Maids hate their job

Exploited, tormented, humiliated

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

World time / archive | Article from 07.02.2013

Ethiopian housemaids as working slaves

By Antje Diekhans

Many Ethiopian girls hope to find light work in the household with good earnings when they are far from home. But the reality is often different. (AP)

More than 100,000 women leave Ethiopia for Arab countries every year to work as housemaids. But many of them face a nightmare of violence, exploitation and sexual assault. A report from Addis Ababa.

Dozens of them can be seen every evening at the airport in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Young women, some almost still children, wandering through the hall with big, frightened eyes. You are looking for the departure desk for planes on the Arabian Peninsula. Your new life should begin there. A life with a good job and a good salary from which they can support their families in Ethiopia.

Alemshay Temsgen boarded a plane to Dubai two years ago with a pounding heart. She was excited but happy at the same time. An employment agency had promised her a job as a housemaid.

"I had heard of many other girls who had gone there. None spoke of difficulties. I was hoping my life would get better."

But a nightmare awaited them. To date, Alemshay has not recovered from what happened in Dubai. She almost didn't survive.

Like most young women who take the plunge, the then almost 20-year-old speaks no English or Arabic. When she arrives in Dubai, she has to communicate with her hands and feet. The mediator brings her to a family where she is supposed to live and work. Alemshay quickly realizes that she is not seen as a housemaid here, but as a kind of modern slave.

"My employer had the family I lived with. And then a second wife. I had to take care of one household during the day and the other in the evening. I worked almost around the clock."

But the man in the house is not the biggest problem for Alemshay. Her "mistress", as she calls her, is unpredictable.

"I tried very hard at work, even though I sometimes felt as if I was sleepwalking because of the tiredness. If something did not suit her, the mistress would beat me. I was supposed to bathe one of the children once. I accidentally have cold instead of warm water. The child screamed. When the mistress heard this, she came and poured icy water over me. Then there were blows. It was similar every day. "

It only takes around four weeks for the situation to escalate. Alemshay is supposed to clean the windows. The family lives in a high-rise building on the fourth floor.

"The mistress had threatened me with a knife several times. When I was cleaning the windows, she called me, but I didn't hear her. She was angry and came back with the knife. I was very scared. What happened exactly then, I know I don't. She must have pushed me. "

Alemshay falls out the window. A fall that can easily be fatal. The young woman survived seriously injured.

"My ankles were both broken. Lots of ribs. Also my arms. I still can't walk or bend down properly to this day. It still hurts."

Alemshay lies in a hospital in Dubai for five months before the agent sends her back to Addis Ababa. The bones on her right ankle did not grow together properly. The foot is crooked. The young woman has red bulging scars all over her body. After all, she can slowly process the experiences mentally.

"I used to have nightmares every night. But that doesn't happen that often anymore - it gets better."

Alemshay's story is by no means an isolated incident. At least she made it back. Some girls just disappear. The mediators take the papers from them. The young women are passed from one household to the next like a commodity. You hardly deserve anything. Some get the equivalent of 100 euros a month. But some of them do nothing.

Although at least some of these fates are known in Ethiopia, there is still a true exodus to the Arab countries. George Okutho is the head of the "International Labor Organization", a specialized agency of the United Nations, in Addis Ababa.

"The figures we received from the Ministry of Labor show that 1,000 to 1,200 applications are received. Every day. Most of them want to go to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan or Yemen."

Officially, more than 100,000 women leave Ethiopia for Arab countries every year to work as housemaids. The number of unreported cases is likely to be much higher. There are some state-approved intermediaries, but above all many private agencies who make good money by promising the young women easy work with top earnings.

"When they arrive, however, a completely different job is waiting for them. Some are sexually exploited, forced into prostitution. They are mistreated and put in houses where they have to live in very poor conditions."

Some have already committed suicide out of sheer desperation. The women who emigrate often haven't even finished school. They come from the villages in Ethiopia, where many people still live below the poverty line. They see no other chance to make something of their life.

"" Most of the people who want to work as housemaids are very young. They live in the country and have no education. They lack the knowledge for the job they are supposed to do. "

You have never operated a dishwasher or held an iron in your hand. Many of them didn't even have electricity in the huts where they grew up. Arriving in ultra-modern Dubai is more than a culture shock for her.

"You have never seen such household appliances. How are you supposed to use them? We want to prepare the young women better. They should know what to expect and what a job as a domestic help requires."

The international work organization runs training programs. For this she received two million euros from the European Union. The seminars take place in the villages.

