Kuwait City: Today marks one year since Kuwait enforced a three-month lockdown on Mahboula and Jleeb Al Shuyoukh as per the decision of the government, “in order to examine and treat the residents there as well as to contain the spread of COVID-19 in other parts of the country,” Kuwait’ state media KUNA reported.
The two neighbourhoods, predominantly populated by migrant workers, were completely closed with nobody entering or exiting without a valid permit issued by the government.
Several residents shared their experience living through the three-month lockdown with en.v, a non-profit organisation working towards fostering a more inclusive and resilient society, as part of the Neighbourhood Tales: Kuwait Under Lockdown collection.
The lockdown severely affected people financially and psychologically with most unable to go to work or go about their regular lives. Basically, life was put on pause.
This piece, the third series of Untold Stories, focuses on the unheard stories of community members that lived through the lockdown and sheds light on the struggles they endured.
When the lockdown was first announced on April 9, the government stated that it was going to last two weeks.
In the beginning many residents stated that they had no problem with the lockdown as they understood that it was a health crisis and it was put in place to keep people safe.
Then after the two weeks, the government announced that they would be extending the lockdown until further notice. The feeling of uncertainty was felt by many people in Mahboula and Jleeb as they were unsure how much longer the lockdown was going to last, let alone when they would be able to go back to work and resume their regular schedule.
Ashwin, an Indian Mandoob living in Jleeb, pointed out that during the lockdown, “we stayed in our room. We spent time by simply talking with two-three friends on the mobile, like that. Watching TV. But I was sad inside. Sad because there is no money, I was borrowing money from others to eat. That’s why I was very sad.”
Although the number of cases was high at the beginning, by June it had dropped drastically yet the lockdown continued. Between June 18 and July 2, zero cases were recorded in Mahboula.
People across Kuwait were witnessing withholding or reduced salaries as businesses remained closed and employers tried to cut back on costs. Like numerous people around Kuwait, the residents of Mahboula and Jleeb endured a financial crunch, with many being unable to pay rent or purchase basic necessities, or send money back to their families.
Margie lives in an apartment with four other friends and towards the third month of the lockdown a few of them were unable to pay the rent. So the doorman cut off their air condition despite the excruciating summer heat. To Margie, the whole situation was aggravating, “Why they didn’t consider this kind of situation? This pandemic, right or no? Really. They are thinking, where is the heart of that doorman?”
While some were unforgiving, Helen, an Ethiopian sales associate, shared how her landlord reduced the rent payment by 25 per cent then by 50 per cent. Yet, she was still in debt to him and was struggling to find the money to pay the loan back as she stopped receiving a salary during the entire lockdown, and then only got 25 per cent when she was finally able to get back to work.
The economic impact of the lockdown mainly affected blue collar and low-wage earning individuals that were dependent on their salaries to pay rent and buy food. Those that were impacted the worst were people that worked day to day or hour to hour jobs as they were unable to leave Mahboula or Jleeb.
Helen came across several people in Mahboula that were severely suffering, many of which did not even have enough money to eat. She shared a story of a young man that was begging her for 250 fils so that he could buy some food. Due to the language barrier, Helen did not understand what he was saying until he put his hands to his mouth and said “ruba dinar” (Arabic word for quarter KD).
“I see young man, he begging for a ruba dinar. What do you feel? If that’s my brother? What I feel? Like that’s my son. Imagine. Of course it was very hard. You know, when I remember him, I cry,” she recounted.
Because of the financial burden, many were dependent on aid programs to provide them with ready cooked meals or food boxes that usually contained necessities. Several international organizations like the Red Cross were distributing food to those in need, in addition to local aid groups that quickly propped up as there was an increase in demand for food aid.
Ashwin explained how despite the personal struggles he endured (not receiving a salary for four months and getting divorced) he helped distribute food to people in need. He described that people would, “tell me, ‘Brother there are a lot of people here without food’. I call up the organization which provides food and tell them that there are people here who have no food.”
Castile, a Filipino nurse, despite not living in Mahboula or Jleeb, was able to enter those areas with his ministry ID and help distribute food. He recalled how, especially during the second and third month, people were so hungry. He pointed out that in Jleeb, people used to know if a, “new car is coming, they are looking at it. They are following it because they are thinking that this car is new to the area. Probably they will be going to get food. So they stand on, like on standby so that the, they can have [their] share.”
As well as helping people get access to food, Ashwin volunteered at the Indian Embassy to help repatriate people that were looking to go back home.
Remove the barricades
When the barricades and barbed wires were finally removed, people finally felt free. Margie felt like, “I am out of the prison. I breathed well.”
The lockdown might have ended on July 9, but the situation is still tough as many have still not received a full salary or are struggling to find work.
Ashwin stated that during the lockdown he realized the importance of creating a fund or saving account so people do not starve, especially migrants because they usually send all their money back home to support their families. “There should be something in the name of migrants. What little we get, one KD whatever, we shouldn’t just send it to our mother and father, send to our children, send to our wife. There is nobody to look after us here. You see? We have to take responsibility for our food.”