Nina Merchant (37) can’t stand the thought of losing another mother. She was a newborn when Kulsum Hussain joined the family as a nanny in the US and became her ‘Maaji’. Hussain nursed her through sickness and health, doubled as a confidante in the heady teenage years, and offered her just the comfort she needed at the death of her mother. Merchant is now trying to pay back.
For the last 10 years, the American citizen, who is now a resident of Bandra West, has been petitioning the US Consulate General in Mumbai and the US Embassy in New Delhi to provide aid to Hussain, also an American citizen, under the US’ Social Security programme. Benefits under this social insurance programme are paid out on a monthly basis to retired US workers and their surviving spouses. Despite working in the US for 20 years, Hussain didn’t qualify for Social Security benefits
Merchant’s fight to get Hussain her due reparations took on more meaning recently after the 88-year-old sustained a spinal injury (an acute compression of the vertebrae). The aged nanny needs regular physiotherapy and a nutritious diet. At her advanced age, surgery can be risky. Last year, she underwent an intestinal surgery when she couldn’t pass stool for a month and developed haemorrhoids. She had to push back that surgery owing to a lack of funds.
At the age of 40, Hussain, a resident of Mumbai, found herself widowed and all alone. For the next 12 years, she fended for herself working as domestic help. When an opportunity to work as a nanny in the US opened up in 1981, she moved and joined the Merchants. She was relieved of her service a year after the death of Merchant’s mother in 2000. During her 20-year-long service, she earned a US citizenship and paid her taxes.
Immobilised by fall
Since her return to Mumbai, she has subsisted on an interest of R1,000 a month earned on her savings.
Two months ago, Hussain had a fall in her room at a chawl in Mazgaon, and she damaged her spine. “She is a very strong and independent woman. Rarely did she complain about her health. I called her up late at night a few days ago and found her speech was slurred. She told me she had been suffering from incontinence and excruciating pain in the legs for two days. I rushed to her house,” says Merchant. She found Hussain sitting in the dark, with a bump on the head, and learnt of her fall. Merchant rushed her to Prince Aly Khan Hospital in Mazgaon, where she was admitted to the ICU.
“She sustained a haematoma (clotting of the blood) in the head and a spinal injury. She has been prescribed continuous treatment, physiotherapy and a balanced diet. I have been helping her with the treatment, but it isn’t enough,” Merchant admits. Hussain needs the support of a walker and a caregiver at all times. The medical bills have eaten up almost all her savings.
Fight for justice
Merchant, who moved to Mumbai 13 years ago, says the fall prompted her to soldier on with the ‘fight for justice’. “Every US citizen is liable for benefits of the US government even if they stay outside the country. I want Maaji to get the treatment and live in comfort. She paid taxes in the US. Why can’t government help her?” she asks. “How can it abandon its citizen just because she didn’t have enough Social Security work credits [to qualify for the benefits]? She is not an Indian citizen anymore nor is the US government willing to help. Where does it leave her?”
Gaurav Malhotra, a social activist in Delhi who is helping Merchant push her case with the US government, says, “The [US] government often bends rules to help citizens in need. And, this is a genuine case.”
Malhotra has shot several mails in the past week to the US Embassy in Delhi, asking that Hussain be given Social Security benefits. “The authorities told me that the case has been forwarded to the US Consulate in Mumbai,” he says. The US Consulate General in Mumbai says the case has been forwarded to higher authorities. “We can’t comment on individual cases. But, the American citizen services unit at the consulate is ready to assist all US citizens. We encourage US citizens seeking assistance with Social Security and other services to come to contact us,” says Heidi Hattenbach, spokesperson, US Consulate General in Mumbai.
Anyone born in the US after 1929 and who has worked for at least 10 years can become eligible for Social Security. The catch is the system of credits — based on the amount of income tax payments and criminal records, among others — that determines eligibility. One earns up to four credits for every year worked; 40 credits are needed to qualify for Social Security. Non-citizens, who are “lawfully in the US and meet all eligibility requirements”, too, can receive the benefits. Hussain managed to rack up a credit of only nine points. Merchant wants the US government to allow her leeway on humanitarian grounds. She says she had enquired with the government why Hussain had been able to accrue only nine credits through all her years of service