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The Grieving Odyssey of Repatriating the bodies of Deceased Loved Ones from the Gulf.

Updated: Jan 26

In the harsh reality of life's unpredictable turns, the agony of losing a loved one is a profound emotional challenge, exacerbated when that loss unfolds in a distant land. The intricate process of repatriating human remains from the Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, is a labyrinth of bureaucracy and heartache.

The Kenyan Government's official data paints a grim picture, documenting the demise in Saudi Arabia of at least 185 Kenyan women, primarily domestic workers, between 2020 and November 2022. The numbers tell a tale of raising sorrow: 48 in 2020, 60 in 2021, and 77 from January to November 2022.

The narrative takes a darker turn with the revelation that, in many instances, families are not promptly informed of their loved ones' passing. The silence persists until families muster the courage to inquire about their kin. In some hushed scenarios, fellow colleagues in Saudi Arabia clandestinely convey the tragic news, shrouded in secrecy and caution.

Gladys Nyambura's story unfolds as a poignant example. On January 17, 2023, she saw her daughter Caroline off, embracing for her the hope of a brighter future in Saudi Arabia. Despite Caroline's consistent communication while working abroad, her sudden illness and subsequent demise remained shrouded in silence. The heart-wrenching news reached Gladys not through official channels but via Caroline's boyfriend, informed by a discreet call from a friend in Saudi Arabia.

The Foreign Contact of Service document, Clause 9, underscores the responsibilities of employers in the face of death or serious injury.

Gladys instead faced a two-month ordeal, tirelessly navigating government offices until by chance she encountered a former deputy Ambassador of Saudi Arabia. This became the catalyst for repatriating Caroline's body in a mere two weeks.

The disheartening truth is that the Kenyan government lacks clear structures or pathways for grieving families seeking to repatriate the remains of their loved ones. This systemic flaw comes to light again in the story of Jackson, grappling with the tragedy of his wife, Hannah, who lost her life under suspicious circumstances in Saudi Arabia.

Jackson, in seeking the truth and repatriating his wife's remains, faced unfathomable anguish. His inquiries led him on a futile journey, making calls to the deportation center, the Kenyan agency facilitating Hannah's travel, the employer in Saudi Arabia, and the Kenyan Embassy. His efforts, met with blocked calls and unanswered questions, mirrored the bureaucratic quagmire.

Jackson's pursuit of truth unraveled a shocking demand — he was told to shoulder the costs of repatriation, ranging from Ksh 400,000 to 500,000 ($ 2600-3300), despite the clauses outlined in the Form of foreign contact of service (see Clause 12 below). The contradiction between government policies and the reality facing grieving families becomes glaring.

Even with the intervention of a prominent politician facilitating the repatriation, Jackson's journey was far from over. At the airport, he faced unexplained charges, including passport clearance, Kenya Revenue Authority fees, amounting to Ksh 26,000 ($ 170). The lack of clarity surrounding these charges adds another layer of distress.

Esther also passed away in Saudi Arabia in February 2021. After an extended period of silence from her, the family-initiated inquiries about her whereabouts. Despite numerous phone calls to her former employer in Saudi Arabia and both the Kenyan and Saudi Arabian agencies that facilitated Esther's travel, they were given no information about her for several months. In May 2021, the family finally received a phone call from the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing that Esther had passed away back in February and asking for confirmation of the names of those designated to receive her body at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. This highlights a significant gap in communication and awareness by the relevant authorities. The Kenyan ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the family that they had to cater the expenses of repatriation of about Ksh 350,000 – Ksh 500,000 ($ 2600-3300).

Upon the arrival of these departed souls, the absence of post-mortem examinations compounds the agony. Grieving families find themselves trapped in a bureaucratic maze and financial strain, resorting to fundraisers or loans to honor their loved ones, while those unable to raise the exorbitant amounts are left at the mercy of Saudi authorities.

In addition, the families face difficulty in understanding the repatriation documentation since most of the accompanying documents are in Arabic only. It would be helpful for the Kenyan government to have such documents looked at by professionals and translated for the family members to understand.

The stories of Gladys Jackson and Esther’s families paint a stark portrait of a flawed system that fails to provide the support and clarity needed by grieving families. The plea for change echoes through their narratives, urging a revision of the systemic shortcomings that cast a shadow over the dignity of the departed and the families left to navigate a labyrinth of despair.

Numerous incidents exist, including many untold stories, where families turn to benevolent individuals for assistance in repatriating their loved ones' remains from Saudi Arabia. What adds to the sorrow is the formidable challenge families face when seeking information from different government offices, only to be shuffled from one office to another. It is imperative for Kenya to engage in negotiations for improved working conditions for its citizens in Saudi Arabia, aiming to put an end to both the tragic deaths and instances of modern-day slavery. The ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour should establish a comprehensive database of all Kenyans employed in Saudi Arabia and take a proactive approach in aiding those facing distressing situations.


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