Arif in Dhaka

Arif loves the ringtones on his Nokia. One of the first things he asked me when we met was if I could transfer some fancy ringtones from my Motorolla RAZR to his phone. Sadly I couldn’t. Not only was it not technically feasible but he did not have a sim at the time. His Nokia is his pride and joy. He purchased it in Jordan. It is the only good memory he holds of Jordan despite the trouble he got into with it. The other recollections are of beatings and jail.

Arif originally had his sights on Brunei. The dalal (in this case, the sub-contractor of the labour contractor for a Brunei company) took one and a half-lakhs (a bit over a thousand pounds) from him and his passport. Arif rang him regularly to find out the progress of his visa and job application. Weeks and months passed. There was little progress, and then the dalal disappeared. Calls to his mobile went unanswered. There was no trace of him.

Arif’s brothers were working as labourers in Malaysia when they learnt of this mishap. They promised to put together the funds for Arif to try again. This time things worked out, and Arif and another worker were headed for Amman, the Jordanian capital. Well, things only worked out partially….once the two arrived in Amman, their local sponsor was nowhere to be seen. The jobs the two had been promised were no longer available. They ended up in a biscuit factory working illegally. Seven months of ill-paid work, long hours, bad living quarters and withheld wages indicated to the two friends that they should get out. Thankfully their passports were with their Bangladeshi contractor, and they felt able to leave the factory.

Like many others working in the QIZs (Qualified Industrial Zones) in Jordan, they left to find work as domestic servants. Arif found work with some students sharing a flat. He would cook and clean for them - tasks he had learnt well when he worked for a Bangladesh ex-pat family in Dhaka. The students treated him well and he had no complaints save that he did not like boiling goats with their heads on. However he had a constant fear. A fear of the police catching him. And sure enough a few months after starting the job he was picked up by the police whilst waiting for a bus.

Instead of a bus ride, Arif embarked on a journey that would break most of us. For Arif, it broke his notion and understanding of islamic community and brotherhood. At the police station they wanted to know where his passport was. This was a difficult one for Arif. If he was to tell the truth, then his mate would be caught too. He told the police that the person with the passport would be returning to Amman in two days. That, he calculated, should be sufficient time for his mate to organise something without getting caught. His instinct was correct. But during those two days the cost of this loyalty was very unpleasant. Arif was shunted around various police stations, and he was beaten over and over.

Al Sahab police station is the one which is feared. The Bangladeshis get a particularly hard time there according to Arif. More so than the Palestinians and Mysorees. Indeed over the next three weeks he would see many police stations - Al Jaharan, Al Rashid etc - but none would compare with Al Sahab for the arbitrary violence that goes on there. They would warn him that if he returned to Al Sahab things would get worse. In what seemed like a charade to Arif, he was deliberately and maliciously sent back to Al Sahab several times by staff at other stations who seemed to know what would be in store. And each time he would be repeatedly slapped, kicked and punched and told things would get worse if he returned (as if it was his choice). Still he didn’t get the worst of it apparently. If you are one of those trying to go to Lebanon or Greece or Turkey then the beatings were amplified. In the eyes of the police, his was a minor crime compared to those trying to get out of the country.

Once the passport was retrieved, Arif’s next problem was that he did not have a Kofil ( a malik or employer ) with the proper papers. Matters moved swiftly. Arif never saw a court. He was never offered a chance to make a phone call ( all his phone calls to retrieve the passport were on his beloved mobile and at his cost). He was not given any idea of consular representation or assistance. Instead, he found himself being transported to Al Joeda jail. He was initially thankful that the van was not proceeding towards Al Sahab. However within fifteen minutes of his arrival he was beaten until he experienced a panic attack or passed out. He does not remember. New prisoners are made to don the unwashed clothes left behind by released prisoners. Arif did so but no one asked him if he had a phone. He kept it with him. In the next chamber they found out. And they beat him without mercy. He kept crying out “Ana mafi malum” - I didn’t know. But that didn’t save him. He remembers someone restraining the guard and then waking up some time later in a crowded cell.

In the month he spent at Al Joeda before he was summarily deported he noted a distinct pecking order amongst the inmates. Needless to say the Bangladeshis were at the bottom of the pile in terms of food and other privileges. Arif’s sense of outrage is evident only at this point of our chat. He asks - “Amra shobai musulman na? Amra shoman na? Ami arab deshe kono din jabo na” (Are we not all muslims? Are we not equal? I will never go to an Arab country again). And that was it. He returned to his smiling, mild self. I asked whether he tried to seek help from the Bangladesh mission in Jordan. His answer was illuminating and not surprising. All the other bangladeshi inmates told him that “they don’t do anything.” In the cases they know where someone tried to get assistance, the mission staff never turned up. The prisoner would be transported with hands tied behind his back to the courthouse early in the morning and then after a long wait, with no mission staff pitching up, they would be returned to jail. And that didn’t do any favours for anyone.

I asked him what his plans were. He wants to give a few days to Tabliq to thank allah for his safe return. He then wants to try to get into the construction industry in Europe somewhere. He has had talks with a dalal - a dalal known by members of his family and village. These informal checks are the only ones he is able to make of a contractor business worth billions of dollars. His ex-pat former employer feels sorry for Arif, and has agreed to stump up the fees. He finds the thought of Arif working in some construction site in Europe far from home enormously bleak but it is a “way out” for Arif, and his need to support his family and elderly parents.

If you wish to read more about rights for workers in Jordan, download this pdf file: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Jordan. A Report by the Solidarity Center, Washington, DC.