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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 March, 2003, 11:07 GMT
Asians stay in Gulf despite war

Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online, in Kuwait

The last gas mask
The last gas mask in stock
Of the 2.4m people living in Kuwait, only one third are citizens of the emirate. Migrants from across Asia are vital to keep Kuwait running, but in the current crisis is their welfare being forgotten?

Mohammad Hassan holds up the final gas mask in stock at the shop he runs in Kuwait City. He has sold "thousands" of these respirators in recent weeks to both residents and migrants.

But today, only Kuwaitis come in to enquire about safeguarding themselves against the Iraqi chemical attack many locals fear will soon come.

Migrant workers, mostly Asian, make up the bulk of Kuwait's population. But it is little wonder few of them bother to enter Al-Saleh and Sons Military Supplies.

The shop specialises in "very good" Czech respirators, which retail at 50 Kuwaiti Dinars (KD) ($150) and are therefore beyond the means of many foreign workers.

"There are different types of gas mask. Chinese, Korean, Czech. People buy the best one they can afford," says Bombay native Mr Hassan, who admits to not having invested in a respirator of his own.

Hierarchy of gas marks

Non-Kuwaitis are especially aware of this hierarchy of gas masks and closely monitor the prices of these increasing scarce devices. "American, 45KD. Korean, yes, 25KD. And 200KD for a child's mask," one idling taxi driver says into his mobile phone.

If I go back to the Philippines I will lose my job here and there will be no work for me there
Jeff Panilinan
Filipino waiter
The Kuwaiti authorities have bought 200,000 respirators for civil servants - one of the few professions in the emirate to be dominated by Kuwaitis themselves. Some private employers have equipped their foreign workers with masks, but many migrants will have to find the money themselves or go without.

Many of the poorest paid are wary of spending hard earned money on masks whose effectiveness is dubious - stories are rife of respirators being sold with faulty or out-of-date filters.

Some migrants have already stretched their finances by stockpiling food and taping up their windows against a chemical attack. A wet towel over the mouth is the only barrier against deadly nerve agent that many people are banking on.

Looking for a bargain

Sri Lankan Mohammed Azmi is desperately hunting down a last-minute bargain during his lunch hour. He has only succeeded in finding a mask for 25KD - a considerable chunk of his weekly earnings. "I will have to try again tomorrow, I have heard of one for 10KD."

Kuwaiti man loads bottled water into his car
Residents are stockpiling essentials

Mr Azmi says he is very scared and has already sent his wife and two sons out of the country. "My wife phones me very worried. I would like to go home too, but my company has not given us back our passports."

Filipino waiter Jeff Panilinan would also like to be home with his wife and young children, but says he would rather except the risk of staying on in Kuwait and continue collecting his pay cheque.

"My mother is very worried and wants me to leave, but I have to support her and my own family. If I go back to the Philippines I will lose my job here and there will be no work for me there."

In the suburbs of Kuwait City, Laila Al-Khatib says she offered her Filipino maids - Jane, Lisa and Marietta - their passports and an advance on their salaries to escape the impending war. "They said they would not leave, they are part of our family," she says.

Working over the kitchen sink, Jane says: "If Laila is here and the others are staying, I will stay."

Lisa, however, is not quite as firm in her conviction - her fears about an Iraqi chemical attack perhaps heightened as the war draws inexorably closer. "We're scared. I would like to go home if what is going to happen is very bad, but I am doing my best to stay strong."


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