My H1B Tales (1) : Coming to America


Photo courtesy: Al Araby.

On a summer day in 2,000, I waited outside the U.S. Consulate in Qatar. I had to make a decision. Should I go to the US?

Qatar, the tiny, thumb-shaped peninsula had just found her place in the world. The country’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Al Thani had opened up her immense natural gas reserves to foreign investors.

I worked as a reporter writing on energy and politics for an English language daily. Four years into the job, the country’s largest bank unexpectedly offered me a job as an analyst. I was beyond thrilled as it came with a fourfold increase in pay and generous perks. I accepted the offer and got ready to tell my employer that I was leaving.

And then, my world fell apart.

Qatar had a “sponsorship system,” called kafala where your in-country sponsor technically “owned” you. Once you were in the country your sponsor had the right to take your passport. The newspaper was my sponsor and its general manager, was my “owner.”

I needed my “owner’s” permission to change my sponsorship and transfer me to another “owner.” So I went to him to make the request.

He said : No. I asked again: No.

He was a pious man. I knew he couldn’t change his mind and I had no remorse. We were on the same boat.

My modern day slave owner had to believe in the kafala. If he gave me a chance, I would set a bad precedent and others might ask.

I left Qatar protesting the kafala, a form of modern day slavery that some Gulf countries have since banned. I believe kafala has numbed the skills and productivity of generations of people from mostly South Asian countries. The system has hurt the Arabs more than expats because curtailing workers freedoms makes them do monotonous jobs and be less productive.

19 years ago, on that summer day, I had no American dream. I was looking for a reason to leave Qatar, to escape the kafala and the trauma of being forever “owned.”

Thus began my H1B journey into the United States. Stay tuned for more.