"We have to pick up the women where they come from. We tell them what to expect. Then they can make a decision and see which country they want to go to."

Another focus of the work is to help returnees. Many do not dare to contact their families again. They feel that they have failed and are ashamed of themselves because they don't bring a lot of money with them as promised. There is a center for them in Addis Ababa, which is supported by the work organization.

Around twenty young women sit together in a seminar room. All of them have worked as housemaids in the Arab countries and have had more or less bad experiences. AGAR, as the center is called, welcomes women. Many are traumatized when they come back, says director Sasu Nina.

"We work together with the airport. When the women arrive and it becomes clear that no one is going to pick them up, the airport staff will call us. We'll first take them to a psychiatric hospital, where they'll be examined. Then we'll pick them up come here and continue to deal with their mental and physical problems. "

There are bedrooms for the women with bunk beds. Several dozen are housed here. The youngest in the center was just 14 years old. She left the country with false papers and came back a few months later.

"She was locked in a house. She had a lot of bruises. I think she was beaten. We were able to find her brother who picked her up. She didn't stay with us long."

Sometimes the recruitment agencies have an understanding and send the women or girls back. But these are exceptional cases. Most of the time, the young Ethiopian women have no other option than to run away from their employers. Without papers, however, they cannot find any other job in the Arab countries. The only way to earn a living for them is then prostitution, says Sasu Nina.

"They have to work something. So they sell in brothels or on the street."

It is becoming more and more difficult to return. The women partly blame themselves for what happened. They no longer want to face their families.

Rape is also a taboo subject in Ethiopia. Sasu Nina suspects that many of the maids are sexually abused. But hardly anyone speaks about it openly.

At first glance, Azeb Hassan looks like a confident young woman. She came to class at AGAR in a tight green suit with a leather jacket over it. Her curly hair is dyed blonde. But when the 26-year-old reports on her experiences, the facade quickly crumbles and a deeply disturbed woman appears. Azeb worked in Kuwait.

"I was illegal there. A private agency brokered me. I came into a family with eight children. There was another housemaid there, also from Ethiopia. Our boss was very nice at first. But then she completely turned around. We had to work 20 hours straight. She didn't want us to eat anything. "

Azeb and the other maid had to look for something to eat in the garbage can. They weren't paid either. The young woman remembers that in four months she only got around 50 euros. But she put it all away. Tears well up when she talks about scrubbing her boss's yacht.

"Just because they have money they think they are better than you. While I was cleaning on deck, he kept pouring buckets of water over me."

It remains to be seen whether these humiliations remained or whether the man also abused them. But it becomes clear that the experiences on the boat in particular have traumatized her. At some point, Azeb was able to convince her agency to refer her to another family. From there she made the jump back to Ethiopia after a total of two years. However, she had to pay the flight costs herself.

"I came back empty-handed. I couldn't save anything in Kuwait. Yet I dreamed of being able to change my life and that of my family. We are poor and I wanted us to be better."

The 26-year-old has a school leaving certificate. Perhaps she could have found work in Ethiopia as well. But it lured the supposedly easier money to the Arab countries. After her terrible experience, she now wants to stop other young women from making the same mistake.

"With God's help, I would like to educate the public about what is happening there. I could imagine making a film about it. Everyone should know how difficult it is to work abroad. There are job opportunities for young women here too . We should make sure that there are even better opportunities in Ethiopia. "

What she learns at the center could help Azeb at least partially realize her plans.

At AGAR, she sits in the seminar room with Alemshay, the badly abused returnee. They learn and hope for a new beginning - even if their experiences will certainly haunt them for a long time to come.
For Alemshay, meeting her family was particularly difficult. After months in the hospital in Dubai, on the one hand, she wanted nothing more than to finally embrace her parents again. On the other hand, it was terrible for her to see the dismay at her physical condition in their eyes. She cries when she tells about the first meeting.

"They were horrified. I can bear my pain. But it was terrible to see my parents so desperate."

The 22-year-old doesn't know how to proceed. Your dreams for the future were destroyed in Dubai. She will have a hard time finding work.

"Because of my injuries, I can no longer do anything that is physically strenuous."

At least in the center of Sasu Nina she learns how to build a business. Maybe it will work out with a small stationery store or a copy shop after all. These are the hopes that Alemshay is still clinging to. When other young women ask her about their experiences, there is only one thing she can say very clearly.

"Don't do it, definitely don't go abroad as a housemaid."

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