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Cards of Qatar – FAQ

The story behind the story. Read about the idea. Our ambitions and thoughts in a Q and A with Blankspots editor-in-chief Martin Schibbye. Do you want to ask a question? Write to: cardsofqatar@blankspotproject.se

Martin Schibbye, how did you come up with the idea of telling the biographies of migrant workers who died in Qatar on trading cards?

– I am a reporter with my boots on the ground. Using my feet more than Google. But I am lucky to work with colleagues who doesn’t eat text for breakfast and instead thinks about packaging. I co-founded Blankspot with Brit Stakston and this was her idea. This was also a way of utilizing aspects deeply associated with football such as trading cards. Since we launched Blankspot in 2015 experimenting is a part of our DNA. 

– What made us all believe in this idea was the fact that it would make the stories reach a new audience that does not usually read our stories about migrants from South Asia. Football fans are often deeply passionate about societal issues. We believe that these cards can contribute to maintaining this important discussion. 

Why are these cards so shiny like those of football stars, when the stories behind them are so sad?

– Because these workers are stars! They are highly skilled, motivated and determined to lift their families out of poverty. We did not want to portray them as victims that’s why at a first glance, everything from the portraits, the glossy surface, and the packaging creates the feeling of authentic football cards. But at a closer look, the portraits and stories belong to migrant workers in Qatar, each with an unfiltered and sad story. 

How have the relatives reacted?

– I went back to the villages in Nepal as soon as the restrictions on travel was lifted and visited the families that colleagues had done interviews with because I wanted to show them the cards. They all took them to their hearts. They told me it meant a lot that someone from another country tried to find out what had happened to their loved ones because they did not have answers themselves. 

There are now the first 33 cards, how many more lives are to be told in this way? 

– We will start with publishing these 33, then our ambition is to publish a story every day during the four months that are left until kick-off in Doha. We are happy to reach German fans through 11 Freunde hopefully we can find other partners along the way that will share their stories. We will also send out our colleagues in India, Nepal and Bangladesh to find more stories if we manage to crowdsource the resources for that. The bulk of this work has been done by local journalists in these countries and we are looking for more contributors från Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya and The Philippines.

You all did a lot of research; how long have you been working on this project and how much support did you have?

– The difficult part was to get access to the lists over the dead. The local journalists managed that in different ways in different countries. In some cases we could get files over all the families who had received compensation from the state. In other cases we were helped by NGO:s, local trade unions and social organizations. It’s been a time consuming work and then finally set up a time for interviews. In many cases they lived far from the big cities and spoke local languages which meant that even the local journalists needed a translator. We quickly ran out of funds but kept going and now we hope that publishing will lead us to new partners and new resources so we can collect more stories in this cross-border journalistic work  

Was there a life story that particularly moved you? 

– I’d say all of them together is what hits you hard. It’s after reading story after story that the sheer mass of suffering becomes evident. After reading almost 100 different interviews with families who lost their loved ones there was one thing that surprised me. One story that we all missed during these years of covering migration and the dead and that is the mental pain. Nobody asked how the migrants felt? The social aspects of migration have gone missing. Spending ten years away from your family. Children growing up without getting to know their father. In this pile of cases there is so much mental illness. So many suicides. Both in Qatar and in the home countries after returning home. This is one of the discussions I hope publishing these stories will lead to. 

The 33 football cards launched on July 1 is just the initial batch. Blankspot and partners will now publish one card each day up until the Fifa World Cup 2022 starts.

You have been working on human rights issues for many years and even served 14 months in prison in Ethiopia for it. Why is the situation of these workers in Qatar so important to you?

– I felt there was so much debate about numbers and so little focus on the people who died. So much macro with all the big politicians, arenas and stars and so little micro. It’s also because it’s so complex. It’s not black and white.  Before this assignment I had written some investigative long form pieces about Swedish workers dying in factories in Sweden. One Swedish women, Julia, who was 21 died in a floor machine; she was pregnant. That story meant a lot to me and I got to know her family. For them it was a healing experience to talk to the media so that their daughter wouldn’t be just statistics and I kept her story with as I met the families in South Asia. 

