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A Migrant’s Desperate Day Chasing Work at the World Cup

DOHA, Qatar — Standing at the center of the Msheireb metro station, the man in the pressed burgundy shirt took in his surroundings inside the cavernous terminal, the hub of a multibillion-dollar system built by Qatar ahead of the 2022 World Cup. He had lived in the country for six years but had never before set foot on one of its subway cars.

He was also lost. Nazmul, a man in his mid-30s from Bangladesh, had never really had a need to use the metro station. But today was a special day: He had been told to head to a building on the other side of Doha, Qatar’s capital, to collect credentials for the World Cup.

Nazmul was excited, not because the credential would allow him to watch some of the world’s greatest soccer players take the field, but because it would mean he could work.

Thousands of the migrant workers who took part in the vast nation-building program that prepared Qatar for the World Cup have been sent home in recent months, as the country suspended its major projects until after the end of the monthlong soccer tournament. But thousands more like Nazmul remain, hustling for work that not so long ago was easy to find. He agreed to allow a New York Times reporter to accompany him on his job search but asked that his last name be withheld to safeguard his ability to work in Qatar.

Nazmul had already handed his work permit and application papers to a recruitment agent who claimed to have an in with a person responsible for cleaning contracts at the World Cup. The agent had handed out passes to some of the applicants, but told others, like Nazmul, to head to the FIFA worker center at the edge of Doha and present themselves at the cavernous worker accreditation center.

Finally getting his bearings, Nazmul headed for the metro’s red line, one of three that have been built to ferry commuters and soccer fans across the capital of Qatar, a thumb-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf.

On the short train ride to Al Qassar, Nazmul’s anxiety was palpable, his foot shaking throughout the journey. At each stop, he asked commuters nearby if he has arrived at his destination. The $30 a day he would earn to clean up after fans at the World Cup would be three times more than Qatar’s minimum wage. He had few better options. There were few jobs around. “About 50 percent of the people here aren’t working at the moment,” Nazmul said. “Everything is stopped.”

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

Nazmul finally arrived at Al Qassar and walked purposefully toward the jobs center, which was ringed by boards emblazoned with World Cup branding and words and phrases like “Amazing” and “All is Now.”

He was quickly directed to a booth where he handed over his identification documents to a woman in a head scarf. She typed his details into a computer and, a few minutes later, delivered the bad news: Nazmul was not in the system. He did not have a job.

The disappointment was palpable. He mumbled the word “tension,” in English. And then said it again: “Very much tension.”

In 2017, Nazmul paid the equivalent of $6,000 to employment agents in Bangladesh just to get a work visa to enter Qatar. Arriving without a contract, he worked from job to job; some positions lasted a few months, others a few weeks, but until the World Cup there had always been work. That meant the economics — including a $1,000 annual fee to renew his visa — just about made sense.

Workers rested for a moment in the shade during the World Cup in Doha.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Disappointed, Nazmul headed straight back to the station for a train journey that while novel had come at a cost and without the promised job at the end of it. “I am just going to go to my room,” he said. “What else can I do?” He would speak to the agent who promised the job, he said, but was already anticipating the response: “He will say, ‘I handed in the papers, it didn’t happen, what am I supposed to do?’”

Nazmul tried to scan his metro card but it was out of credit. A worker helped him load more money, asking him how much he would like to add. Nazmul asked for the minimum; he had waited years to take his first ride on the metro, which opened in 2019, and knew he may not be back anytime soon. A group of World Cup fans filed by without any concerns about travel costs. Qatari authorities had waved all charges for fans, journalists and workers associated with the tournament.

His room was in a scruffy building in a rundown area just a 30-minute walk from Msheireb, a luxury development housing new condominiums, five-star hotels and designer stores. On the way, Nazmul pointed to three other sand-colored properties. “These were canceled,” he said, explaining how only a few weeks before the World Cup, hundreds of men living in them were suddenly expelled, many given just 30 minutes to collect their belongings and leave. Some were left to sleep in the street, according to news reports at the time, before eventually finding places much farther away.

“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Nazmul said. “Maybe they don’t want us here when the people come for the World Cup.”

While much of Doha is a testament to Qatar’s immense wealth, the scene in Al Mansoura where Nazmul lives is anything but. The paving is uneven, and the streets have none of the expensive landscaping found nearby. The walls along the street are littered with posters, most written in Bengali, offering rooms, advertisements from job seekers and several for ointments to treat bedbug bites.

Nazmul walked into his building as a couple of men wearing FIFA World Cup worker credentials headed in the opposite direction. “I need one of them,” he said to no one in particular as moved toward an elevator. He pressed the button for his floor. Upstairs, the door opened to a large open space with a dirty tiled floor; one man sat on a bench in a sarong, a clothesline filled with socks hanging above his head. Nearby another two men stood and smoked.

Nazmul said in normal times, when work was plentiful, none of them would be here in the middle of the afternoon.

He headed into his room, which he shared with 11 others. The room was filled with their life’s possessions. Cooking utensils and bags rested under the bottom bunks; sarongs and towels were hung to provide each man with what little privacy was possible. One man sat cross-legged on the floor eating his lunch, a metal plate filled mostly with white rice.

A man having lunch in the room he shares with 11 other workers.Credit…Tariq Panja/The New York Times

Nazmul lingered on his bunk for a few minutes, pondering his next move. He needed work soon. His family back in Bangladesh, like the families of most everyone in this building, relied on what little money he could send home. He had not seen his son, now 9 years old, since he came to Qatar six years ago. Absent, he had watched his son grow up on his cellphone. “That’s our life, all of this,” he said. “It’s for this kid that I’m working this hard.”

A few minutes later, he was on his way out again, resuming his quest for work. As he reached the ground floor, he happened upon a group of about 30 men dressed in blue polo shirts wearing those coveted World Cup credentials around their necks. “These guys have got the cleaning jobs,” Nazmul said.

One of the men said they were going to the Al Bayt stadium in Al Khor, north of Doha, to clean up after the World Cup’s opening game. Nazmul wished he were part of the crew. “They are lucky,” he said.

The men trooped to a bus stationed in a nearby piece of scrubland that doubled as a parking facility. It would carry the cleaners, and other men, to their jobs. Nazmul headed the other way.

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