They came from places with strange sounding names: Mohali; Hoshiapur; Harriana; Jalander; Kathmandu; Madi, Brojad . . . Except for the two or three young married couples among them, they first encountered one another in the transit lounge of an airport in Frankfurt, Germany. It was here, while they waited some nine hours for the same flight, they had discovered to their delight they were from different parts of India and Nepal and headed for the same final destination.
They learned, too, that they were fellow pursuers of the same dream life promised by operators of a highly touted learning center: Lambirds Academy, located at “Dauphin Street, Gross Islet, Saint Lucia, North America”—described in the institution’s correspondence and online advertisements as “the gateway to America, UK, Australia & New Zealand.”
The excited students—most of them age 20-25—had all paid in advance, via the Internet or directly to the school’s agents in India and Nepal, tuition and other fees totaling over US$8,000 per applicant, a huge amount in their dire circumstances, though not too much to pay for their envisaged future. The money they had shelled out in their bid to escape the plight of the particularly poor in India and Nepal had been borrowed by their parents from notorious loan sharks.
For their part, Lambirds Academy had furnished the students with travel documents that were accepted without question on arrival at Hewanorra. All they had to do was present letters from Lambirds that confirmed their status. It didn’t seem to matter to immigration officials that Lambirds’ letters referred to a Saint Lucia in “North America.” They stamped the visitors’ visas and passports, without asking about how they planned to support themselves while in Saint Lucia. Had they bothered to inquire, the immigration officers would’ve discovered, among other shockers, that the arrivals were broke but counting on jobs-jobs-jobs, this time promised by their hosts.
Waiting outside was a vehicle chauffered by a Guyanese woman. She drove the tired but happy students to their hotel at Rodney Bay. It wouldn’t be long before the smell of rat reached their nostrils: at the reception desk the students were asked to pay for their accommodation—for which they had already forked out US$500 when they were still at home.
An argument ensued, at which point their Guyanese chauffeur, a Lambirds operative, casually informed them that they were free to find some other place to stay; it really didn’t matter much to her. And with that she walked away. The students had no other choice but to hand over what little cash they had.
Another shock awaited the next day when they discovered Lambirds Academy was located above a small supermarket in Gros Islet, with a couple rooms barely large enough to accommodate 10 students at one time. They also met their professors: part-time restaurant workers, one of them a KFC staffer who explained during their first class the difference between a carrot and a cabbage.
The students, though poor, were hardly idiots. Some spoke three languages, including English. One was a songwriter who had published five songs back in Nepal. Others held IT-related certificates.
Particularly bright is Selisha Chhetri, the young Nepalese woman who appeared with me on TALK last Thursday. She had been doing especially well training to be a pharmacist.
All had been led to believe that after they had graduated from Lambirds and acquired their degrees, mainly in tourism-related subjects, they could move on to New York or California for more schooling and lucrative jobs in various fields, including music.
On the other hand, they could choose to apply for permanent residence here. Lambirds had assured them this was a “very low-populated country. That is why the government is very conscious about the safety of the people, especially tourists.”
Moreover, “security is very tight so students have to be very careful about their behavior and anger which might lead to expulsion from the island.”
On the matter of living quarters: “Since Saint Lucia is a tourist country, usually the rate of accommodation is relatively high. But you can minimize it to the ground if you stay on shared premises. Indian homemade food service is available for lunch and dinner as well as cheaper food is available at Gate of India restaurant. In general, it varies between US$200-$400 a month.” (No one mentioned the owner of the particular Indian restaurant!)
As for their travel papers: “The visa is 100 percent extendable, subject to you maintain admission and visa regulations properly. We will secure your visa on behalf of you. We help you to have new and upgraded courses at Lambirds Academy for further and higher studies.
“Lambirds Academy USA will be ready to accept international students by next year. Lambird Saint Lucia students will get 100% credit transfer in that case. In a nutshell, Lambirds Saint Lucia is your gateway to America, Canada, UK, Australia & New Zealand.
“The biggest opportunity is settlement, opportunity to apply for permanent residence in Saint Lucia after staying two years on work permit. After getting PR it opens door of the rest of the world to find jobs and settle in the USA, Canada, Netherlands, France, Spain and Australia.”
