It is only three months before Maryam is due completing an entire year of stay in India. In July last year, she made her first journey outside her home country. Seated at the corner of the bed in her scantily furnished room in Okhla, her hands clasped onto prayer beads – Maryam is murmuring “Ya salaamo”, the Islamic prayer recited for recovery from a painful disease or illness.
Her body seems fragile, and her voice is low.
She says she has lost weight, and complains of hair loss which is not visible due to her black-coloured hijab, worn with a black cloak covering the full body – as women in Gulf countries do.
It is sundown, dark patches of blue can be seen in the evening sky from the balcony. The light is dim, and the fan runs with a constant whizzing sound.
Maryam Ahmad Abdullah, a sixty-five year old Yemeni, is suffering from rectal cancer. Accompanied by her twenty seven years old son, Abdul Jabbar Makrash, Maryam is receiving treatment in Delhi.
She was diagnosed with rectal cancer and lung cancer a year ago while in Yemen just a few weeks after her son got engaged in the neighbourhood. Talks of the wedding ceremony were in place but the news of her illness damped their happy spirits.
Immediately, Abdul applied for two visas to India.
“We traveled to submit the doctor’s prescription at Djibouti and then applied for a medical visa,” says Abdul.
The application procedure included strings of processes – application for visa, approval letters from hospitals, arrangements for lodging, booking interpreters – the list is endless.
It was during the same period Oxfam reported that more than 10 million Yemenis were deprived of food, clean drinking water and shelter. The situation in Yemen worsened with each passing day, and Abdul knew at the time of visa application that the decision to travel to India for medical treatment wouldn’t be an easy job.
From getting approval letters to signing piles of permission papers to making a sea journey to Djibouti in East Africa, it took a month’s struggle to complete travel formalities. Abdul and Maryam finally boarded the plane to the subcontinent in hopes of cost effective world class medical procedure.
Arrangements were made for their stay in Delhi by a family friend from Yemen itself, who has been living in the city for the past four years. A two-room flat inside a crowded lane in Okhla has been their home here since a year.
Many medical tourists from Arab countries have settled around Malviya Nagar, Lajpat Nagar, Bhogal, Okhla, Tughlakabad, and Gurgaon, due to their vicinity to private hospitals that promise world class facilities for surgeries at cost effective prices.
According to a study by Medical Tourism hub, an online not-for-profit organization based in USA, “Direct air connectivity, proximity, and cultural connectivity have helped people from Gulf to feel comfortable during their medical tour in India.”
Watch: Jabbar talks about her mother’s journey from Yemen.
Within three days of arrival in India, Abdul’s Arab friends in the city suggested him to consult doctors in private hospitals who deal with international patients on a regular basis. For the first time in August 2016, Abdul took Maryam to a private hospital in South Delhi. The first test cost them forty thousand rupees and the medical report stated – unlike the previous diagnosis in Yemen – that Maryam was only suffering from rectal cancer. The report emphasized Maryam needed an urgent laser therapy and chemotherapy, costing a sum of three lacs in total. That was in August 2016.
Back home, Maryam’s two daughters and three other sons hoped their mother would recover in a matter of weeks. Abdul’s wedding was to be performed in a few months, informs Abdul while looking at the engagement ring on his left hand.
In one of Delhi’s internationally accredited private hospitals, Maryam’s treatment started. Soon, tests and medicines, each costing not less than forty thousand at least, followed.
Abdul hadn’t brought with him a lot of money, but he could not think of returning home unsuccessful. “I want to see my mother healthy, this is the most important thing to me”, he says, placing a kiss on his mother’s forehead.
Within a span of three months, Abdul had spent six lacs in total. His pocket was draining. His hopes mellowed, a bit every day.
Similar incidents have been reported by other medical tourists from Arab countries. According to the 2015 Grant Thornton report on Medical tourism in India, 30 percent of medical tourists in India come from the Gulf and CIS countries.
The report also states that the influx of Middle Eastern medical tourists to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India in the past two years has been unprecedented. Medical tourists from Arab countries – Iraq, Yemen, and Syria – particularly prefer India because of cheaper surgical costs, the presence of internationally accredited facilities and availability of world class infrastructure. Abdul had four options to choose from – Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and India. “My friends who had earlier got treated in India referred saying it is the best for treatment,” says Abdul.
“My friends who had earlier got treated in India referred saying it is the best for treatment,” says Abdul.
After three months of consulting a number of doctors in private hospitals, Maryam had got dozens of tests done, without any considerable improvement in her condition. Their expenses of paying for the flat rent, buying food, conveyance and treatment related charges like blood tests, x-rays and scans, medicines kept on increasing.
Abdul’s family land back in Yemen had been sold off by now, to pay to private hospitals here in Delhi. He continued with the processes, listening to doctors and paying them in cash with each successive tests. Medicines were also issued from the hospitals. This went on for twelve long weeks.
During the last few months of 2016, Abdul realized he could no longer afford medical charges. He knew he had to do the unthinkable.
Maryam’s health hadn’t improved a lot. The process would take a lot of time before they showed results, doctors kept repeating.
With no option left, Abdul went ahead with his final decision.
“I sold our property, gold and our ancestral weapons, one by one,” says Abdul.
He looks down, pale-faced. His mother, seated beside him, caresses his hair.
Gold and weapons – considered the most royal possession in Arab countries – their last token of wealth was also given up by Abdul. He smiles at Maryam, and then looks down as he narrates further.
Maryam’s health was deteriorating speedily, even after the chemotherapy was conducted. The doctors then suggested another surgery, which required more money. Around end December, a few of his friends in the embassy and elsewhere advised him to consult doctors at AIIMS. Abdul followed suit. Maryam, admitted to AIIMS was now receiving treatments that cost far less than what they were charged previously. A few months into the procedures, she felt better.
However, by now, Abdul felt all his savings had ended. There was not a single penny left to be employed into Maryam’s treatment. His Arab friends studying in the city started collecting funds for further procedures.
With the gathered money, Maryam’s fee at AIIMS for various surgeries and tests were paid in the past few months. She still hasn’t been cured properly. Abdul slides his hands over the stack of medical reports from a bag, flipping the pages and checking details.
“We are still facing shortage of money. We have no money to go back home,” says Abdul.
Sitting quietly in the corner, mumbling inaudibly at her prayer beads, Maryam fondly looks at Abdul’ and kisses his face.
Her fingers seem tired with moving one bead at a time, she wears an exhausted look on her face, her hijab seems loose. Thin strands of hair flutter in front of her face, blocking her vision.
Outside, the sun has set for long now. Faraway, only a tinge of dark black seems covering the sky. It is time for them to shut the door to the balcony.