I’ve heard it said before that if you want to know what your calling is, look to the area where you feel the deep pain of injustice in your heart.
Where is your burden? What moves you?
Together as we follow Christ, we are finding a clear picture of what his will is for us—-specifically in the Middle East.
My burden is for those that do not have access to the Good News of Jesus, specifically, South Asian expat laborers in the work camps of the Middle East.
This past week, I had the opportunity to help two of them along in their journey back to India. Both of them had made public professions of their faith in Christ within the last year and were from Hindu backgrounds.
Helping one of them was easy. I just had to pick him up and drive him. I reminded him of the words of Jesus in the Great Commission and dropped him off at the airport.
Helping the other one, though, was hard.
The second individual, which I will call Ram, was in a difficult predicament. We found that he had been sleeping outside for weeks without a roof over his head.
Why, you may ask? It’s not because he had not been able to find a job… He had a job.
His company was what’s generally called a “supply company.” Supply companies act as contractors for construction firms. When labor is needed, they fill the job. Ram is a welder by trade and had worked in Oman before.
Supply companies, though, don’t always have contracts from construction firms. During those times, it’s common practice for them to hold laborers without paying them. Still, the companies don’t want to let the workers go because they will need them if any more contracts come along. Laborers, additionally, usually don’t have their passports. Their companies hold them as collateral to keep them from running off.
After five months of no pay, and no contracts, though, Ram had had enough. He walked some distance on foot to the city’s courts to see if he could open a case against his company and get some compensation and/or get his passport back. After some time, he was able to get his passport back, but none of the wages he should have been payed.
According to the law of this country, when an employee‘s visa is canceled, as long as the employee didn’t break the law, the company is responsible to get them a flight back to their home country.
Ram‘s company had not provided that, so a South Asian minister in the city encouraged that I take Ram to his company‘s office and try to plead his case. In the eyes of this minister, my status as a Westerner might cause them to hasten getting him the ticket.
I got up early one morning, dressed sharply, shaved, tied my tie, and set off to help this unfortunate individual. When we got to the company’s office, we waited some time, and then were able to see the chairman. He asked for my business card. I had nothing to give him. His English wasn’t great, but I asked him to get this guy a flight back to his home country.
“This guy is completely out of our company now. His visa is canceled.”
“Yes, but according to article 131 of the labor code, he has to have a flight back by his employer.”
“No, you don’t get it. We have no responsibility to him.”
“Yes, according to the labor code, you do. And what about the months of pay this man has not received?”
“This man absconded. For months we tried to get in touch with him, but we couldn’t.”
I was dumbstruck for a moment at the bald-faced lie. “We both know that’s not what happened. He was in his room the whole time.”
“No, he absconded. I’m trying to make you understand. His visa is cancelled. Do you really believe what this man is telling you? He ran. And why do you care? Who is this man to you?”
“He’s a friend.”
“A friend… well, this man is off our books. We have no obligation to him.”
The horrifying truth dawned on me that, in the eyes of the courts and the legal system, we did not have a leg to stand on. The courts had already believed this claim of absconding. We had been too late. It felt like a gut punch. I gathered my satchel and said, “Good day.”
I felt that I had stared evil incarnate in the face. Lies and oppression had siphoned out my friend’s usefulness and then kicked him to the curb.
I was not downcast, though. I had learned a little more clearly how the oppressors of this land operate. In the future, it will inform our efforts and help us help the weak and vulnerable more effectively.
Here’s what I understand, roughly. The current state of the economy is that work comes sporadically at best for these companies. They would have to close their doors (and many of them should) if they had to give their employees consistent wages. When they are pressed by their employees, they respond by accusing them of absconding, that is, running off and being absent without leave. The employees, usually men with a low level of education from poor areas of the world, have little with which to fight back.
- They don’t have a great understanding of the legal system.
- Even getting to the courts would take money for a bus or taxi, which they don’t have, because they have not been paid.
- Even if they make it to the courts, the majority of these South Asians laborers do not speak English or Arabic.
Thus, we next went to the immigration office next to get his “absconding” status cleared, but we were not able to enter because it was required for him to have a PCR test to get in. We went and paid for a PCR test and planned to return the next day.