Reality soon confronted the students. Almost everything Lambirds had promised proved false. Those who complained to Dr. Iffekhar Ahmed Shams LLB, MBA, Ph.D were told, in effect, to buzz off. They were assured that Shams was protected by unidentified powerful connections that could make life most difficult for uncooperative students.
Three days after the last batch of arrivals one of them took his life in his hands and reported to the police his suspicion that he and several other young natives of India and Nepal had been conned out of thousands of dollars by the CEO of Lambirds, Dr. Shams.
It didn’t take long before the police were also convinced of Shams’ sham. He and four accomplices were arrested—and then the sticky stuff hit the fan.
It turns out that Iffekhar Shams is a native of Bangladesh. He first applied for a visa to enter Saint Lucia in April 2014. This application was denied. Barely two weeks later another application in his name was approved, on the recommendation of Invest Saint Lucia that claimed Shams wished to participate in the government’s highly publicized “investor forum.”
Evidently Shams never returned home. Instead, he joined a company operated by the initial applicant for his visa—as a director.
I have been reliably informed that initially important government agencies were reluctant to cooperate with police investigators into what appeared to detectives to be a well-organized criminal conspiracy. The Ministry of Commerce—responsible for issuing permits approved by its trade licensing board—refused to hand over important files, until confronted with a search warrant.
It soon came to light that the ministry may have had selfish reasons for keeping the Lambirds file away from police eyes. For a start, my sources say, an application for a trade license in the name of Shams was first submitted by Invest Saint Lucia directly to the commerce minister for approval—as if indeed the trade licensing board did not exist. Even more shocking is that it seems approval was granted. The board entered the picture only following the intervention of an affronted member.
As is now public information, the CEO of Lambirds and his associates have been charged with several crimes, including human trafficking and fraud. Meanwhile, the education minister has been near silent on the issue. By all he testily told persistent reporters, the government had nothing to do with the Lambirds operation. He chose to blame instead “technocrats” at his ministry.
As for the desperate and broke students, they are under pressure by the government to “voluntarily” forget they were conned and to return to their home countries, despite that their return tickets have expired.
Some forty of them are housed and otherwise cared for at the Pastoral Center at Bois d’Orange. Another group has taken temporary residence in Gros Islet. Those at Bois d’Orange have been visited just once by officials of the education, commerce and health ministries. As if already the students had not suffered more than their share of empty promises, the visiting government officials served them several of their own.
According to Saint Lucia’s Counter-Trafficking Act, “the minister in conjunction with other relevant ministries shall develop a plan, in consultation with non-governmental organizations and other representatives of civil society, for the provision of appropriate services from governmental and non-governmental sources for victims of trafficking and dependent children accompanying the victims, including: appropriate housing, taking into account the person’s status as a victim of crime and including safe conditions for sleeping, food and personal hygiene; psychological counseling in a language the victim can understand; medical assistance in a language the victim can understand and other medical assistance as appropriate.”
Additionally: “Employment, educational, and training opportunities and legal assistance or legal information in a language the victim understands. Victims of trafficking may be eligible to work and to receive proof of work authorization.
“Victims of trafficking and the accompanying dependent children of victims may be entitled to receive social benefits for the duration of their stay in Saint Lucia as may be determined by the minister responsible for social security. Residence in shelters or other facilities established under this section may be voluntary and victims may decline to stay in shelters.
“Victims of trafficking, once identified as such, must not be housed in prisons or other detention facilities for accused or convicted criminals.”
Despite claims by some of the students that the education minister had promised letters authorizing them to work here, he failed this week to recall any such undertaking. My sources tell me the minister—via his secretary—adamantly reminded his visitors on Monday that they came to Saint Lucia to attend school, not to work.
Of course, that is not quite correct. In all events, the school that the government had licensed to do business at Gros Islet, North America, has been shut down under a deluge of controversy of the worst kind.
The students, meanwhile, continue to depend on the kindness of strangers. As I say, this story has only just begun. Already it has attracted the attention of UK and American authorities!