Written by Tara Scaglione
Thapa has missed so many moments, so many birthdays and anniversaries and milestones - his daughter has become a woman in his absence, his son a man. He spends any given Nepali festival alone in his room.
His hands tremble slightly as he takes the photos – photos of a family he hasn’t seen in nearly eight years. For a few moments he is oblivious to the conversation, staring intently at each photo as though he is trying to memorize them. The smiling faces of his wife Uma, daughter Prava, and son Promod stare back at him.
“They are so big,” Ratna Thapa says, noting how much his children have grown.
I feel a twinge of guilt, as I’ve done something Thapa’s only dreamed of these past eight years – I’ve seen his family. I first heard of Thapa last May, while I was in Nepal for an internship. I was sitting in a cramped plywood telephone booth in the intense pre-monsoon heat, sweat beading on my forehead, talking to my father. My father lives in Kelowna and often goes to Kamloops for work, usually staying the night at Maverick Motor Inn, which is where he befriended Thapa, who works in the Maverick’s attached restaurant. My father recalls that “He looked like he needed a friend.” Now, whether or not he’s staying at the hotel, he makes a point to stop and see Thapa, who is always happy to see him, and insists on cooking him a meal. My father calls Thapa “the best cook in the world… besides me.”
photos: Tara Scaglione
When my father told Thapa that I was in Nepal, Thapa insisted that I visit his family.
Thinking it strange that a man I had never met would want me to visit his family, I made my way through the streets of Kathmandu, filled with stray cows and dogs, whole families perched precariously atop tiny motorcycles, vendors calling out their wares, and porters with heads bowed under the weight of their loads, to meet Thapa’s family. His wife Uma met me at a market nearby and brought me to her home, a few rented rooms in a larger building. Once there I was surprised by the hospitality they bestowed on a virtual stranger. Uma served me Tang (which is quite popular in Nepal) and a plate of fruit, and asked if I needed a place to stay while I was in Nepal. It was a generous offer, as living accommodations are quite small – many of the families I visited live in a single room which is used simultaneously as bedroom, kitchen, and living room – and Uma was no exception, living with her two children and her brother in a three-room unit.
Uma humoured my attempts at making conversation in Nepali, but we relied mostly on her 17-year old daughter, Prava, to translate. Prava treated me like a long-lost friend, sitting next to me on the bed (there were no chairs), and asking me about my life in Canada and what I thought about Nepal. She told me about her school (she’s in her second-last year of nursing school) and showed me photos of her and her friends. She asked many questions about her father – after eight years there’s bound to be questions.
Her younger brother is 15 years old, which means that Thapa has been away for over half of his son’s life. Promod is shy and soft-spoken. When he was a young child, he came down with a fever and afterwards had slurred speech and difficulty walking. Quality medical care is very difficult for the average Nepali to afford, and to this day, his parents don’t know the cause of his continued disability. Apart from that, he is a typical Nepali teenager, as was evident by the pictures of Avril Lavigne on the walls.
Needless to say, I visited the family many more times during my stay in Nepal and slowly began to understand the toll it takes on a family when someone is absent. Because of the money Thapa sends home each month from Kamloops, both of Thapa’s children are in school – a real privilege in Nepal – and the family has certain luxuries, such as the three-room apartment, complete with running water for a few hours each day and electricity only cut 6-10 hours per day by the government during load-shedding, but it’s not the same as having Thapa around. This was not only seen in the way Prava would always rush to the phone, thinking it could be her father, or by the agonized look on Uma’s face when I commented that eight years was a long time, as she searched for a way to communicate in her limited English and settled on “too long.” Instead it was the general feeling of incompleteness about the family, the way they always seemed to be waiting.
The Thapa family is in no way unique; almost every Nepali I met had a relative working abroad. In fact, Ratna Thapa is one of an estimated one million Nepali workers abroad. Nepal could almost be said to depend on these foreign workers, as money sent home from abroad accounts for 16% of Nepal’s GDP. The country’s political upheaval has significantly contributed to Nepal’s economic woes - a nearly ten-year-long Maoist insurgency dubbed the “People’s War” killed an estimated 10,000 people and internally displaced 200,000 people, nearly the entire royal family was massacred by the crown prince in 2001, and recently the monarchy was abolished and Nepal became a democratic republic. In fact, Nepal sank on United Nations’ Human Development Index from 136 to 142 (out of 177 countries), placing it in the poorest twenty percent of countries in the world. Nearly 50% of Nepal’s 28 million citizens live on less than a dollar a day, and about the same amount are illiterate.
