Death is an equaliser. It does not differentiate between rags or riches, fame or obscurity, race or ethnicity. When it strikes, death leaves in its trail heartbroken family members with no sense of direction or comprehension of what is to be done next. A loved one’s death can break the semblance of a family. For migrants it is beyond debilitating to be faced with the loss of a loved one and the endless paperwork required in repatriating the body to their home country. It is in these times of distress and grief that migrants require support in navigating through the legal formalities. Across the UAE, anybody who requires any help with repatriation knows, I am just a phone call away. I am Ashraf Thamaraserry.
I came to the UAE in 1999 and started a small job to sustain my family. In 2000 I was visiting a hospital in Sharjah to see an acquaintance. While exiting the hospital I saw two people crying inconsolably as they had just lost their father and did not know what to do next. Without thinking further, I promised them that I would do everything in my capacity to help them take their deceased father back home at the earliest. After making many trips between the hospital, embalming centre and the consulate to complete the required paperwork, the family left for their home country after five days. A week later I was contacted to help repatriate a Bangladeshi worker who had lost his life. Knowingly or unknowingly, each day of my life since 2000 has revolved around providing support to migrant families as they take their loved one’s body back home.
My father had lived a life of service and somewhere I drew inspiration from his selfless service to people around him. My journey into repatriating the dead, on the last leg of their life’s journey happened organically. People started contacting me to help them with the paperwork so that the mortal remains reached the home country faster. I single-mindedly work towards ensuring a hassle free repatriation so that the family members are not subject to more stress. As of November 2018, I have repatriated 5000 bodies to 38 countries in the last 18 years. There have been instances where families in foreign countries have contacted me through social media channels to help them receive their loved ones remains.
My day usually starts early in the morning as I coordinate with authorities in the forensic department, police department, at the airport or consulate to initiate the processes for repatriation. Most days I return home only by midnight after completing the required formalities. Today I get a lot of support from the authorities in the government. Initially it took up to 5 days to ensure the paperwork was in place before the body could be repatriated, however today we are able to complete the legal formalities within 48 hours. It must be highlighted that the UAE government is extremely empathetic while dealing with a bereaved family. The police department, forensic department, hospital authorities, embalming centre officials, the custom and immigration officers provide immense support while repatriating the deceased. They go beyond the call of duty to ensure the bereaved family and the deceased person return to their home country at the earliest. Everyday strangers, colleagues, friends and government officials in the UAE work as a team to ensure a migrant who lost his life in the UAE is sent home in the most dignified way.
When I had first helped two people in repatriating their deceased father way back in 2000, I had never imagined or desired to be recognized or honoured for what I was doing. I was just a migrant trying to help another migrant in their hour of grief. It is rare that a random act of kindness can become one’s life calling. For me, waking up every single day and knowing that the day will be spent in service of strangers is a blessed life.
Ashraf is not very vocal about the laurels and recognition that have come his way for the selfless work that he does day in and day out. In 2015 the Government of India lauded his efforts with the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Samman’ Award for his dedicated service to migrants in the UAE. Ashraf has been conferred a Doctorate in Social Services by King’s University (accredited by the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education in the USA). Over the years Ashraf he has received a number of accolades and awards in the UAE and from across the world, from NGO’s, corporate houses and migrant associations recognising and honouring his selfless service.