John Mathew: A Saga of An Expatriate


It has been 60 years since John Mathew first set foot in Kuwait and and he believes that his retirement will bring him the very same comfort, joy and vitality that will carry him forward in his journey…reports Asian Lite News

In 1930s and 1940s, it was for the erstwhile British colonies of Singapore and Malaysia that the first waves of professionally qualified Malayali migrants set out. Newly independent India of the fifties and the sixties witnessed Indian-educated migrants leaving the country in pursuit of better career opportunities in the West. During the accelerated decolonization process in the Middle East in the sixties, with Kuwait gaining her Independence in 1961, several Middle Eastern nations sought to consolidate and independently control their oil wealth. It became imperative to hire both skilled and unskilled workers to extract, exploit, refine and move these resources and power their economies.

Water and electricity were unarguably absolute essential inputs where the generation of larger quantities of oil and the development of basic infrastructure were concerned. Kuwait had no natural freshwater sources of her own and in the early nineties, water for use in Kuwait had to be brought in from Basra in Iraq via dhow or even on the backs of donkeys. Desalination plants were later set up for the purpose of purifying seawater for both commercial and domestic requirements.

Seeking skilled workers to these massive electricity and water projects, Kuwait’s Ministry of Electricity and Water advertised these vacancies in leading newspapers in India. In 1962, John Mathew was recruited to the Ministry. His experience working as a chemical engineer at FACT in Kerala and the 2nd rank, he secured pursuing his Chemical Engineering degree qualified him to work at the MEW.

Three years later, he was hired by the Petrochemical Industries Company (then known as Kuwait Chemical Fertilizer). On the path of aggressive expansion, the company sent John Mathew to the US and the Netherlands to attend training programs as a fully salaried employee for 18 months. On his return, he would find himself working with top management at the organization.

An expat’s life is a kind of self-imposed exile. Out of necessity, they uproot themselves to find their way in strange new lands. They often find themselves unable to surmount the odds and adversities stemming from being subjected to this process but finds in themselves the strength to soldier on. For some, nations in the Gulf are often seen as transit points to other lands. Though Mathew was inundated with lucrative offers from multinational corporations in Western nations, promising even higher advancement up the corporate ladder, he realized that Kuwait was where he needed to be and chose to find his way here.

It has been 60 years since John Mathew first set foot in Kuwait and and he believes that his retirement will bring him the very same comfort, joy and vitality that will carry him forward in his journey.

When asked what brought him to decide to return home after sixty years of life abroad, he quips, “My social life has died, most of my friends have either moved back home or are no longer with us. I can literally count the number of friends I have here, while back home, I have too many friends and relatives to count.”

As a capital investor and board member in three companies in Kuwait, Mathew holds an Investor Status No. 19 visa, which enables him and his family to continue living in Kuwait as expatriates for as long as they wish. In 1981, with his entrepreneurial spirit taking charge and spurring him to strike out on his own, he started his own company, providing employment to more than 7,000 people in the years since.

The late K. M. Mani, a political strongman from Kerala, once humorously remarked on the Malayali’s penchant for creating factions within factions because he wants to lead his own pack. The desire to illuminate his identity and become a pioneer wherever he finds himself has been coded into the DNA of every Malayali that leaves home. Case in point, an overwhelming majority of the 300-odd Indian organizations registered with the Indian Embassy in Kuwait under the aegis of the Indian Arts Circle are Malayali organizations. While he was an active member of the Students’ Federation when he was at the university and later, member of the Communist Party’s trade union organization during his stint at FACT, Mathew was, however, neither actively involved with any of these Malayali organizations in Kuwait, nor sought to lead any of them.

When abroad, a Malayali employs only his politics of survival, will deftly maneuver his way through any occupation and will completely dedicate himself to his profession. This makes a Malayali an ideal global citizen.

Mathew is happy to have been of service in the capacity of Transportation Coordinator on the Volunteer Committee which was formed under the leadership of M. Mathews with the singular goal of safely repatriating over 125,000 Indians who found themselves turned into refugees overnight when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq.

Hiring Iraqi buses with donations from passengers to ferry more than 100,000 Indians by road to the Jordanian border without the help of a single government agency was a task fraught with risks and challenges. As he recounts these events, one can see the pride he carries in having participated in this humanitarian endeavor which is now regarded as the largest civilian evacuation in history.

Mathew also recalls that, in those days of uncertainty, a greater challenge was the protection and repatriation of domestic help who were abandoned when their Kuwaiti sponsors fled their homes in the wake of Iraqi aggression. John and his colleagues on the Volunteer Committee headed by M. Mathews boarded the last bus out of Kuwait only after ensuring that every last Indian who wished to go back home, including these women, was safely and securely on their way to the Jordanian border.

When NORKA was formed, the Kerala State Government appointed John Mathew as NORKA’s official Kuwait representative. At the time, John was actively engaged in ensuring that the petitions of those who were unable to apply at the UN Compensation Commission for financial reparations following the Iraqi occupation were collected and forwarded to NORKA; he collaborated with the Indian coordinator at the UN Commission in Geneva, Swashpawan Singh (former Indian Ambassador to Kuwait), and saw to it that those applying for compensation even during the final rounds were given their dues.

When asked about his opinion on the matter of the Kuwait government’s policy of not providing residence permits to those over the age of 60, John, now 84 and ready to return home after sixty years of expatriate life, says “The age of 55 to 75 years is that phase in a person’s life when he can function as contributing member of society using the good experience and judgement that he accumulated over the years. Any society would do well to utilize their experience. It could only be beneficial to the nation and society,” he goes on to say, “… even if I am back home, I will continue to be involved with the day-to-day activities of my business. I am a workaholic. I believe in working hard. Work hard and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Enjoy the luxuries you can afford. Live your life happily and harm no one.”

Mathew does not believe in an after-life or reincarnation. He has travelled to almost every country on the planet. He cherishes his travels and his books and is a regular invitee to the events conducted Indian writers in Kuwait. Penned by him, “A Saga of An Expatriate” is an English semi-autobiographical novel set against the backdrop of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. He has also authored three books in Malayalam.

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