By Sajeev K Peter

As the year 2020 draws to a close, expatriate women in Kuwait reflected on the traumatic year that unleashed untold miseries on them in the form of deaths, job losses, separation from families and numerous health and mental health challenges. Their lives went haywire as the COVID-19 pandemic presented unforeseen difficulties. Looking back, some dub 2020 as the ‘worst year’ of their lives, while a few recall that they have been miraculously spared the trauma of the pandemic.

“COVID came as a bolt from the blue. I didn’t know what to do and how to manage my life initially,” said Samar Abdullah, an Egyptian schoolteacher. “My husband, who was working with a construction company, lost his job in May. So, it became my responsibility to support my family with my limited salary,” she said.

Samar, a mother of three, narrated her resilient fight for survival in 2020. “I was not prepared to give in so easily to an invisible enemy who pounced on us from all quarters. The virus has radically altered our lives. It became an eye-opener for us. I realized that it required some major lifestyle changes and tightening of the family budget to overcome the crisis.”

In the early days of the pandemic in Kuwait, many like Samar thought it was curtains for them as the challenges appeared insurmountable. However, coming to grips with the new emerging reality, many struggled to reinvent themselves, while some languished in hitherto unchartered territory.

The year of misfortune
The pandemic has also thrown the lives of hundreds of expat homemakers out of gear. “2020 has been a year of misfortune for me,” said Chandrika, a Sri Lankan expat. “When corona came, malls closed and the cleaning company for which I worked said there was no job for janitors. I used to work double shifts and save some money to send to my family back home,” she said. After a great struggle, she managed to build a small house in Trincomalee in 2019, Chandrika said. “But a cyclone came and destroyed my house. And now this coronavirus has ruined my life and I have lost all hope,” she sighed.

The pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 922 people and infected more than 148,200 people in Kuwait as of Dec 22, 2020. The pandemic forced many homemakers to go into survival mode as they struggled to restyle their lives, from shifting jobs to trying out new jobs, even as many fought off depression and other mental health problems. “My husband died of COVID in June and I thought it was the end of the road for me. My life became empty without him,” said Fatima (not her real name), an Indian homemaker and mother of two, who now works at a private clinic in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh.

Juggling work
In the pandemic era, juggling work has become the order of the day as many careers and jobs have become obsolete and new jobs have surfaced. Many homemakers who spoke to Kuwait Times admit that they tried many jobs like indoor farming, tailoring, babysitting, home tuition, online cookery or yoga and fitness classes for women’s social groups, etc. Managing housework without hired help was another challenge for many who lived with the luxury of housemaids until the pandemic knocked them out of their languor.

For Binsa, a Nepali expat, an evening call from her employer at a private nursery changed her life completely. “My madam told me not to come from the next day as they had closed the center,” she recounted. Bisna, like many others, thought that things would go back to normal in one or two months. “I have been jobless for most of the year now. I used to get a salary of KD 75. Some parents also used to give me tips, making my life easy. Now, I cook for two Indian families and live with the small income. My name in Nepali means ‘fearless’, but now I fear for my life, my future,” she said.

Working from home has presented new challenges for women. Initially, they thought it would be easier than going to the office. But soon, most women realized that they needed to spend more hours on work and shoulder an increased workload. And work and family lives began to merge without offering a real difference.

For most women homemakers, it has been a year of making adjustments as well. “Those turbulent days taught me to absorb everything. I learned to smile and set up a board game for the family even when I had heaps of work to finish or my eyelids were drooping after a day’s work. I learned not to scream at my frustrated 10 year-old and be more sympathetic towards my self-isolating teenager, who tried to find refuge in a digital life,” said Roula, a Lebanese expat who works in a private company.

“Don’t overthink anything. If you start panicking, you simply cannot function. You watch the movie the whole family will watch, and you bake the loaf of bread or pizza or make the burger with the ‘curly’ fries you all love, not only because you cannot order it, but because they bring a whiff of ‘fresh’ within walls closed to the outside. And the good thing is it brings you peace, by both making and sharing. New, quieter bonds start forming even in the closest of families,” added Roula, recalling the lockdown days.

Zainab Hassan, a university lecturer and a Lebanese mother of three young children, also encountered similar problems. “While my husband needed a secluded place at home without any kind of intrusion during working hours, my two children needed to use the living room to attend their online classes. At times, I had to even use my kitchen or bathroom to take my own classes,” she said.

The pandemic led to a rise in the number of suicide cases in the country as well. Many COVID patients committed suicide after experiencing severe psychological problems. Many expats are still battling the long-term psychological effect of the pandemic and suffering from anxiety, depression or insomnia.

Optimism
“I still tremble with fear when I think of that night when my husband was unable to breathe during the early days of lockdown,” said Malini Sukumar, an Indian housewife. “I rang the bell of my neighbor, who took the online permit to take us to hospital. After admitting my husband at the field hospital in Mishref for COVID-19 testing, I did not get any information till the next day. It was a night of ordeal. He tested positive and was transferred to the main hospital. It was a traumatic period of my life. I wish 2020 goes away to never come back; the memories are horrible,” she added.

However, the year 2020 has not been so harsh to at least a few expat women. Some managed to find jobs again in the final lap of the year, while a few succeed in picking up the pieces and rebuilding their lives. “I would say I have been among a few privileged people in 2020,” said Dr Nour Dakkak, assistant professor at Arab Open University (AOU), Kuwait. “I haven’t encountered the same problems as many of the people I know did.

On the contrary, it has been a productive year. I got my job at the university at the beginning of this year. In fact, the lockdown period has been a blessing in disguise. I got more free time for myself, for reading, research and writing,” she said. “But I hope next year will be better for everyone” Dr Nour wished.