Suneel* came to me again a few days ago. He usually comes when he needs something, usually in the form of money. If it’s not his leaking roof then it’s his ailing mother or his shopkeeper who recently threatened him with an axe if he didn’t clear his Rs20,000 debt – about €150. His monthly salary is about Rs.7,000 a month – about €50. It’s difficult – very difficult – to get through the month on such a meagre income. Like so many of his fellow-countrymen, he somehow manages.
Earlier on in the year he came to me with his big plan, his big dream. He was going to emigrate to provide for his family and to clear his debts. Where he was going wasn’t too clear but by the time I left for Ireland at the end of June he was adamant that he’d be in Australia by the time I’d come back at the end of August. I wasn’t surprised when he was still here when I returned.
But Suneel was undaunted. His plan was still holding; some particulars needed fine-tuning. The time frame had been re-adjusted; just a little. He needed more money – I couldn’t help him there. He said he had already got his passport and his visa for Australia.
“That’s great news,” I interjected; “I’d love to see your passport.”
“I don’t have it,” he said. “It’s in the Australian embassy.”
“And who is organizing your trip?” I asked.
“A friend of my friend; we sat matriculation together at La Salle” he replied without batting an eyelid.
“Who is this guy? Have you met him?” I persisted.
No, he hadn’t met him. But Suneel was “1000% sure” that everything was in order. His friend’s friend was an area manager of twenty-five McDonald outlets in Australia. And Suneel and at least sixty others Suneels were going to Australia to work in McDonalds. And not just from Pakistan: from India and Bangladesh and other countries.
“Do you have any more details about this guy?” I asked. “Do you have his name? Where does he work in Australia? Where will you work in Australia?”
No. His liberator was not currently in Australia; he was “up north” in Pakistan. He was recruiting personnel for his twenty-five outlets in Australia. And Suneel was among the lucky ones to be travelling.
“Where actually will you be working in Australia?” I asked.
“In Emerald,” he said.
Google came to my rescue: “Emerald is a town located in the Central Highlands Region, Queensland, Australia. At the 2011 census, Emerald had a population of 12,895.”
A little bigger than Portarlington; much smaller than Portlaoise.
“Do you know the name of this area manager of the twenty-five McDonald outlets?” I asked.
“His name is Mr. Awais Samuel,” Suneel replied.
I wonder if there is a McDonald’s branch in Emerald, I mused. Again, Google came to the rescue: yes, on Curt Street, just off Hospital Road.
I skyped the number of that particular branch and spoke to a polite young lady who confirmed that there was such a person working at that branch, but he had left about six months previously. And, as far as she knew, he wasn’t an area manager and he had nothing more to do with McDonald’s.
I tried to explain to Suneel that it was most unlikely that he would be working in McDonald’s in Australia – or in any other country, for that matter.
“Brother,” he said quite frantically, “I’m 120% sure. How could my friend cheat on me?”
The 1000% certainty was gone from his voice.
“The man promised me that I would in be Australia in time for Thanksgiving,” he continued.
Mustering up as much patience as I possibly could, I replied, “Thanksgiving? I think your contact is getting his continents mixed up. Thanksgiving is usually celebrated in the United States and Canada. I don’t think the Australians are big into Thanksgiving. But I could be wrong.”
I could see the exasperation in his face.
“Brother, trust on (sic) me. You will see. I’ll be out of here on 15th November.”
Time will tell.
Somehow, I have a gut feeling that this is a scam. Just like that email you’ve occasionally found in your inbox where the guy is an acquaintance of yours who happens to be stranded in a hotel somewhere in Amsterdam and now urgently needs funds to get himself out of a pickle; your funds – or preferably your account details.
Or just like Shahid, another member of our staff who sold all his possessions during the summer months for a similar promise of utopia and sweet nectar in the Land of Oz. Shahid and his extended family were badly burnt; they lost just about everything on their desperate gamble – including the proverbial family jewellery. Now he is rupeeless and, to make matters even worse, jobless.
At least Shahid and company are still alive – unlike the 350 men, women and children who drowned last month in the turquoise waters just over a kilometre from the island of Lampedusa, at the southernmost point of Sicily. Holidaying Italians enjoying the bright blue swimming bays on one side of Lampedusa, and the never-ending tide of shattered dreams and human flotsam and jetsam on the other side.
People forget - or prefer not to remember – that Pope Francis’ first pastoral visit outside Rome back in July was to the island of Lampedusa where he threw a wreath into the sea in memory of the many people who had drowned in trying to reach the promised land of Europe.
"We have lost a sense of brotherly responsibility," he said, and "have forgotten how to cry" for migrants lost at sea.
He denounced the traffickers who exploited migrants and took great risks with their lives.
And Francis should know a thing or two about migrants: his own father emigrated from Italy to Argentina back in the 1920s. Millions of Europeans followed suite and took the western route across the Atlantic during their time of greatest need. One would expect a more compassionate response from fortress Europe when thousands of desperate Africans and Asians are taking the northern route across the relatively narrower Mediterranean in search of “fresh woods, and pastures new.”
“And can you swim?” I asked a bewildered Suneel.
In the circumstances, it appeared a cruel and callous question. I tried to explain to him how his great escape could end up if, as I feared, it turns out to be yet another scam with Suneel and countless others wrecked with their dreams in an overcrowded boat off some distant shore.
“No, Brother,” he says with a nervous smile across his face. “I’m afraid for (sic) the water.”
He still thinks he will be in Australia for Thanksgiving.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people in question.