This was a future Thapa, then 35, didn’t want for his two children. He wanted his family to be educated and secure, and so set off on a journey to create a better life for his family, one that will hopefully be worth all the trials and tribulations he’s faced along the way. Joe Renner, a settlement and adaptation counselor at Kamloops Immigrant Services, says that this often-made choice is “a huge sacrifice, it’s very difficult to be away from your family for such a long time, especially if you have young children, and it takes a huge toll on a person.”
Thapa was able to secure a working visa and employment as a chef, and headed off to the island of Mauritius, near Madagascar. He worked diligently for four and a half years, often working seven days a week. He was paid a small amount monthly, the majority of which he sent home to his family. A large part of his pay was held back by the employer as “insurance.” At the end of his time, his employer refused to pay him the amount owing. This was a huge blow to Thapa, who was now virtually stranded in Mauritius, unable to afford even a plane ticket home, and the sinking realization that the three years he spent apart from his family may have been for nothing. “What can I do? I can’t go home with nothing,” he says.
Ratna Thapa is one of an estimated one million Nepali workers abroad. Money sent home accounts for 16% of Nepal’s GDP.
But he had a stroke of luck – he found a job in Canada as a chef in a hotel restaurant, was able to get a visa, and friends he had made while in Mauritius lent him the money for a plane ticket. The majority of Nepali migrants end up in Malaysia or the Middle East, where conditions are often deplorable and employers untrustworthy. Less than one percent of Nepali workers are able to make it into Canada, mainly due to the difficulty in acquiring a visa. Thapa’s visa was no exception, so he was excited by the opportunity and came to Canada thinking that things were finally looking up for him. He works full time in the kitchen and if things are slow he works in other areas of the hotel, gardening or changing bed sheets. He had hoped to see some of Canada’s sights, but in over three years, he hasn’t been able to leave Kamloops, even for a weekend.
According to Renner, the “honeymoon period is a lot shorter than many Canadians would think. There’s definitely a reality-check as workers quickly begin to realize the economically driven aspect of the immigration process.” He goes on to explain that many foreign workers arrive with a closed visa, meaning that they can only work for the employer they were hired by, as in Thapa’s case. There are many problems with this, for example, workers hired during busy seasons may have their hours severely cut during slower seasons and be unable to live off their lower wage, or they may find themselves with an abusive employer. Workers try to change their visas, but this process can be difficult, as they need to secure employment before applying for a new visa. Another aspect of this is that foreign workers are afraid that they’ll be sent back to their country of origin and will be unable to secure another working visa or, if they’ve applied for permanent residency (which grants them the right to live and work in Canada just like any other citizen, and is the first step to citizenship) that their application will be lost. Renner says this is why the Kamloops Immigrant Services, assisted by the provincial government, has started an education campaign to help foreign workers understand their rights.
This campaign comes a little late for Thapa, who is expecting his permanent resident application to be completed soon, and doesn’t feel it’s worth the risk to stir up any trouble now that he’s so close. He says that the first thing he will do if and when he gets permanent residency is to visit his family. When he sees his family, he says he will “hug my children first, because they are missing me, but then I will kiss my wife.” If Thapa leaves before getting permanent residency he can’t come back to Canada, as his visa is single-entry only.
Thapa will also begin the process of sponsoring his family to come to Canada, which could take years. Sponsoring a spouse with two dependants costs almost 1,400 dollars, and that’s not including the fees for medical reports and police checks. Thapa has hired a lawyer, as the process and forms can be difficult to understand, especially when English is your first language.
Darryl Larson, senior partner of Embarkation Law Group, criticizes the Immigration Act for this very reason. “It’s become entirely too complex, with volumes of policy manuals. It’s almost impossible to manoeuvre, even if you’re educated in law.” Larson does say that the waiting times have decreased, but that the biggest thing missing in the immigration process is transparency. He says that the process should be better explained because the more people understand why they’re waiting and for how long, the easier it would be to wait. “It’s the uncertainty that kills people,” he adds.
With Thapa, it’s not just this uncertainty, but the loneliness. But as Thapa puts it, “I have to miss something to get something.” It is easy to feel for this man, as he sits in his loose-fitting suit, looking through the care package his wife Uma sent with me, pictures, a tailored suit, a tie, and some dress shirts. “My husband is always looking good,” said Uma when she showed me what she was sending. My father agrees, saying Thapa is always well-dressed, but that he also looks sad. Thapa is half a world away from his family, friends, and culture. He has missed so many moments, so many birthdays and anniversaries and milestones - his daughter has become a woman in his absence, his son a man. He spends any given Nepali festival alone in his room. “That is why I am always having a calling card in my pocket,” he says. “When I am at work, I forget, but when I am alone I telephone or am looking at photos.”
“It is too hard, what to do? Soon it will be over.”
But as I watch him looking through the photos, I can’t help but think it’s too great a price to pay.