With reporting from Heba Fahmy and Peter Kovessy
As the sun came up after an overnight sandstorm blanketed Qatar, workers at the Central Market made a tragic discovery this morning: vendor Manzour Gaa’far had died while asleep in his stall.
Gaa’far was a colleague of several men who spoke to Doha News a few days earlier about what it’s like to be homeless in Qatar, shedding light on the living conditions experienced by some of the country’s low-income workers.
His body was found at approximately 5am when a vendor who works in a neighboring stall tried to wake him. When Gaa’far remained motionless, his colleague informed the Iranian man’s sponsor, who subsequently called the authorities.
While the official cause of death is not known, medical personnel from the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning (Baladiya) who took Gaa’far’s body away told Doha News that the sandstorm, coupled with Gaa’far’s advanced age (he was thought to be in his 60s or 70s), were primary factors.
A colleague of Gaa’far’s sponsor, Abu Abdullah, who was also at the market, said that Gaa’far had complained of an upset stomach and a headache three days ago, but had refused to go to the hospital as he didn’t think that the pain was severe.
He added that he had seen Gaa’far after work yesterday and that he seemed fine.
Technically, Gaa’far – who hailed from a Pashtun region on the border of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – had housing in Qatar, according to his sponsor.
However, it was located far from the Central Market, where he worked long shifts. This made it impractical to commute each day, prompting him to sleep in his stall at night.
When Doha News visited the Central Market earlier this week, Gaa’far – who was injured approximately a year and a half ago when a car backed into a door that then fell on his leg – lay fast asleep on a dirt-laden cloth on the floor of his stall.
“He’s old, so he would stay here, but we don’t know if he had a house. If he did, he probably slept here because of the sandstorm,” said Abdullah, a 73-year-old hamaali at the market. “No one wanted to drive anywhere last night. We were with him until about 10pm before he went to sleep.”
Nick McGeehan, a researcher from Human Rights Watch, told Doha News that the experiences of the Central Market workers highlight one of the problems with Qatar’s sponsorship (kafala) system.
While not familiar with this case, McGeehan noted that many low-income workers are forced to live long distances from their workplaces.
“Housing is tied to their contract, leaving it up to their sponsor to provide it,” he said. “It can be cheap housing that fulfills their contractual obligations, but is practically inappropriate.”
For his part, Gaa’far’s sponsor, a Qatari of Iranian descent named Hamza, said he had adequately provided for his employee.
“We gave him a house, but he didn’t want to stay (there). He preferred to live here because it was closer. We can’t do anything if he refused to go to his house.”
However, in a followup phone call, Hamza told Doha News that the apartment he provided Gaa’far was actually located behind the market, adding that the man only had to work seven hours a day.
When Doha News arrived at the Central Market at approximately 7:30am, police officers had strung tape in front of the entrance of Gaa’far’s stall. His body was removed about an hour later.
An official with Baladiya, which is responsible for inspecting the market, said the problem of homelessness was widespread around Doha. He estimated that several thousand residents lack adequate shelter and are forced to sleep in makeshift accommodations, such as abandoned buildings, at night.
“We can’t build houses nearby because it’s market land. All the other places close by are taken. If we help one, we have to help all the other thousands, and how can we do that? That’s for the police to do – to (enforce) that the sponsors have to provide housing,” he added.
Several hamaalis seemed visibly moved at Gaa’far’s death, and some could be seen in tears. Green-robed and white-turbaned, they had spent the night sleeping on their trolleys and beneath a large tree at the market’s entrance to escape last’s night storm.
Elsewhere, a large crowd of vendors gathered in the market to pay respects to Gaa’far’s body as it was transported away on a stretcher and eventually taken to the Hamad Medical Corp. (HMC) morgue.
One vendor said Gaa’far had previously told him that he was a widower, but had several adult children living in Iran.