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On the Destinations of Species

It's almost always easier to cross international borders if you're something other than human.
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We never planned on adopting a cat in Abu Dhabi.

For a couple of years starting in 2008, my husband and I lived in the Persian Gulf emirate just south of Dubai. One day, some expatriate friends of ours—a couple from New York—adopted a litter of kittens they had found on their stoop. Soon their apartment was overrun, and they talked us into taking one of the growing felines.

She came home with us in a cardboard box, a scrawny orange and white runt, stubbornly affectionate and smart. We called her Zardaloo, the Urdu word for apricot.

I spoke a lot of Urdu in those years. A common language in Pakistan and parts of India, Urdu also serves as a kind of lingua franca among the enormous South Asian migrant class in the United Arab Emirates. The fact that I spoke it—I studied Urdu years ago—opened me up to dozens of friendships with guest workers.

The lottery is only open to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. and even then, offers just 50,000 visas for roughly 13 million qualified applicants annually.

One such friendship, which I am reminded of sometimes when I think of Zardaloo, was with a man named Mohammed, an elderly Bangladeshi with a short white beard, a skullcap, and jaundiced eyes. My husband and I met him one evening while taking a walk around the docks by the municipal fish market. He worked as a security guard at the fishing wharf, and he also sang the call to prayer at a small mosque in the dockyards.

Mohammed was tickled to be able to communicate with an American, and he told me about his life. As a young man looking for better wages, he had traveled overland from Bangladesh to Iran and then taken a boat to the Emirates, surviving a shipwreck on the way. He’d been in the country for 30 years, and made only rare trips home to see his family. He lived in a tiny, windowless cement room on the wharf and earned about $200 per month, most of which he sent home to support his wife and five daughters.

We exchanged phone numbers and paid each other occasional visits. Mohammed was always lavishly hospitable with sodas and meals, yet when we had him over to our place, he bashfully refused most of what we offered. We tried buying him a present once—an analog watch—but noticed when he put it on that he didn’t know how to read the time.

In mid-2010, we decided to leave Abu Dhabi and return to the U.S. We were in the midst of packing when Mohammed made an appointment to come over for tea one afternoon. I had spent the morning arranging travel paperwork for our two cats (in addition to Zardaloo, we had another, Jackson, that we’d brought from America). Now they needed microchips, rabies vaccines, health certificates, airline cargo tickets. Their big yellow plastic carrier was sitting in the hall.

Mohammed wasn’t alone when he came to see us. With him was a young man he introduced as his nephew. We sat down in our living room, and the conversation turned serious: Mohammed wanted us to help his nephew get to America.

It seemed like he had researched the options. When I said the best way to get to citizenship in America would be through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, also known as the Green Card lottery, he dismissed the notion. (The lottery, I later learned, is only open to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.—ruling Bangladeshis out—and even then, offers just 50,000 visas for roughly 13 million qualified applicants annually.)

Mohammed had more daring ideas: Could we bring his nephew with us as a domestic servant? Could we find a wife for him to marry? Could we help him emigrate to Mexico, so that he could cross the Rio Grande into America at his own risk? (This is surprisingly common.) For each of these schemes, Mohammed offered to compensate us.

I said I would do what I could to help. I told them I would email a friend who’s an immigration lawyer and another friend at the State Department to ask what avenues were open for U.S. citizenship (I did). I told them I would keep an eye out for a suitable bride (I didn’t, really). No one was satisfied with my response, including me.

As we all walked to the front door, Mohammed asked what would become of our cats. “They’re coming with us on the plane,” I said.

Mohammed turned to his nephew and pointed to the cat carrier. “They are taking the cats,” he said in rapid Urdu. His tone was painfully wry. “If only we could be transported in a cage.”

This post originally appeared in the July/August 2014 print issue ofPacific Standardas “On the Destinations of Species.” Subscribe to our bimonthly magazine for more coverage of the science of society.