Earlier this month, a 41-year-old high school graduate from Kerala stepped up to receive a vote of thanks and a national award from vice-president Hamid Ansari.
“I never expected my voluntary work to receive such a response,” says Ashraf Thamarasserry, with his trademark gentle smile.
But the service Thamarasserry offers, at no cost, is a crucial one. For the past 14 years, he has been helping return deceased Indians to their home country.
In all, he has helped bring 2,150 dead Indians — most of them from poor families — home from the Middle-East for cremation or burial. In fact, he is often called ‘friend of the dead’.
The son of a small-scale trader, Thamarasserry moved to Ajman from Kozhikode 16 years ago, in search of better prospects. He now runs a small auto repair shop here. Two years after the move, a friend of his died. “It took me more than two weeks to complete the formalities for his body to be sent back home,” Thamarasserry says. “I took a vow then that I would help others through such nightmarish situations.”
Two weeks ago, Thamarasserry was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman (Overseas Indian Award) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
When he met prime minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations, it was the deceased and their families that were on his mind. He pleaded for the process of returning bodies home to be made more affordable.
“Many countries, including our neighbour Pakistan, fly bodies of their citizen home absolutely free. But our airlines charge families based on the weight of the corpse,” he says.
“At times, the fare is double that of an ordinary ticket. Isn’t this a big disservice to our pravasis?”
For now, every time an Indian body is unclaimed and unidentified, hospital and police officials in the UAE know they can dial Thamarasserry. Initially, his domain was limited to NRIs from Kerala, but over the past decade, he has also taken charge of deceased Indians from states as distant as Bengal, Punjab and the north-east.
Two days before he visited India to accept the award, he saw two coffins loaded onto flights — a suicide from Kolkata and a deceased person from Mangalore. He has become such an expert at negotiating the red tape that families from around the world call and email him for help when they lose a loved one in the region. To them too, he now offers free advice and assistance.
“I know how the system works in the UAE, so I can guide them on whom to contact or how to proceed,” he says.
Thamarasserry allocates part of his savings for his voluntary work, and also gets donations from well-wishers and charitable organisations. “If a person has died in a hospital, it is relatively easy to complete formalities. Otherwise it is quite cumbersome because it becomes a police case,” he says. Once the clearances have been received, the embalmed body is weighed, airfare fixed and the remains returned home.
Much of Thamarasserry’s free time is spent in morgues, embalming centres, police stations, Customs clearing centres and embassies. “But my family understands. My wife, Fathima Zuhra and my three children support me in my work,” he says. “I dream of a day when bodies are flown back absolutely free, with all dignity. This will be the biggest salute to the NRI community spread all over the world.”