Qatar: Home Away From Home

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I first came to Qatar in 1994. I was just four years old but I vividly remember when we first came here. Like many expatriates here, my father came to Qatar from Sudan under a two-year contract to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and brought my mother, three siblings and I along with him. Twenty-five years later, we’re still here.

Qatar is home to 2.57 mn people of which at least 70% are expatriates. Thousands of these expatriates have lived in the country for a decade or more, bringing their families, while others have found and created families during their time here.

It’s common to find expatriates who’ve lived in Qatar for 20 years or more. But it’s quite rare to find expatriates who’ve been here for more than 50 years. Sayed Abdul Qayyum, a 76-year-old Indian freight expert, first came to Qatar from India by sea in 1963 when he was about 17 years old. ‘I came by ship. Actually, there was only one ship coming here. At that time, there was a new vessel. I travelled for seven days from Bombay to Doha. We docked at Mesaieed. I enjoyed the sea travel. It was like Titanic,’ he said. Abdul Qayyum came to Qatar looking for a better life. ‘I came from poverty. I belong to a very poor family and my parents were highly qualified religious people. For school, we had to walk for miles. We’re a big family so we came here to earn. My uncle was here before and he brought me here. I came with nil and now I have quite enough, al hamdellah,’ he explained.

Having arrived here in the 1960s before Qatar’s independence in 1971, Abdul Qayyum’s documents had to go through the British Political Agency. ‘We used to get salaries in hundreds not thousands at that time. And the currency was Indian so in rupees,’ he said.

He first began working with Qatar International Travel, later known as Doha International Airport. He was the youngest employee and quickly picked up the English and Arabic languages. ‘Every moment, I enjoyed. I had a lot of friends. Everyone was friendly and knew each other very well. I was very popular at the airport. Those times, we never had schools here so all the parents used to send their children back home and keep them at hostels. In holidays, they used to come here. Their parents used to ask me to take care of their children so I used to go there and receive them, free of charge. I used to help with immigration and excess baggage,’ he said.

In addition, during his time at the airport, he met the late American boxer Muhammad Ali, American actor Marlon Brando, Lebanese singer Fairuz, Indian actor Dilip Kumar, Pakistani playback singer Noor Jehan, and many other celebrities and political figures.

However, along with the positive memories, Abdul Qayyum witnessed a horrific, deadly plane crash in the late 1970s. ‘I was on night duty there at the airport so I was waiting for the aircraft to land and the aircraft crashed right in front of my eyes. I don’t think there were any survivors. It was a very thundery, stormy night. I went running towards the crash. I was alone there at night. I thought I could maybe save somebody but the police stopped me and didn’t allow me to go.’

Abdul Qayyum worked at the airport until 1980, when he decided to establish his own freight company, Delma Freight Services, one of the first freight services company in Qatar. ‘I was the first freight forwarder, officially, in Qatar. I went to Bahrain and saw a lot of freight forwarder offices on the roadside but never saw one in Qatar so I took that image and established one myself independently,’ he said. ‘At the time, there was only Gulf Agency Company (GAC) Qatar, and Sealine Cargo and Transportation WLL and they were doing sea freight not air freight.’ He currently runs Laser Freight Services WLL in Old Airport, which he established in 1993.

Throughout his career in freight services, Abdul Qayyum had the opportunity to serve and work with the government, royal family and other VIP personalities. In addition, he traveled across the GCC, Europe and to China.

Despite the blockade, Abdul Qayyum says that his business and the freight industry, in general, remains unaffected. ‘Qatar is very smart. Immediately, we had other options. They are smart. We are also smart. We know how to succeed. In fact, now we have more business than before. We are doing more work. It’s not a loss. The only thing is the routing, flying has been disturbed, taking extra rounds and dealing with delays. We have to go through other countries. Before, we used to send direct. But that brings more revenue, work and profit. They think by blocking us, we are stuck. No, we have many other ways. It’s a political situation, but practically, we are benefiting,’ he explained.

Reflecting on life in Qatar, Abdul Qayyum said there was only one road from Mesaieed to Doha, adding that the road ended at Al Bidda. ‘It used to take one or two hours to reach Doha from Mesaieed,’ he said. So what did people do at that time when malls, cinemas and much of today’s entertainment and leisure destinations did not exist? ‘We used to have picnics and small private parties. We used to go to Zubara, fishing in Al Khor, spend the weekends there with tents, camp, catch fish and eat,’ said Abdul Qayyum. ‘We had a beautiful life although it wasn’t the big city it is today.’

Indians make up the largest expat population in Qatar with at least 700,000 currently living in the country. When Abdul Qayyum first arrived in Qatar, he estimates there were only 5,000 Indians.
‘The old Indian community was like one family. Every week, we used to have parties and outings. Then the country started developing and expanding, and more manpower started to come, not only from India but from other countries as well. That’s how it started building up. I saw the progress. It’s a beautiful progress,’ he explained. Abdul Qayyum was one of the founding members of Ideal Indian School (IIS), which was founded in 1985.

