"Every day I am getting calls from my children, saying their mom is crying at night. She pretends to be happy in front of me, for my sake. What do I do?" says Shaik Chand Basha, a terminated employee now stuck in Malaysia.
As part of efforts to flatten the rapidly rising COVID-19 curve, many countries have sealed their borders and ordered lockdowns for a seemingly indefinite period of time. This has left people stranded across the globe with no means to get back home, including scores of Indians.
Shaik Chand Basha, a resident of Karlol district in Hyderabad, was laid off from his job in Malaysia soon after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. He is currently stranded in the country with no support or way to return back. Due to the sudden announcement of the lockdown, his wife and children were unable to go to his elderly parents' place. "I don't know who will take care of my parents if they fall sick," he laments. Image courtesy: Caroline Almeida
Basha, a resident of Karlol district in Hyderabad, arrived at Kuala Lumpur in November last year to work as a geospatial developer Working on an employment visa valid for two years, he was abruptly terminated within four months of joining in March, on account of the company's financial troubles.
With no compensation and job prospects in sight, and all flights to India suspended temporarily, he soon realised that going back home wasn't going to be an option either.
According to an advisory posted by the High Commission of India, Kuala Lumpur, the flights to India would continue to remain suspended. The HCI-KL has directed Indians stuck there to abide by the government's Movement Control Order and to register themselves.
"Some 3,000 people have registered on that website. The helpline number and e-mail ID aren't of much use, and we get just generic automated responses," says Basha.
Indians form the third-highest ethnic group in Malaysia accounting for up to 6.4 percent its total population, according to the Malay government portal. In 2017, there were as many as 1,14,455 immigrant workers employed across a myriad of fields.
Basha is not the only one to have been snubbed by his company in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Several other salaried workers across sectors, from event management to project development have been laid off as corporates scramble to cut costs and avoid losses.
Alqama Arif, a sales executive at Management Events (Asia Group), had barely begun his work before the lockdown was initiated. Asked to work from home within days of joining, a termination letter came his way just as suddenly.
"They gave me two options, one offer letter with half my salary for an indefinite period " or accepting the termination. It's not possible to bear this cost of living on half my salary. So, despite a one year contract, I was forced to resign," says Arif of the unexpected situation.
Alongside him, several other Indian colleagues were forced to resign from their jobs too. Now they struggle to make ends meet, wondering how long they can manage to do so before help arrives.
Alqama Arif, a sales executive at Management Events (Asia Group), had barely begun his work before the lockdown was initiated. Asked to work from home within days of joining, a termination letter came his way just as suddenly. Image courtesy: Caroline Almeida
The experience continues to be far from pleasant for those stranded in Malaysia, with no word from the Indian Embassy or the Government of India on plans to evacuate them.
While the Government of India is running Lifeline Udan's transporting essentials to different regions, there's no word on bringing back Indians stranded abroad. As of 21 April, the Ministry of Civil Aviation is still "considering the decision to restart flights".
In a series of tweets on 20 April, Union Civil Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted that "flight restrictions that are in place... will be lifted once we are confident that spread of the virus has been controlled and it poses no danger to our country and people".
"Since some airlines did not heed our advisory and opened bookings and started collecting money from flyers, a directive was issued to them on 19 April restraining them from doing so," he added in another tweet.
For those attempting to leave Malaysia, checking flight availabilities has become synonymous with breathing. And for some others, the process has been infuriatingly inefficient, to say the least.
"I called Malindo Airlines to book a flight to Chennai when I learnt that there were 'special flights' going there. They said I could book the ticket if I paid for it since these weren't evacuation flights. However, two days later, Malindo cancelled the ticket," says Mandeep Singh Mokha.
Formerly a project manager in Kuala Lumpur before the termination wave hit him, Mokha, a resident of Ghaziabad, had his flight tickets to Delhi rescheduled and cancelled by the airline several times. As for compensation following the cancellation, he is now in an endless toss between the booking agent (GoIbibo) and the airline authorities.
With no respite from either governments, Indians in Malaysia have formed two WhatsApp groups to create a network of informed kinship. Hunger is a rampant issue, and most are struggling to find a way to pay the next month's rent.