– I also wanted to show why they went to Qatar in the first place. We can’t look for answers in Doha when the real reasons are in South Asia. In the reportages I try to explain the push and pull factors of migration. How 60 percent of the families in Nepal receives remittances from someone abroad and how that has led to a dramatic decline in extreme poverty. So, they really payed a high prize trying to get their families out of poverty. Migration is the story of our lifetime and we need to understand it. 

Some argue that the situation of the workers in Qatar will improve in the long term because of the World Cup and the attention it brings. Do you believe that?

– Yes, the new laws in Qatar and the labor reforms are unique, especially in a regional perspective. The dismantling of the Kafalasystem is a historic victory for the alliance between global trade unions and outspoken football players. Let’s just see if these reforms survive after the tournament. There is truly a momentum and the positive reforms needs to be highlighted as well. In many of the coming stories we will show how complex this issue is with stories from workers who came back as a “gulf man” and really changed their lives. But also what role remittance play for nations in South Asia. In Nepal for exampel, the money sent home from around represents 30 % of GDP, tourism is 7 %. That is the official figures so the real figure is probably much higher.

In some of the stories the workers seemed to have died of causes that has nothing to do with their work. Like cancer?

– Yes, and we have included those stories as well. When we as journalists checked the lists there where many car accidents and cancer cases. As I have said its not black and white. If we are going to try and understand the figures of 6750 or 15 000 we need to see what’s behind this statistic. These stories also tells about about the life of migrants in Qatar. About their conditions and the effects of their deaths back home. In some cases we can see the reforms like free healthcare for workers being implemented. Our ambition is to go beyond the battle of statistics and tell the stories of the people who died in Qatar. This is journalism not activism and after reading all the stories the readers can draw their own conclusions.

What has been the respons from Qatar?

– Blankspot have written to the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy with questions based on the testimonies and asked for an interview. But have not received any response yet. As a part of our articles, we would like to get their comments on a series of topics raised in the interviews. In earlier interviews the Qatar government has said that the number of deaths – which it does not dispute – is proportionate to the size of the migrant workforce.

– Qatar has also pointed out that only 20 per cent of expatriates from the countries in question are employed in construction, and that work-related deaths in this sector accounted for fewer than 10 percent of fatalities within this group. “However, every lost life is a tragedy, and no effort is spared in trying to prevent every death in our country,” the Qatari government has said earlier in a statement by a spokesperson to The Guardian. 

Many football fans are asking themselves how they should deal with this World Cup in Qatar. Should they leave the TV off and boycott, or what do you advise?

– I asked all the families about this and not one family told me they wanted to see a boycott. The family of Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma said that they were proud over his skills as a worker. He had the task of handling expansive materiel like the marble tiles for the floors. So they said that all the fans walking on the marble floor should appreciate a job well done.  I think that perspective sums up this issue. Its about remembering these people and their work.

Can readers or organizations buy the cards?

– We have printed a batch of cards which will be sent to stakeholders. We hope that these cards eventually will be sold and that we might be able to set up a fund for the families. But let’s see where this takes us together. We are a small Swedish digital media outlet so in order for that to happen we need to find new partnerships.

Are you a football fan yourself?

– I live south of Stockholm and its Hammarby-country. (The club where Zlatan is one of the owners) We carry the team in our hearts but don’t go around waving flags from our balconies, as the other teams’ fans who live here. We know this our side of town. When I was in jail a got a jersey from the team that hanged it the roof. But apart from that I read more about football than I watch.

Some of the questions in this interview where initially asked and published by our German partner 11 Freunde, but since we have received similar questions from readers this is an English version where a couple of new questions have been added. Questions? Send us a mail: cardsofqatar@blankspotproject.se