I picked him up the next day between 9 and 9:30 AM. Suresh also jumped in. He was waiting on his Saturday flight which his company did, in fact, provide for him. I’m still not exactly sure why he came, but he did, and he brought along his Hindu friend who was in need of some medical help, although I was not inclined to give it immediately.
So I took the three of them to the government office. I was surprised when Ram came out two minutes after walking in. It seemed that he had to have documentation of a flight back to his own country before they would process his cancellation and clear the charges against him. It struck me as backwards, but I went along. I found a typing center about five minutes’ drive away, and we went there and found that we could get a page printed for only a dirham. Next to it, fortunately, was a small Indian restaurant where we sat, had chai, ate a little paratha, and I searched on the Internet to buy him a flight. I purchased a flight to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, as he had requested, but I didn’t recheck the flight date before I purchased it. It seemed that for some reason in between the Google Flights search engine and Indigo Air, the date got changed to 14 August rather than 31 July. I was very glad that I had purchased the extra ability to change the dates for free, but it was not immediate. Even to this moment, they are still processing the request. Nevertheless, while we waited, we read and listened to Matthew 10. Suresh and Raam seemed really engaged. The Hindu guy, Rajkumar, just listened along. I think he understood some of it. When it became clear that the request would not be processed quickly, I copied and pasted onto a Word document the header of his confirmation with the barcode, but I then pasted the intended flight dates under it and had the typist print that. It was a bending of the rules that I didn’t feel great about, but it got us to the next step.
Then we took Ram back to the government office and sent him in. I think he must’ve been in there for two hours. I said around, emailed, made an itinerary for a visiting local partner, and talked with Suresh and Rajkomar in Hindi. There was also a Punjabi individual I was able to talk with and share the Good News with, as best I could. At about the two hour mark of sitting outside and sweating even in the shade, albeit thankful that it was only in the 90s and not over 100°F, Ram came out and said that the government office required an additional sum of money to be able to process the cancellation. The absurdity was seemingly never ending. Having already invested this much in the man’s freedom, I readily slipped him the cash.
After another 15 or 20 minutes, he was through. On the way back, he kept saying that this is a garbage country and that Oman was better.
The following day, I was able to pick him up along with Suresh and one of his friends. Suresh’s flight was first, so we dropped him off immediately. I took Ram around with me the rest of the evening before I dropped him off for his late night flight. He nodded off to sleep several times in my car. It made me wonder if the air conditioning and the driving was more relaxing to him than being exposed to the elements sleeping under his tree.
We passed the evening with a small group meeting in the desert sands of a different labor camp area. I reconnected with some old friends while enjoying the a cappella singing of Hindi- and Urdu-language worshippers.
Just before midnight, I parked in the short term car park at the airport and walked Ram in, planning to assist him in finding the right counter and making sure he was able to get his luggage checked. I was stopped at the entrance of the airport by security saying that the terminal was at capacity and only passengers were allowed to go inside. Thus, with some anxiety, I left him there and went home.
The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said that he would be able to get on that flight, so I had some measure of peace. The peace was momentarily threatened when I got a missed call from him on WhatsApp right after getting back to my apartment. I tried to call him back multiple times, but I got no answer. For the next 45 minutes, I expected him to call back and tell me that something had come up with his status in the immigration system indicating he couldn’t leave the country. My mind catastrophized. With my phone by my bedside, I drifted into a fitful sleep. About an hour later at 2:30 AM, he responded with a voice message from the airport’s Wi-Fi. I couldn’t perfectly understand his message, but it did seem to indicate that he had been calling about some details regarding his checked bags and what would happen during his Mumbai layover, but he had gotten things worked out. I sent him a thumbs up and finally got to sleep.
Several days later, I received a message from him that he had reached his village and family safely.
I’m particularly burdened for such individuals as Ram, because I know that for every one of them that I come in to contact with, there are 100 others.
I believe you’re feeling the burden as well. At this point, the best we can do is pray, spread the awareness, and believe that God is going to assemble a team of people who can be advocates for those without a voice.