South Africans still stranded in Saudi Arabia fear they will be on the street if they are not helped soon.
More than 120 South Africans were repatriated from Saudi Arabia last Tuesday and Thursday.
The second flight was for the South Africans who arrived in Jeddah too late for the first flight. After a frantic journey from Khobar to Jeddah, 13 people again missed their flights home and say they are running out of money.
Members of the Thursday group who made the flight said the road home had been a fraught one, as they navigated the difficult process of getting a permit to make the 1 000km bus trip from Riyadh, where they were living, to the airport in Jeddah.
Their last hours in Jeddah, before finally boarding an early-morning flight home on Thursday, were spent trying to ensure other South Africans would not be left behind. Elton Kruger, who caught the Thursday flight, said that there were about 250 people in total stranded in Saudi Arabia before last week’s repatriations.
The group of 13 are now holed up in one of the few hotels still open in Jeddah. A night in the cheapest hotel costs about 450 Saudi Riyals, or R2 261.
Thobile Moyo, one of the group of 13, said on Monday that they struggled to get permits to make the trip to the airport.
“It’s very difficult to arrange transport right now because nothing is going on. So you need to negotiate with bus drivers who don’t even speak English. It’s really difficult to find transport,” Moyo said.
She added that despite the group’s best efforts to get the necessary paperwork to the South African consulate in Saudi Arabia, which would then apply for their permits, communication continuously broke down between them and consulate officials. They ultimately received their permits late on Wednesday afternoon. The drive between Khobar and Jeddah takes more than 13 hours.
“We just drove … The bus really tried. It really, really tried. But on the way there were just too many roadblocks.”
Moyo, who was working as a researcher in Khobar, said she cannot afford to stay in Jeddah much longer. “I don’t have my next salary. And we are not sure when our next flight will be. We don’t know how long we are going to be here. So at the end of the day, we will be on the street. That’s how it is going to be.”
Moyo said she is eager to get home to her two-year-old son who is living with her ailing sister. “That’s my worry. Because my sister is sick, I need to get back to them.”
Mahmood Amod is also anxious about getting home to his children. “As a father, you want to make sure they are safe,” he said.
Amod, who was working on an oil rig, said it would be “impossible” for him to stay in Jeddah much longer.
Imraan Kapery said that after the frantic bus ride to the airport, “it was very sad when we got to Jeddah and we saw the plane taking off without us”. He said the group had fallen “over our feet” trying to get permits.
“If there was proper planning in place — proper communication between Dirco [the department of international affairs and cooperation], the South African consulate and the Saudi embassy — then we would have made the flight,” Kapery said.
The spokesperson for the department, Lunga Ngqengelele, said on Monday that as long as South Africans are registered for repatriation, officials would do their best to negotiate their passages home.
“In some areas it takes time, but every day we are bringing back South Africans,” he said. “I can assure you, we are really working hard. It is part of our constitutional obligation to help stranded South Africans abroad.”
Last week Ali Alshehri, the first secretary of the Saudi embassy in Pretoria, told the Mail & Guardian that “it has gladly assisted the stranded South African citizens by facilitating the issuance of all the necessary permits and documentations”. On Monday he said that another plane from Jeddah to South Africa was expected to depart next week.
Earlier this month, authorities in Saudi Arabia announced a lockdown and a partial curfew in several neighbourhoods in the port city. By Monday morning, the number of Covid-19 cases in Saudi Arabia had risen to 17 522, with a death toll of 139.
Kapery, who was also working on an oil rig, said he is “very eager to get home. Any possible infection can have a big impact on us being this side and our families being that side. Already as it is, it is very traumatising.”
He said their stay in Jeddah “is actually draining us [financially]”.
“So it is kind of sad. All the hard work we have put in the last couple of months in the Kingdom of Saudi — that money we were supposed to take home to our families — we are all spending on accommodation.”