In September 2018, The Amir, HH Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani signed a decree permitting 100 expats a year to receive permanent residency. The status allows expat access to Qatar’s efficient healthcare system as well as granting commercial rights normally reserved for Qatari citizens. Abdul Qayyum is yet to apply for permanent residency. ‘I did not try yet. I want and need it,’ he said, adding that he does not plan to return to India.

Abdul Qayyum married in 1975 in India and brought his wife to Qatar. Three of his four children were born in Qatar. They are now all married and reside in Qatar with their children. In addition, he has brothers who have lived in Qatar as long as he has. ‘We never felt, for once, as outsiders. They made us feel like this is our country. I always respect the laws of this country and think of it as my country more than its their country,’ he said.

‘I still love this country. I don’t want to leave from here. When I die, I want to die here, not in my country. That’s how much I’m in love with this country.’

‘I still love this country. I don’t want to leave from here. When I die, I want to die here, not in my country. That’s how much I’m in love with this country…The advantages are plenty. And very importantly, although I come from a Muslim background, I learned about Islam here and I’m still learning,’ he added.

Every year on Qatar National Day, Abdul Qayyum closes Laser Freight Services and takes his family out to celebrate on the Doha Corniche and Katara Cultural Village. As 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™ fast approaches, Abdul Qayyum says, ‘I would love to be there. I want to be there.’

Emily Debra Snelling is a 28-year-old British entrepreneur who has called Qatar home for approximately 20 years. ‘I was in and out of Doha for 20 years. I went to Australia and Dubai but I always came back. I felt like it was home. It’s easy and very functional. People are always here to help you. It’s a good system.’

Her father, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, first came to Qatar in 1999 to work with Dolphin Energy and her mother, who now lives in the UK, ran her own real estate business.

‘I didn’t like it all because I didn’t know what an abayawas or the Arabic language. I didn’t understand why everything was so segregated because 20 years ago nothing was mixed. There were no malls, nothing for my age group. Just compounds and clubhouses. It was really a culture shock. I really didn’t know how to deal with it. And then I got more and more into the Qatari culture by speaking Arabic and having Qatari friends,’ said Snelling about her first years in Qatar. ‘After time went by, I was loving the Arabic mentally, the people, the gatherings and I kind of just fell right into it. It felt really comfortable for me,’ she added. She now speaks Arabic fluently, which she learnt from her Arabic friends and TV shows.

Snelling studied at Doha College and graduated in 2006. In 2011, she and her family moved to Australia. ‘My dad was made redundant here in 2013. So he thought about going to Australia because it was a good opportunity at that time. It was peak season when construction and things were really high so my dad got a nice job there and I studied and opened my own business. I had a salon there,’ she said.

But then it was time for Snelling and her family to leave again. ‘Then it was either I stay there because my dad was moving back to Dubai because he missed the Arabic lifestyle because he’s been here for 21–22 years. So he went back to Dubai and I made a choice – do I get married and stay in Qatar or do I go to Dubai? Because I class this as my home, I came back and started from scratch with my husband,’ she explained.

While studying anatomy and physiology in Australia, Snelling was falling in love with Mohammed Abdulatif, a young Sudanese bodybuilder who lived in Qatar. Snelling moved back to Qatar in 2014 and they married straight away. ‘I felt like I was freer in terms of being who I wanted to be and who I wanted to be was to have a really structured lifestyle between the Arabs and the Europeans…When I got married, I could do both so I liked that,’ she explained.

Her parents did not approve of the intercultural marriage at first. ‘My husband was Sudanese and I’m British. It was A to Z in difference so my parents found it difficult to accept,’ she explained. But soon after, her parents accepted their relationship especially after the couple had their now three-year-old daughter, Ava Mohammed.

Prior to her marriage, Snelling converted to Islam in 2013. ‘I’ve always really been interested in Islam as a religion. My friends were Muslim growing up in Doha College and in various different parts of my life. I was so intrigued by why everyone was so happy at the time and don’t worry about things. They kind of leave it in the hands of Allah…So I did my research and went to Fanar [Abdullah Bin Zaid Al Mahmoud Islamic Cultural Center] and I became Muslim after six months of going there. I studied it and everything. It’s the best thing I’ve ever did. If I hadn’t become a Muslim, I feel like the situation I’m currently going through wouldn’t be as easy. I feel like I have someone who is looking after me throughout my life,’ she said.

Even then, her parents found it difficult to support her decision to convert to Islam. ‘They believed in their head that your husband is forcing you to be Muslim to get married. And that wasn’t the case because I was Muslim before I got married and it was my choice. And now my husband is not around anymore, and I’m still a Muslim therefore I proved everyone wrong,’ she explained.

