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Westward bound

As their options in West Asia dry up, nurses from Kerala are looking at other foreign destinations. SHWETHA E. GEORGE examines this new trend.

OUR nurses are not going to the Gulf anymore. They are queuing up in front of coaching centres for IELTS, CGFNS for the prospect of working in another part of the world, ruled by Christian leaders, for a change. Life is faster, land is greener, restrictions — religious or otherwise — are unheard of and the money — yes, the only reason why a Malayali nurse is an NRI — is truly obscene. The West would offer them all these and more.

But what about the cost of living, the alarming crime rate, the social environment in which their children will have to grow up? They don't want to think about it now, because anything is better than being a "cash cow" in the desert.

How else does one describe the Malayali nurse — the only professional who, at 21, can single-handedly erase her family's poverty, improve their lifestyle, get her siblings married and, in the meantime, earn her own dowry? Only nobody knows or doesn't want to know what it must take to keep that cash flowing.

"You are up-to-date on medical info and you get to work with the best equipment, no dearth of medicines too," says Mary who worked for 11 years in Al- Nahda Hospital in Muscat, "but it stops there." Loneliness is the biggest enemy. And scrutiny in their professional and even private lives makes it worse. Speaking in Malayalam in front of the patient is not allowed. Nor can a nurse wear what she wants. Her conversations with male doctors must be strictly official and, if possible, brief. In fact, it is better not to speak to any man who is not your husband.

"In a foreign country, you are always the first suspect," says Mercy, a nurse who worked for 17 years in Saudi Arabia. "We couldn't have a birthday party for our sons without inviting suspicion." The Muthabas or priests were always on the prowl. At work, it was no different. Risk was an inevitable part of their job.

"No amount of precautions would seem enough," says a lecturer at the local College of Nursing. "Every act is recorded and the patient's health monitored regularly." Accountability is the strongest word in the nurses' vocabulary. One mistake can cost her the job, whether she's innocent or not. And returning home is not an option. Some nurses were not even told of their parent's death because they wouldn't have been able to go anyway.

But the tremendous job satisfaction made up for almost all their sacrifices. "The quality of work is excellent," says Mercy. These women have never regretted their decision to be a nurse. And no one has ever complained about the money.

"A nurse in the Gulf earns a five-figure income at 21," says a senior faculty at Government Nursing College. "A whole family can live on her earnings." Sources say that parents are willing to pay over Rs. 300,000 to get admission in nursing college. Because it is money well spent.

Nursing also doesn't suffer from stigma anymore. People have got rid of certain misconceptions about the job. "Earlier, everyone thought a night shift meant a nurse and a doctor working alone." Apart from the three government institutions, there are a number of nursing schools attached to private hospitals. The supply is overwhelming.

But the charm of working in the Gulf is wearing off. "It's not just the lack of life that's driving these women away," says a professor of nursing at the medical college. "The Gulf countries are now training their own women. Last time I went to Oman, two batches were already out." What the nursing fraternity calls Omanisation is spreading to other countries as well. Moreover, although the basic salary for a nurse has increased in past 20 years, all perks have been cut off. Says Mary, "Two years before I left, they cut down our monthly allowance by 25 Riyals and asked us to pay 25 per cent of our airline tickets home." In other hospitals, nurses were asked to make their own way to and from the airport. "If we are still valued for anything in the Gulf," says Jesse Jose, "it is for our clinical experience and efficiency on the job." Also, women do not get family visas.

So money is not the only priority now. Most of these women have returned to live with their families. But they have realised that a bank deposit doesn't last long and that Kerala is in its worst economic crisis. Working in hospitals here would only "demoralise" them. With IELTS being declared as one of the exams needed to pass to be employed in Commonwealth countries, the West has become a great option.

Fresh graduates have never had it better. They can pick the country unlike their predecessors who had to go to the Gulf. For two years, almost every nurse in Kerala, between 21 and 45, is training to pass the test and emigrate with their family to England, Australia or New Zealand. "Every month, we have an average of 200 aspirants writing the IELTS exam," says B. Vishnupriya, education information officer at the British Council Library in Trivandrum. "Seventy-five per cent of them are nurses." In fact, the BCL is now conducting two exams a month to meet the growing demand of nurses.

"Life span has increased," says P. Latha, lecturer at the Medical College. "The geriatric population in the West is on the rise and rate of morbidity is alarmingly high." She says Western countries are becoming more responsible for their old and the sick. "The U.S. has an acute shortage of nurses."

So Mary is writing essays on "Fatherhood vs. Motherhood" and honing her language skills through mock interviews at her IELTS Centre. So is Preethi, a fresh graduate, who is determined to pass the exam (she failed in the first attempt) even if it means being unemployed for a year. Others, like Jesse and Sisy, have left their babies behind to attend the gruelling 10 a.m.-to-4p.m. classes intended to improve their knowledge of English.

Says Mercy, "I have to pass. And as soon as I get a job in the U.S., my family can join me on a dependent visa." One wonders if these women have a clue of what life in the West is going to be. "I don't know but we have relatives there," says Mary. "We'll manage somehow."

Sure they will. Because they have survived the loneliness, the insults, the heavy, albeit fulfilling, labour and the constant demands from home. In their new destination, they should have a life.


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