Nepalis in Portugal

One bed, a wardrobe, three chairs, a small desk and a low table are a lot of furniture for a room of approximately 16sqm. Every seating surface, including the bed, is occupied and in total there is nine of us in the place. Shiva’s picture is hanging on the wall and a Nepali flag flies on the desk. All this could well be a scene in my favourite Asian country, but instead we are in a residential neighbourhood of Lisbon, some five minutes walking from Intendente metro stop.

The whole team has been invited for dinner, which – what else could it really be – is home-cooked Dal Bhat. We arrive at around 19:00 and, given that Nepalis eat rather late, are left with ample opportunity to exchange stories about people from back home. Apparently half the room has its origins in a small village somewhere between Bhaktapur and Nagarkot.

In general there are lots of Nepalis in Lisbon. I don’t have exact numbers but I think somebody mentioned 5,000. Which for a city of 500,000 is quite a few.

Not all of those residing in the country are doing it legally though. First I heard a story in regards to that on Sunday. Saroj and Hari had left early that day to take a bus to a small town 2.5 hours from Lisbon. In that town they hoped to meet a cousin of Saroj, who had dropped of the map a few weeks earlier.

The young boy had originally received a student visa for Poland, but, shortly after arriving, had left that country behind and made his way to Portugal, turning himself into an illegal alien. The exact reasons for that I couldn’t figure out. That’s a general problem though, figuring out Nepalis and their motivations is not only hindered by a language barrier.

During the get-together, more stories were shared, and even though most of the discussion was in Nepali, I got regular translations to English from the bilingual attendees. The common narrative is this: A hopeful young Nepali is baited with stories of a rich life in Europe. Monthly incomes of €4000 seem to be promised. The poor soul and his family then take up a mortgage on anything they have in their name, in order to gather the $15,000 to $20,000 that are required for the journey to the land of low-hanging fruit.

Not a strictly legal journey I assume, considering the price tag. But no details were given on that.

Once the hopeful young reaches European soil, often via Russia apparently, the brutal realisation hits. If there is any money to be made, it is close to €500 and miles from the dreamed-off €4000. Deducting the cost of living, it leaves so little that simply paying off the loan will take a decade. Returning early is all but impossible, not only for economic reasons, but also because the loss of face would be insufferable.

The myth of Europe as the promised land is widespread and probably there to stay. One of the Nepalis came to the conference on a proper visa and his whole village (except for his wife) told him he’d be mad if he returned to Nepal voluntarily. He hopefully has seen enough to know better. And maybe he can tell a different story at home. The traffickers certainly won’t.

Looking at the truly legal immigrants, life is not all peaches either. Among us was a woman a few years younger than me, who is now in her eighth year abroad. She told a story of a young woman, married way too early to an older man, and some incident that resulted in the husband pretty much forcing his wife to leave her country and young child behind.

In her mid-twenties, her first port-of-call was Israel. There she worked as a care-taker for seven years, before moving on to work as a waitress in Lisbon. I couldn’t figure out why she had switched countries and professions. Again, that’s not really because of a language barrier…

All-in-all, my stay in Lisbon had an unexpectedly heavy Nepali touch. Which was fine with me – never gets boring with these guys. Plus who can say no to home-cooked curry and rice at seven in the morning!