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Personal Statement: Nine weeks in Kuwait

Illustration by Megan Mulholland
Illustration by Megan Mulholland Buy this photo

By Dana Del Vecchio, LSA sophomore
Published January 13, 2013

The call to prayer from surrounding mosques and the sight of burqas worn in 120-degree weather was quite a culture shock to say the least. I spent nine weeks in Kuwait City as an outsider last summer and expected to blog daily about my exposure to the Muslim world. What I did not expect was to learn a life lesson in friendship.

The economy of Kuwait relies heavily on migrant workers from Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India to do the jobs that natives find undesirable. Tensions between these ethnic groups are exacerbated by a common alienation from the Kuwaiti people.

One illustration of the cultural divide is the “Old Souq,” the city market where dates, prayer beads and incense are sold. I watched a group of migrant men in orange jump suits with dismal expressions on their faces push around shopping carts for the Kuwaiti shoppers. These men were clearly considered to be a lower status or value.

Defying the idea that there is a “single story” to every migrant worker — money sent home, poor working conditions and the inability to fit in — a dear friend of mine working as a concierge in Kuwait City humanized the condition and illustrated the power of unconditional compassion.

During the last week of the summer course, I decided to find a five-week internship in Kuwait to delay my departure and familiarize myself with the country. Little did I know, I would be driven to work by my most informative resource and soon-to-be good friend, Sunil Wickramabala.

Our exchanges were always the highlight of my day, and our conversations gradually revealed his unparalleled compassion for others. Sunil had an incredible commitment to his job, family and friends. His ability to balance all three, along with the burden of stigmatization, as a migrant worker, was tremendous.

One morning, Sunil’s swollen eyelids made it clear that something was wrong. When we arrived at the site of the internship, he parked the car and slowly began to expose his past months’ experiences.

Typically, Sunil worked the nightshift from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Once he was off, he drove his wife to work, then his daughter to class at 7:30 a.m., and finally me to work by 9 a.m. He then picked up his wife and daughter at 2 p.m. and dropped them both at home, drove an hour, arrived at my office by 5pm and restarted his routine all over again.

Sunil kept to his usual schedule like any other working man — until June 19th. On that day, Nalu, Sunil’s good Sri Lankan friend who worked as a construction worker for a Kuwaiti family, lost all recollection of his friends, family and former life after a bad fall. In addition to his other obligations, Sunil began to pay daily visits to his hospitalized friend.

For Nalu, Sunil’s friendship was invaluable, particularly since Nalu lived in the country alone. Before the incident, Nalu visited Sunil’s family weekly and kissed both of his two daughters on the forehead each time.

“I was introduced to him when a group of us met on our day off every week,” Sunil said. “After (I knew) where the house was, I would go to his home and he would come to mine.”

If both men were living in Sri Lanka, race would have segregated Sunil from Nalu. As defined by the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka, the Tamil people are enemies of the Sinhalese people. But ethnic tensions never prevented these two from friendship for 28 years.

“I don’t see him as Tamil, and us Sri Lankan. We have (a) friendship.”

But after the unexpected fall, Nalu was hospitalized. By the second day, he had slipped into a coma.

“He could not open his eyes, and his words did not make sense. We called his family, and they were crying, saying, ‘Please try to send him to Sri Lanka,’” Sunil said.

For almost two weeks, Sunil and his family became Nalu’s surrogate family. They came to his room at the hospital as a family each afternoon.

On the morning of July 1, Sunil walked into Nalu’s room and found nothing more than a blank-faced nurse and an empty bed.

“ … One day I went there and the nurse said, ‘Please bring shampoo.' On the second day, I took the shampoo and I went there and I saw (that) the bed was empty,” Sunil said. “I asked her, ‘Sister, where is this guy?’”

Within one week, Nalu’s bankcard was canceled, his family and employer notified of his death, the Sri Lankan embassy informed and his body sent to Sri Lanka.

For Sunil, dedication to his family and commitment to his friend is never questioned.

“I’m not thinking I have to sleep,” Sunil said. “Sometimes, when I’m going to (the) temple, they say, if you’re eating something and someone comes to your door, don’t turn to the other side.”

Naturally, Sunil hopes that that the same kindness would be bestowed on him in a similar situation.

“I give as much as I can give. What I have is not all money, expect I can give a little. If something happens to me, maybe some of the people will do the same for me.”

The image I held of my experience in Kuwait pre-departure encompassed an appreciation for Islam and daily interactions with Kuwaitis, but my experience ended up being significantly more. I will remember it by the lesson of unconditional friendship between strangers in a foreign place.

Dana Del Vecchio is an LSA sophomore studying Arabic, Armenian, Persian, Turkish, and Islamic Studies with a minor in Political Science.