Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Everyday People

It is easy to gain a false sense of reality here at KAUST with all of the attention we are getting from kings, presidents, sheiks, and Ivy League Department Heads.

Today KAUST hosted a conference for respected Red Sea scientists. Two days ago, the Lebanese President came for a visit. The week before that, a drove of international diplomats stopped in for a tour. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton was in the area just a little while ago. Saudi Princes check in regularly.

These powerful politicians and researchers are always hurried and as they move between important meetings their entourage of guards, media men, black suits, and blue suits are buzzing like a swarm of bees, but they will often take a few formal minutes to spend with students - maybe to say a speech or shake a few hands - to spread a few bits of their wisdom and encourage us that someday we too, might be fortunate enough to be in their shoes. We might also have this version of "success."

Why should we be so fortunate? There are a lot of employees here at KAUST who have very little control over their life situation and plenty of time on their hands. These guys are happy to talk and make new friends if you give them half a chance. The noble Saudi security guards from Thuwal or Abha will never become sheiks or doctors, but they are rich with the everyday wisdom of kindness, sincerity, and friendship.

Then there are the "visiting" workers - so many Filipinos have signed two or three year contracts and left their families and country to live in work camps and work six or seven days a week for as little as a few hundred dollars a month - which is still better than being unemployed in their home country. They get no paid vacation or flight home, little leisure time, and little respect, but they are also some of the friendliest people on campus. Most speak at least a little English, and I try to make a little conversation every time I pass a guy on the street or in the gym.

"Visiting" workers fix our stoves, patch our leaks, and carve our melons...

Pour our coffee...

Polish our tile floors...

And greet everyone with a "hello sir!"

Another class of visiting workers comes from Bangladesh. These guys usually speak no English and are limited to the unskilled jobs which pay a little less and offer little chance for interacting with community members. Bangladeshis make up the majority of the construction crews, window washers (KAUST has tens of thousands of square meters of windows to wash), and trash pick-up.
Workers moving bookshelves in the library.

Fixing a wall in the library.

Scrubbing the sidewalk,

Watering the flowers,

And the trashcan.

Visiting workers maintain our gardens (no easy task in Saudi heat!)

A wave and a smile is usually reciprocated.

There are the occasional injustices. One Bangladeshi guy who spoke a little English said that he had worked for three months without pay, but his company kept promising to pay "soon soon!" This conversation was in October, I hope he has been paid by now.

Lots of sidewalks need fixing.

Construction crews are always thrown on a task in large groups.

More road work. Sometimes construction crews cause traffic problems...

I've used a jackhammer before - I would not want this guy's job!

Night shift going back to the work camp in the morning.

More road work.

Without these everyday people, KAUST would not function or even exist today. Filipinos and Bangladeshis provide almost all of the common services and have completed the lion's share of construction work at KAUST. Visiting workers built my lab, fixed my appliances, checked my groceries at the store, served my meals, cleaned the bathrooms, staff the recreation center, care for children, open doors (I can't believe that we pay people to open doors...), and take out the trash.

It is easy to be unmindful or even ungrateful when something is not done well, but these people are just trying to earn money for their families - they have no ambitions for power politics or publishing research papers. All they have to offer is priceless; sometimes just a wave and a smile.


  1. thank you for this beautiful post nathan!! your thoughtfulness and kindness is humbling :-)

  2. Dear Nathan,

    I loved this post. Thanks!