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Tired officials, language barrier, impatience ‘land’ Umrah pilgrims in chaos

JEDDAH: As Ramadan is around the corner, Umrah pilgrims in large numbers are arriving in the Kingdom.

Although local authorities strive to ease their holy mission, many of the pilgrims face issues like poor hotel accommodation, language barriers, sickness — to name a few. However, an issue that almost all pilgrims can relate to irrespective of background and class is the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the airport officials.

One such pilgrim is N. Abdullah, a 45-year-old Canadian national who arrived at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) to perform Umrah. “The airport authorities were very slow and not courteous. I traveled from Pearson Airport in Toronto and the difference in the airport officials is worlds apart,” he said.

R. Bibi, a 70-year-old woman who arrived from a rural village in Pakistan, had a similar experience. “When I arrived at the Jeddah airport, I did not understand what the people were trying to say. Officials kept pointing at a direction, we moved there and then someone else came and moved us from there. It was a mess,” she said.

“The biggest problem for pilgrims is the language barrier. It is the airport’s responsibility to employ multilingual staff or at least those who can speak English. I know it’s not the official language of the Kingdom, but an airport is an international hub,” said D. Roohi, an expatriate living in the Kingdom who often has relatives traveling to perform Umrah or Haj.

“They don’t know enough English to direct them to the luggage counters. The airport officials use signs and gestures to convey their messages to the already frightened pilgrims,” she said, adding: “I also blame the tour guide operators for not making an effort to break the language barrier. They should employ and send someone with the group who can act as the communicator.”

“A couple of years ago, my grandfather came for Haj. At the time he was 70 years old and he was made to wait for more than 72 hours at the Haj terminal!” Roohi said.

An airport official working at Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Madinah told Arab News that arriving pilgrims also mistreat officials. “Airport officials are under stress. It is hot, noisy and very crowded. To keep up with the growing number of pilgrims arriving, sometimes I end up working more than 18 hours a day. On top of that, pilgrims shout at us and they treat us like the enemy. They don’t realize that we actually try to help them out. And they don’t listen to us. Some of them can’t even read their tickets and passports, which adds to the chaos,” he said.

“In the end, I’m human too. I’m bound to snap at someone who is screaming at me for something I have no control over such as a flight delay. This adds to the frustration.”

He added: “Sometimes the work environment gets so frustrating that I just get up and leave my desk to get some air,” he said. He believed one has to give respect in order to receive some.

Amid this chaos both the parties are frustrated, and tempers rise. Such was the case last year when pilgrims were left stranded at the Jeddah airport due to a volcanic ash cloud from Iceland that was lingering in the atmosphere.

Police had to be called in to calm things down. On the other hand, Z. Islam, an international student studying in the US, claimed she had never been mistreated at any of the airports in the Kingdom.

“Pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia need to realize the burden on the authorities and give them some leeway. They are doing the best they can to accommodate the pilgrims. I am not encouraging the bad behavior of the officials, but instead asking the pilgrims to be forgiving and the officials to be patient. After all, forgiveness and patience are virtues every Muslim should have,” she said.

Source: Arab News