KUWAIT: This May 3, 2020 file photo shows a Civil Defense worker distributing food to people under lockdown in Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh. — Photo by Fouad Al-Shaikh

By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: The stories of expatriates who are under lockdown in some areas of Kuwait are harrowing. Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh and Mahboula have been isolated since April 8, 2020, while Farwaniya, Khaitan and Hawally were later included. The lockdowns of Khaitan and Hawally were lifted on June 21, 2020, but Farwaniya, Jleeb and Mahboula remain cordoned off until further notice.  To ease the suffering and hunger of people in the area, the government and charity organizations regularly distribute food, although the quantities are limited.

Only a few people are benefiting from the handouts and only those living near distribution points are getting them. People have to jostle to get their share, and are often met with shoving and pushing in the queue without observing social distancing. Often they are met with batons from the police manning the distribution area.

Larry, a Filipino mechanic, regularly visits the food distribution center hoping to get something, but goes home empty-handed frequently. “How can you get your share if most of the time they distribute a few food packs with thousands of people queuing to get rations,” he asked. Larry then goes to a nearby block for food distributed by May Siapno. Siapno’s group distributes food to Filipinos with the support of the Philippine Embassy. “If not for her and the Philippine Embassy, we would surely go hungry and die, because we have no more money to buy anything. God bless those who are braving the virus to feed us,” Larry said.

There were times he would only sleep with a bowl of rice porridge to fill his empty stomach because he would not get anything. “For three consecutive days, we only ate some rice porridge with salt. We ran out of everything and my flat-mates have nothing to offer as well, so we share whatever we have just to survive the day,” he said. “This lockdown is really difficult for us,” he said.

Larry is waiting for his company to call him and start working again, although he hasn’t heard anything from the management. “I need to work because I have loans from a loan shark to pay,” he said. Larry is a bachelor, and is the sole breadwinner for his parents, who are both senior citizens.

Constant fear

Eliza also shared her lockdown story with Kuwait Times and compared her Gulf War experiences against her COVID-19 ordeal. (The Gulf War broke out in 1990-1991 when Saddam Hussein’s soldiers invaded Kuwait, while the second Gulf War took place in 2003 when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam.) A beautician in Kuwait since 1986, Eliza is now 67 years old and little did she know she would witness yet another historic event – the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I was here during two Gulf Wars, but I wasn’t afraid the way I fear for my life now,” she said. “At that time, at least we knew our enemy was somewhere. We were scared but not like the fear nowadays. I wasn’t afraid of a Scud missile, because we knew we would die immediately. COVID-19 is different – I am afraid to get out of my house even to go to the baqala or get any COVID symptoms,” she said. “They said senior citizens are most vulnerable to the virus, so I had to take extra precautions. During the first and second months, I stayed at home, but when I ran out of food and medicine, I braved myself to go out and get help from May Siapno,” Eliza said.

Comparing the distribution of food packs during the Gulf War, she recalled “they were more organized and everything was open”. “We had no lockdown because the battle was a bit far away. We could hear sirens and bombs, but there was no lockdown like this,” she said. “I never knew one day I would come out of my house to beg for food – not once but many times. I also begged for medicine for my blood pressure, plus during the lockdown, my fridge and AC broke down. I hope everything gets better now globally, as we have the same crisis in the Philippines. Four months is long enough – we want to work,” said Eliza. 

Her employer did not give them any support. “We placed several calls to our employers since the beginning of the crisis, but they have not answered our calls even once. We are receiving no salary since March,” she lamented. Eliza shares her home with three other elderly women. One works as a food porter at a ministry hospital, while another is also a salon worker. She said if the employer decides to close the salon or cut staff, she would volunteer herself as she is ready to go home. “Thank God with my 35-year stay in Kuwait, I was able to build my own house. My only daughter is married and I did not remarry when my husband died many years back. I only want to retire and maybe do some gardening,” she added.

Arturo, another senior Filipino citizen, shared his lockdown story with Kuwait Times. “We were 11 Filipinos terminated by our company on April 30. Our March salary was given to us, but not the April salary. We don’t know if they are going to pay us, but they initially told us they are calculating our indemnities and will pay us after the lockdown,” he said. Arthur would like to be repatriated and return to his family in the Philippines. “After getting all my indemnities from my company for which I worked 18 years, I certainly would like to go home and stay with my family,” he said.