No one likes to leave the land of their ancestors and loved ones for life in distant lands and when people do it there are always strong, compelling reasons for them to do so
By Ozma Siddiqui
Some of my earliest memories of Zanzibar are those of white sandy beaches under serene blue skies and the exotic fragrance of cloves wafting from the numerous plantations known as ‘shambas’.
It was a bitter-sweet childhood: the air laden with the sweet musk of over-ripe bananas, rose-scented ice cubes in frosted glass jars and the sizzling aroma of lamb shashlik (skewered meat) floating in the evening breeze were a delight for the senses.
I still remember the flavor of the sweet bread in the brand new bakery beside the sea and the first time I ever had ‘Chips’. Expatriates lived comfortably with their hosts, mostly Muslims with strong Arab influences. Swahili was the official language.
It was the late 60’s. The legacies of the Nixons, Fords, Nehrus, Yahya Khans and the Karumes still fresh in international political circles.
My father, fresh out of university had landed a teacher’s job in Zanzibar. He took us along with him signifying a turning point in our lives. Then, there were no signs of the trouble brewing deep in the secret recesses of the regime of that pristine island.
And then, in 1964, a year after Britain granted the little island, independence, news came that the Sultan of Zanzibar had been overthrown.
History turned over a page and the paradise that was Zanzibar was annexed by Tanzanian forces. Expatriates were forced to leave while the ruling party fled to safety in little boats.
Our neighbors went their separate ways; my father opted for the copper-rich country of Zambia in central-south Africa and took up a job as a Physics teacher in one of the numerous secondary schools the newly independent government had built across the country. There were migrants here too, from neighboring African countries, in search of better salaries, good working hours and a comfortable lifestyle.
A good 17 years or so later, history turned over another page. Zambia’s flailing economy, dwindling gratuities and the mounting corruption forced immigration again. Apples and chocolates flew off the shelves; the Zambians talked of the wonderful edibles on the president’s (Kenneth Kaunda) table while they wallowed in poverty. This time round our neighbors moved to England and back home to Pakistan, India and other countries. Some came to the Gulf.
Time passed and then marriage, a second turning point in my life, brought me to India and with it, all the problems that are inherent in such cross-border alliances.
Another 20 years or so and history turned over yet another page. We arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as expatriates. Life seemed to have come full circle.
Migration is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, people have been moving across continents seeking warmer climes for their animals; some settling down permanently close to rivers or oases and making a living out of farming.
However, the migrants of today are fleeing their homelands in fear for their lives because of civil wars, bloodshed and widespread insecurity.
I had thought that in the span of 50 years or so, things might have improved. But a recent documentary on Africa shows that if anything, the people are as poor as ever; poverty as rampant in the villages as it has always been; the governments as corrupt and as mindless of their people as always.
Today, the media is full of stories of immigrants from Africa and the Arab lands trying to make it into Europe on precarious barges where loss of life is imminent.
Many of these poor people have put everything at stake to get to the lands of opportunity only to be arrested or then to drown in foreign waters and become a mere statistic.
Yet, this does not deter them from trying and the stories of death, hopelessness and desperation continue to fill the maw of the media.
Those who do make it, often find themselves stranded and destitute in the land of their dreams. Illiterate and with nearly no skills to offer the job market in the country of their choice, they are forced to live on the streets in make-shift shelters and eke out a living from begging or low paid temporary jobs.
It is very easy for such displaced people to turn to a life of crime, thus posing a danger to society. Often they live on the crust of the earth, are marginalized and have no rights in the country they have adopted. Racism is just one of their problems.
Yesterday I went to the Corniche in Jeddah. Gazing into the receding rays of the dying sun reflecting feebly on the darkening waters of the Red Sea, I thought of the poor in their villages, at the doorsteps of their slums, out in the streets, standing at shop windows, peering through car windows, begging at the traffic lights; children who should be in school or at home, selling water bottles and toys they should have been playing with. What happens to them when they grow up?
Nearby, a little girl from Nigeria, Eritrea or Ghana, perhaps, begged for a riyal while an adult looked on from a distance. A couple of paces away, a brother and sister, doll-like, innocence writ large on their bland faces, offered a box of chewing gum and kitchen towels for a pittance.
What long journeys their parents must have made from war-torn Afghanistan and Africa and what succor could Saudi Arabia grant them besides asylum?
With the ongoing crackdown on undocumented workers in the Kingdom, it is the end of the road for thousands of the illegal labor force in the country. No one really knows what the future holds for them.
In my mind’s eye, I see yet another barge struggling in the treacherous waters of the vast oceans carrying its burden of poor, desperate and hapless refugees to an uncertain future in distant lands.
‘Whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.’—The Prelude by William Wordsworth
Note: Zanzibar or Zanjibar in Persian is a combination of ‘zanji’ (black-skinned people) and ‘bar’ (coast)