JAKARTA: Life was good for Indonesian Muhammad Kurdi who has lived in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for about 15 years.
The father of three used to work as a guide for pilgrims from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, earning up to 200 million rupiah a month ($14,042) during the Islamic pilgrimage peak season.
However, life turned upside down when COVID-19 hit the globe and foreigners could not go on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.
“Since the pandemic, I have been jobless, and perhaps all guides in Mecca are like this, unemployed because there are no more pilgrims for Umrah and Haj.
“So, we in Mecca have not been working for over a year,” Mr Kurdi told CNA.
Nowadays, the 36-year-old does all kinds of jobs such as driving people to vaccination centres or out of town and even being a YouTuber by producing videos of life in Mecca.
He also has savings in Indonesia and has asked his family to transfer him his money whenever needed.
Occasionally, Mr Kurdi receives relief from fellow Indonesians as well as staple food twice from the Indonesian consulate general.
Despite all the efforts, he claimed it is not enough to make ends meet.
“Thank God we have savings in Indonesia…but it's been difficult the past two years. It's impossible to take from my savings forever. Of course, if you don’t work it will run out.
“If it continues like this, of course, we won’t be able to handle it," added Mr Kurdi.
The pandemic has not only impacted guides in the holy city of Mecca but also workers in other cities such as Jeddah and Madinah.
Indonesia’s Consul General in Jeddah, Eko Hartono estimates there are about 300,000 legally documented Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia.
About 168,000 of them are in Jeddah and nearby areas, and it is believed the number of undocumented workers is even three times higher, Mr Hartono told CNA.
Their future in the Kingdom looks dim.
BECOMING A HEALING PRACTITIONER
Jeddah-based Mr Basuni Hasan used to accompany ministers and other officials from Indonesia for their pilgrimage but that is now all history.
Having worked in Saudi Arabia since 1993 and in particular as a pilgrimage guide for about two decades, he is now forced to switch jobs.
“During the lockdown, I had no income at all for about six months,” said Mr Basuni.
He explained that he had to ask his family in Madura, East Java to send him his money from his savings to survive.
“Because I have a family, I have nine children. Some of them are in Madura, some are in Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem.
“There is always someone who gives me food, rice, to eat. But I can’t send anything to my family. I was even helped by Arabs.”
When the restrictions to curb COVID-19 started to ease, Mr Hasan decided to try his luck as a healing practitioner.
He claimed he has long had abilities to heal certain ailments caused by ‘spiritual disturbances'; abilities which he thinks can help him provide such therapy to those in need.
Nevertheless, Mr Hasan still believes that his future in Jeddah remains unclear.
Like many other Indonesian workers in a similar situation like him, the 48-year-old, now plans to return home once his work permit expires in about 16 months.
ILLEGAL WORKERS MOST VULNERABLE
The Indonesian consul general acknowledges there are many Indonesians in Saudi Arabia who are struggling as a result of COVID-19.
"In general, our migrant workers are fairly heavily impacted by COVID-19.
“There has been no Haj twice and the Umrah has also been very limited,” said Mr Hartono.
Besides Indonesians working as guides, Mr Hartono said that those who work in sectors related to the pilgrimage business such as in the hotel, restaurant and souvenir shops are also affected.
Moreover, since Saudi Arabia introduced Saudi Vision 2030 a few years ago, which aims to diversify its domestic economy by providing employment to its citizens, work opportunities for foreigners have also become scarce.
“This has made the lives of our migrant workers recently difficult,” said Mr Hartono.
As a result, many Indonesians have decided to return home for good or to wait a little bit longer and see how the situation would evolve, he added.
Those who are staying and in need of help can seek assistance from the Indonesian government in the form of staple food or direct cash, if necessary.
Mr Hartono said that the Consulate General in Jeddah has distributed about 5,000 packages of aid that covers about 15,000 people.
It is estimated there are about 20,000 Indonesians who are in need of some help due to their current difficult circumstances.
“We select them (the recipients) thoroughly. They must be Indonesians who are in need because we cannot help them all,” said Mr Hartono adding that illegal workers are also helped.
“It is precisely those who are illegal who are more vulnerable than those who are legal. Legal workers usually have a permanent job, their salary is also better. If they are illegal, they have odd jobs, the salary is definitely lower, they can be fired arbitrarily…”
The government has so far provided its assistance in three phases, said the consul general who oversees the affairs of Indonesian workers in areas such as Mecca, Jeddah, Madinah, Tabouk and Asir.
DON’T COUNT ON HAJ: CONSUL GENERAL
Indonesian non-governmental and community organisations also chip in to help the government in locating migrant workers who need assistance and in getting the illegal ones to be properly documented.
Mr Suib Darwanto, head of the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI) in Jeddah said that they work together with the government to distribute the aid.
“SBMI has also assisted Indonesian migrant workers during the pandemic such as providing food and medicine,” he said.
Another community organisation, Rise of Indonesian Migrants Solidarity Trust (BMISA) provides help in raising donations from fellow Indonesians who are doing well in Saudi Arabia said its secretary Karyadi.
It was believed that some of the difficult challenges facing Indonesian workers could be alleviated if the Haj resumes this year.
The Saudi government has, however, announced that this year’s Haj will again be restricted to its citizens and residents of the country, with a maximum of 60,000 pilgrims only.
This will be the second year in a row that foreign pilgrims are not allowed to perform the Haj due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Consul General Hartono believed that Indonesian migrant workers should not count on the Haj to help them with their financial situation.
He pointed out that workers who want to work abroad should make sure that they are equipped with the right skills and have the necessary legal documents.
Meanwhile, for Mr Muhammad Kurdi, the guide turned YouTuber, he has decided to remain in Saudi Arabia at least until his work permit expires about seven months’ time.
He may consider going back to Indonesia afterwards, but doubts still linger in him as to what the future holds for migrant workers back home.
"That's why some decide to stay here because they're uncertain…" added Mr Kurdi.
Read this story in Bahasa Indonesia here.