Malayali nurses, known for their enterprise and dedication, have led their families to far away Europe and most today are the sole bread earners with their men content to play house-husband.
One could just twist the adage 'Behind every successful man, there is a woman' - to read - 'There is a nurse behind the success and prosperity of each family' to suit the European Malayalis.
AdvertisementA seven-day trip to Europe - during which I met around 200 people from Kerala settled in Austria, Switzerland or Germany - revealed how Malayali women contribute to their own families, their homeland as well as the country they live in.
There was one common feature among the Kerala families I met in Europe. Most were brought to Europe, some to earn a living abroad and some for a better future, through a nurse - either a wife or sister or mother - who had migrated to these countries at a time when Europe was desperately looking for trained nurses.
It could be a Malayali industrialist who has found success in Germany, or a well-to-do businessman in Vienna or an engineer in Switzerland - invariably his entry to Europe has been through a nurse.
In the Malayali gatherings too 90 percent of the women one gets to meet are nurses. Interestingly, one sees that many of the men have not yet been able to establish themselves, and the family's financial security depends on the nurse and her salary.
"In many cases, the husbands come here and take care of the children and when the children grow up they take up small jobs. The men have more time to socialise. Actually that's one reason Malayali organisations abroad are mushrooming," said Mathew, who works in Germany. According to Mathew, Europe has more than 50 Kerala associations under different names.
"The Malayali community here owes a great deal to its women. When there was a law stopping them from getting married outside Switzerland, the Christian girls from Kerala waited for the law to be changed. They married in Kerala and helped their husbands' family also to prosper," said T.J. Joseph, a Keralite, who settled in Switzerland 20 years ago.
Joseph points out that if a Malayali nurse migrates to Europe, her entire family, husband's family and, in some cases, even friends follow.
Says Jose Kizhakkekara, vice president of the Asian community in Austria who works with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna: "Most of the people who work under the Austrian government are nurses from India. They are actually the backbone of their families back home."
When Europe faced a shortage of trained nurses in Catholic hospitals and homes for the elderly, it filled the gap by recruiting young Christian nurses from Kerala. Although the European countries were recruiting nurses from Philippines, a Catholic country, it was cheaper to take nurses from Kerala, where Catholics play a major role.
After their initial years of struggle abroad, the Malayali nurses are now settled and live in good and comfortable homes. They speak the local language fluently. Interestingly, many of them prefer that their children go for professional courses such as IT, business management or the medical profession.
Perhaps their own struggle and the condescending glances they had to face back home in Kerala, where many look down on the nursing profession, must have forced them to think differently.
But the Kerala nurses are highly respected here.
"We owe a lot to you," Manfred Wurm, district chairman of Vienna's district-23 told visiting Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi at a function. "The health sector of this country is blessed with dedicated people from your state," he told the minister, who belongs to Kerala.
"I am proud of my people. They serve this nation as devoted angels," Ravi agreed.
The minister also noticed that the Malayalis abroad were more keen to protect their identity and culture.
Some of the youngsters speak Malayalam fluently although they find it difficult to write the script.
While the parents watch Malayalam and Hindi movies with passion and usually visit their native place once a year, some youngsters find little joy in the compulsory rediscovery of their roots.
Most Malayali migrants, about to reach retirement age, want to return to Kerala where they have built houses. They are confused whether to stay back in Europe, where their children are settled and where they have spent most of their own lives too.
There are an estimated two million Keralites working abroad - of which 90 percent are settled in the Middle East. They remit close to Rs.200 billion every year to banks in Kerala.
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