Monetary battle at par with familial conscience
LAHORE: Nosheen Munir, aged 34, who lives in the small town of Kharian, some 160 kilometres from Lahore, often cannot understand her own children. Her two sons and a daughter, aged between five and ten, speak fluent Norwegian and Punjabi. They have everything money could buy. In contrast, their mother and paternal grandparents still dress in simple cotton clothes symbol of poverty. She regards monetary affectations like refrigerator, flat-screen television set and air-conditioner with wariness akin to suspicion.
My children feel at home neither in Norway nor here, she said, adding that the widening religious and cultural gap confuses many young Pakistani-Norwegians.
The children’s father, Anwar, who works as an electronic repairman in Norway, sends regular remittances home. Munir left home in the 1970s when he was just a teenager and today earns over US $1,300 a month - a massive sum by Pakistani standards. He sends home nearly $600 a month, supplementing a similar amount his father collects as pension after working as a government clerk for over four decades.
The social cost of remittances from overseas can be high, wives left at home, sometimes for years, often feel increasingly isolated, while the children grow up with an absent father.
But, for many impoverished communities it seems to be a price worth paying. The largesse offers both a better standard of living and improved prospects for families in a country where both are in short supply. Kharian, a settlement of about 30,000 people and one of the most important army bases in the central Punjab, has literally become known as “Little Norway” with at least one male member of virtually every third house working abroad.
Money from remittances brought about a demand for good schooling and Anwar’s children, all Norwegian citizens, attend Bloomfield Hall, where evening classes in Norwegian are offered with the aid of the Oslo-based Lindeberg school and the embassy in Islamabad.
Today Kharian hosts at least half a dozen top private schools with growing attendance. With the ‘new’ money coming in, the chief investment has been in property. The town bloomed with smart shops selling consumer goods, mobile companies and car dealerships all lining the main roads.
According to official estimates, remittances from overseas Pakistanis total around $7 billion to $8 billion each year. Of this, less than $1 billion goes through the official banking system, the rest is remitted through the unofficial but immensely efficient “hundi” network, in which money is handed over in Copenhagen, London, Stuttgart, Dubai or any other major city and delivered within 24 or 48 hours to almost anywhere in Pakistan.
“We can’t trust the banks, the government may seize our money. This way it arrives safely each month - all I have to do is answer the doorbell and initial the delivery form,” Shaista Aleem, aged 26, who lives in Samnabad says.
The money sent by her husband, Aleemuddin, from Saudi Arabia, where he runs a small general store, allows her to support her widowed mother and her parents-in-law. It also pays for her son’s schooling and instalments on a car.
Iffat Begum, Aleemuddin’s mother maintains, “the money made a huge difference in our lives. Our son could never have earned even half this much had he stayed here. We now live in a house with four bedrooms; our previous home had only three tiny rooms. Without this money I could not have had cataract surgery; now I can see once more. I had been almost blind for two years.”
While the impact of overseas remittances is clearly visible in a small community like Kharian, people in Lahore are becoming aware of the benefits of working overseas, where they may find greater opportunities than are available locally.
“Around 130,000 leave the country each year. However, these are only those who immigrate legally, while others go through illegal channels and while many are forced home, others manage to meld into the vast Pakistani populations living in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East or North America. Their earnings, even as illegal workers, exceed what they could expect at here,” a spokesman at the Ministry of Labour and Overseas Pakistanis told reporters.
Ameer Suleman, a financial consultant and former banker, said for some young men going overseas is the only option if they wish to support their families - they simply cannot find jobs here. While some families have grown relatively affluent, in other cases one family member abroad may be supporting up to 10 or 12 dependents.
“We all simply survive because of our nephew, Barkat, who is in Oman. He has seven sisters, and supports all of them, as well as us,” said his aunt, Sughra, who lives in Rehmanpura. Barkat transfers around $300 a month to support 12 relatives, including his grandparents and a mentally disabled great-aunt. His parents died several years ago. irin