In July 2018, Snelling’s husband tragically passed away. ‘That was the downwards spiral for me in terms of trying to keep Doha as my home. Because as a single mum, it’s quite expensive but you can make it. This community and people help you a lot. A lot of people reached out to me, I had lots of opportunities,’ she said. ‘It’s been hard but I’ve survived.’

With her husband passing, Snelling is unsure how long she will be able to stay in Qatar. ‘The only reason why I’m thinking about leaving is because of my daughter’s education. It’s great here but it’s expensive for a single mum. At home, it’s free. Obviously, it’s a culture shock for me to go back because I’ve been here for so long but then I have to consider her education,’ she explained. ‘I would love to be here in 2022 but it really depends on Ava’s schooling. This is my only restriction in everything that I’m doing.’

‘I class this as home. I feel like when I leave here, I’m going on vacation to the UK. This is my home.’

Like Abdul Qayyum, Snelling is yet to apply for permanent residency but is considering it. ‘I class this as home. I feel like when I leave here, I’m going on vacation to the UK. This is my home. I’m still here. I don’t have anyone with me, only my daughter and I’m still here,’ she said.

Reflecting on her life in Qatar, Snelling says there were many challenges. ‘They were good and bad. The challenges I had were obviously not understanding Arabic and that’s why I learned Arabic because I wanted to be involved. Also, sponsorship issues from my dad to my husband. They were very difficult. Also, jobs! You have to get everything attested. Everything has to go through a system, which is difficult. But I guess now they’re improving on this like [doing away with] NOCs and things like that. They’re taking people into account and they’re trying to improve and make it easy for us to switch jobs and things like that. So I guess it’s something that’s going to progress,’ says Snelling, who currently dabbles between the beauty and education fields. She’s a shareholder in a salon and runs a nursery as well.

One thing she says you can find in Qatar and nowhere else is, ‘The way that they respect women. They have so many forums that stand up for women’s rights. There are so many opportunities that are free of charge…I just feel like it’s so positive in terms of trying to make things better for Qatar.’

Emad Abdullah Ali first came to Qatar in 1994 from Egypt at the age of 23. Having just completed his military training, he came to Qatar to join his parents who were already in the country since the early 1970s. ‘We used to sleep early. At 9:30 pm, nobody was on the street. There were a few cars at the roundabout,’ he said about his observations when he first arrived here. ‘There was no traffic, and only two or three malls and hotels.’ He was taken aback by Qatar’s hot and humid weather but also by its cleanliness and quietness, at the time. ‘Egypt is the complete opposite,’ he said. Egyptians make up the largest Arab population in Qatar with at least 200,000 calling it home.

‘In the last 10 years, the changes have been major in infrastructure, architecture, and business and economy. And, there are a lot more malls. There are so many malls now,’ he said.

Since moving to Qatar, Ali has been working as a government liaison officer or mandoobat Dana Public Relations, witnessing vast changes in the country’s laws and policies. ‘It has changed a lot. A lot of things can now be done online. I used to struggle before, having to wake up early, go to the ministry and stand in lines. But now, 80% – 90% of the things are online. It’s very easy now,’ he said.

Until recently, his wife and children used to live with him. Due to the high cost of living and financial conditions, they returned to Egypt in 2017 and so did his father who has lived in Qatar for approximately 42 years. ‘The children grew up and schools are expensive,’ explained Ali, adding that’s why it was best they return to Egypt. ‘I have three children, one boy and two girls. One of the girls was born in Qatar. They love Qatar. Until today, they are struggling to adjust [being away from Qatar]. They need two more years. It’s getting easier with their friends there, school and having family. But they had to go back,’ he said. ‘Life in Qatar used to be very afforable.’

Although having lived in Qatar for 25 years, Ali does not have the intention of applying for permanent residency. ‘My residency permit always gets renewed and that’s it. In the end, a person has his country. If he dies, he will be buried in his country,’ he said. ‘Life has changed. Maybe if my family was with me, I would have thought about staying permanently. Now they’re in Egypt. I hope I complete my time here well and go back,’ he added.

Although he is considering leaving in 2020, Ali hopes to continue living in Qatar until 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™, which is when he would complete 27 years in Qatar.

Reflecting on life in Qatar, Ali said, ‘It’s difficult being away from your home country – especially if you love it – and your family and friends. You miss out on a lot. You hear, ‘Hello. Your uncle died. Hello. Your aunt died.’ That’s enough. And then a new generation arises. When I go back, I may recognise my cousins but I won’t recognise their children…that’s upsetting, being in the diaspora, away from your family and country, no matter how much you make.

‘I learned a lot from being here. Even though being away from my country is difficult, I still love this country.’

‘I learned a lot from being here – languages and cultures of the people you deal with day to day. Being in the diaspora teaches you patience and sacrifice for the sake of my family. I learned a lot from being here. Even though being away from is diffcult, I still love this country,’ he added.

This feature is an editorial from the ‘Education’ section in the latest issue of Marhaba – Issue 75, which comes out in August 2019.

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