It’s been nearly a month since former Qatar Academy teacher Dorje Gurung hastily departed from Qatar.
The 42-year-old, who was fired from his job in April, was subsequently jailed for allegedly insulting Islam in an argument with his students and spent 11 nights in a cell at the Al Rayyan police station. On May 12, he was released without explanation and allowed to travel to his home country of Nepal.
Since returning to the land that he left 25 years ago, Gurung has been tackling long-held goals of helping his people with renewed purpose.
“Now that I’m back in Nepal and free, I want to help improve the future of children of Nepal,” he explained in a Youtube video about an upcoming project.
“I hope to work on issues related to social justice and equality,” he added in an interview with Doha News about his ordeal and his plans for the future.
In that vein, Gurung is holding a fundraising campaign to bolster a school in the district of Sindhupalchowk, just outside the capital of Kathmandu. According to the campaign’s website:
Like most government schools in Nepal, (the school) has very poor infrastructure, lacks resources and trained teachers. The dropout rate is alarmingly high and the exam pass rate very low.
The campaign, called “Education is Freedom-Nepal”, has raised some $17,000 so far, but still has a ways to go to reach its goal of $51k.
The money will be used for several onsite projects, including building a playground; updating teaching methods, particularly in the field of science, as well as adding English language classes; building a fishery on campus to support local jobs and whose profits will go back to the school; constructing a new building with more classrooms; and shoring up the school library, among other things.
Gurung, who has worked in Malawi, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Norway, Australia, Hong Kong and New Mexico, credits his prompt release from Qatari jail to vocal support from the international community, who within days gathered some 13,000 signatures in an online petition demanding his release.
“This is cliche, but it’s only when you lose your freedom (that) you come to appreciate its value,” Gurung told Doha News. He continued:
“If it hadn’t been for all the friends and colleagues from all over the world that I had met during the course of my education, and teaching, I would still be in jail. A lot of the people in that jail, I believe, are still there because they don’t have people outside to help them secure their freedom.”
As for the children of Nepal, he said he believes education will help them achieve their own kind of freedom, from poverty and a life of difficult choices.
“For instance, (I want) to help provide quality education to kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds, kids who come from the kind of background I came from – so that they don’t end up in places like the Gulf as a migrant laborer,” he said
Notably, though he spent his first night in prison alone, Gurung shared a cell with 10 Nepalese expats for the remainder of his time there.
During the day, the main entrance to the prison block was locked, but the cells that spanned two floors and held some 250 prisoners remained unlocked, except at sporadic times, Gurung explained.
When the teacher first returned from the Public Prosecutor’s office on May 2, his future roommates, all construction workers, invited him to stay with them. Many cells were organized by nationality, he added.
Inmates, some of whom said they’d been there for two years, faced a variety of charges, including murder, theft and drinking. That everyone was free to mingle during the day bothered him initially, he admitted.
“But after about four to five days, I noticed that there was hardly any violence of any kind,” he said. And the food was “surprisingly” ok, with prisoners getting three meals a day, including lots of fruit and yogurt. Treatment at the prison was also decent, with “hardly any abuse from the wardens,” Gurung said.
Though his living conditions were not intolerable, the teacher said adapting to them was a “surreal experience.” During his time there, Gurung would spend much of his day trying to keep his mind off of his predicament by reading books that friends dropped off.
But he still couldn’t help asking himself:
“‘How did it come to that? How did it come to that?’ And of course I worried a great deal about my parents and how they would take it.”
Gurung’s prison experience both started and ended abruptly.
It began with a phone call asking him to come into the station to discuss an unspecified matter (he thought it was unpaid parking tickets), and escalated when Gurung was told to hand over his belt, mobile phone and other belongings.
It ended just as suddenly. On his blog, he wrote:
When freedom came, the afternoon of Sunday, May 12, I wasn’t even expecting it. I was unaware of all the frantic activities taking place around the world to get me out. As a matter of fact, just that morning, I had done my laundry–by hand, in the bathroom, in a bucket!
When the “Captain” entered our room saying, “I bring good news. You go out!” I had to ask one of an Arab-speaking Nepalese to confirm what I understood he was saying. “Yes! You are free,” came the response.
To this day, the teacher said he has not been given a reason for why the charges against him were dropped.
Why they were filed in the first place remains another uncomfortable question.
Racism at work?
Gurung declined to talk about the harassment he faced at Qatar Academy, but friends and colleagues said that during his near-two year stint there, students systematically scoffed at his authority because of his nationality.
The conflict came to a head in late April during an argument with three 12-year-old boys in the school cafeteria, in which they taunted him and poked him, Gurung told friends. In response to the teasing, he said something to the effect of, “How would you like to be stereotyped, i.e. called a terrorist?”
Within days, the teacher was fired – losing out on some five months of salary and end-of-service benefits for the remainder of his two year contract. Two days before he was set to leave Qatar for good, he was jailed.
After his release, Gurung promised supporters that he was going “to make every effort to make this gift of freedom worth the time and effort you invested in winning it for me.”
The fundraising effort appears to be the first step in that regard.