"People haven't had food for almost a week. I just sent four kilos of rice to some people who texted on our group today. If they gave us food on alternate days also we would manage. They're asking us to stay safe and take care, but how?" asks Basha.
Currently living in the Brickfield area of Kuala Lumpur, Basha adds that there are 250 other Indians trapped in the area alone. He is also paying approximately Rs 10,000 as rent for his room, which he won't be able to produce next month.
Some NGOs and gurdwaras in the locality are attempting to help without any resources being provided by the authorities.
With a 7 pm curfew in place and the possibility of hefty fines, people are hesitant to step out, even if to look for relief.
Days continue to pass with an increase in cases and a stoic silence from the Indian authorities while the situation is getting potentially dangerous for Indians who need medical attention.
"I am on medication, I have BP and diabetes. Who will take care of me if something happens? I don't have medical insurance here," asks Satyadeep Baral, a software engineer.
Like others, he had joined his company in December 2019, only to find himself eventually unemployed with barely enough money for food. At present, he's staying with his friend, unwittingly made to feel like an illegal immigrant in the country.
The lockdown is set to end in Malaysia in another week. Indians stranded in Malaysia allege that the Indian embassy has shown no empathy towards them except offering 'lip service'. The members of the WhatsApp group dedicatedly continue to tweet to Indian authorities every day. However, they might as well have not bothered.
It's not just former employees who are stranded in the country though. For Some like Abhilash Parida, it's wanderlust gone horribly wrong.
Visiting the country with his sister and brother-in-law, the group arrived on 12 March for their vacation " only to have all flights back home suspended less than a week later.
The HCI-K website lists about eight hundred stranded tourists as of writing this article. The only shred of hope comes from a special pass issued to tourists by the Malay government. The pass entails that the tourist visas expired during the lockdown could still be used to leave the country, provided the person has a valid passport.
Life still isn't easy for the group, who are currently put up in an Airbnb with dwindling rations. The high cost of living juxtaposed with the sheer difficulty to procure further supplies has led to a seemingly helpless situation.
"The supermarkets close to us don't have any Indian groceries. There are Bangladeshi and Pakistani markets about three kilometres away, however, you can't have more than one passenger in the cab. We also have to carry our passports every time we step out, just in case the cops catch us," adds Abhilash.
For those stranded in Malaysia, it's not just the logistics of daily survival that is an issue. Back home in India, elderly parents and family members continue to lie in wait of better news, some of them entirely reliant on these immigrants.
"My parents are 60+ and alone in Karlol. My wife and kids were supposed to go there, but with only a four hours notice they got stuck in Hyderabad. I don't know who will take care of them if they get sick," laments Basha, a single child.
Mandeep Singh, whose wife and child are stuck in Nagpur, calls this situation reminiscent of the demonetisation move. Then too, he was forced to spend long hours at a bank in an attempt to withdraw money for his then-pregnant wife's hospital fees.
Now, he's stuck in a foreign country with no way to get back home.
"My father is over 75 years old and alone in Delhi. If he doesn't answer even one video call, I get scared. The Embassy continues to self-promote its caregiving to immigrants, but a large number of us remain ignored. I'd appreciate even if the politicians we're reaching out to give us fake sympathy at this point. Why are they ignoring us?" asks Singh.
The community, however, has not given to despair despite the odds. In fact, most of them have attempted to reach out to the embassy, authorities in both the countries, media houses, and anyone who can offer any aid.
Indians stranded in Malaysia maintain that they are willing to pay for tickets if they are allowed back home, and are ready to comply with all safety protocol following their arrival. The desperation is such that it doesn't matter which part of India they're taken back to as long as they can escape their turmoil.
"It's not a matter of 15-20 days, it's going to take anywhere between six months to a year to curb this. We can't battle this virus from another country, our people need to take us back," insists Baral.
The lack of communication on evacuation of Indians stranded in Malaysia by the Government of India has left Indians in a dire conundrum both at home and abroad. Given that most of these 3,000 odd people will be reduced to living on the streets if action isn't taken, there needs to be a quick translation from vague narratives to thorough implementation.