all have a different function in EC, they all have something in common: they are immigrants.

Of Qatar’s roughly 1.8 million inhabitants, only about a quarter million are citizens, a result of demanding requirements.  The rest, with a few exceptions for expats, are immigrants from the surrounding regions: the Arab states, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal.  Our group has been learning about these migrant workers and the challenges they face.  They are often recruited with false promises - secure, well-paying jobs - only to be met by the harsh reality of Doha.  While not all migrants suffer the same fate, many experience dismal living conditions, delayed or missing pay, restricted movement and absent job mobility.  The other day, our group took an “alternative tour” of Doha, visiting the segregated migrant sector of the city and walking through a factory.  I preferred seeing the city from this perspective because it gave the tremendous growth and wealth of Doha a gritty and truthful context.  Ever since our discussions of migrants workers has begun, it’s been difficult to grapple with learning their struggles on a campus built by their hands but not to their benefit.  While it’s not my place as someone in a state of admitted ignorance of a total picture, my short time in Doha tells me that something must be done.

Despite this, I have to be careful not to disparage these workers’ humanity.  It is so easy to do this, to paint people as victims and not see their resilience and their power. Americans are seeped in our own imaginings of American exceptionalism, but where does our greatness come from?  While credit must be given to our innovative thinkers and leaders, I think sometimes we forget the common hands that gave those innovators a foundation to even jump into the unknown and the difficult in the first place.  Slaves, farmers, factory workers… immigrants.  Americans are so aggressive in our judgement of illegal immigrants, but we owe our greatness to them as well.  In the face of inequality and difficulty, the untold stories are powerful and many.  

Thankfully, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with workers in Doha and add some depth to my understanding beyond their struggle.  Our group has been tutoring some of the cleaners who work on Georgetown’s campus here.  They’re all at very different stages, but we’re trying to teach a little bit of English and computer skills as well as have some conversations about their own lives.

Each tutoring sessions has been a unique experience, but my favorite so far was this past Tuesday.  As a tool to teach the differences between past, present and future tenses, we asked the workers to construct timelines of their lives.  We explored their past - where and when they were born, marriages, children, travel to Doha - but also what they wanted for the future.  I was working with two men, one 38 and the other 25.  Both came from Rapti, a region of Nepal, were married with one son and want to open a business sometime in the future.  The older man wants to open up a restaurant (but not cook - he wants to be the boss!) and the younger one aspires to sell bananas.  Resisting the urge to make an Arrested Development reference, I asked why bananas and we eventually came to the conclusion that it would be a more diverse selection because he loves all kinds of fruit.  At the beginning, the younger man was incredibly quiet but by the end was laughing and more confident in the telling his story.  I joked with both of them that I would come visit Rapti and drop by the restaurant, hoping that the older one was buying fruit from the younger.

For my community advisor interview (got the job!), I did a little research on different conceptions and understandings of community.  One of my favorite was the idea of a community of memory, where a group of people have not only have a shared history, but a shared sense of what they want in the future.  The tutoring session felt like the creation of a community of memory: both men came from a similar background but had plans for improvement in their future.  Although still an outsider, for a moment I felt part of this community of memory as we all had a shared hope for a better tomorrow.

In the end, though, it still felt like an unequal exchange.  Sure, I’m departing a little knowledge of English or how to use a computer but they are giving so much more.  They are raising and then maintaining the buildings in which we learn and making what we do possible.  Perhaps even more powerful, they are giving hope and knowing hope is a tremendous force.  It is only when we know hope that we can attempt to translate it into something more tangible, and I am immensely grateful for all who give me the gift of hope.  My humble goal is to take that hope and try and make the exchange - individually, locally, globally - a little more equal.