By: Rebekah Kebede
When Worqe arrived in Kuwait, the first thing to go was the cross necklace she was wearing. “I was told I am a Muslim when I arrived at the airport. I had to remove my cross from my neck,” said Worqe, who migrated from Ethiopia to work as a domestic worker.
Like many Ethiopian Christian women, Worqe’s cross was a symbol of her faith, one closely tied to her culture and identity. But for the agent that had arranged for her employment, none of that mattered.
The cross was just the first of many things that Worqe was expected to give up. After the cross, it was her passport. Then her pay. And eventually, her rights and dignity.
Worqe is one of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian women who have made their way to Saudia Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and other Middle Eastern countries over the last couple few decades to work as domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are an estimated 400,000 Ethiopian migrants, according to the U.S. Department of Statei. The majority of the migrants who either choose to come to the Middle East or are trafficked to the region, are women, and most are from rural areas where they have little access to education and jobs, making them especially vulnerable to trafficking and abuse.
Most Ethiopian migrant domestic workers to the Gulf countries experience a harrowing journey. They are promised attractive pay by brokers who charge a fee. Once a woman arrives in the host country, however, she is stripped of her passport. In a strange country where she does not know the language, she finds herself with no rights and, too often, no pay. She might be subjected to physical, verbal, and sexual abuse by her employers. If she manages to escape with her life – and not all do – she returns home to poverty, where the economic opportunities are still poor, and where she will find few, if any, services to help her deal with the traumatic experience.
For many women like Worqe, religion is a major flash point. Christianity is the majority religion in Ethiopia. Around 44% of Ethiopians belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, while another 19 percent belong to evangelical churches, according to the U.S. State Department. Some 34 percent are Sunni Muslim.
Even before they arrive in their primarily Muslim destinations in the Middle East, migrant domestic workers feel the need to appear Muslim, often at their brokers’ urging.
Some decide to adopt Muslim names and change the way they dress to fit it, going so far as to wear headscarves in their passport photos. But keeping up the ruse takes a toll and workers can pay a steep price if they are found out.
“Pretending was not an easy task for me, especially during their fasting period. It made me sleepless and stressful,” Worqe explained in an interview. “How can I be a Muslim while knowing nothing about the religion? The agent told me I will survive. But I didn’t. My employers threw me away when they found out I am not,” she said.
Although religion is one of the first parts of their identity that Ethiopian migrants to the Middle East are expected to surrender, it is hardly the only one. Migrant domestic workers repeatedly recounted being treated as less than human, being called “dogs,” having food withheld, and having other basic needs denied.
“They do not consider you as a human being. They hate you without a reason, and you can’t ask why. They just want you to work without rest, without any payment. It feels like you are a robot,” said Fitsum, an Ethiopian domestic worker who paid US$370 to migrate to Dubai.
A migrant worker named Emuye said she was not even allowed food. “The madam doesn’t want to see me eating even though it is food that they will throw away. She even gets angry to the extent of seeing me drinking water, God is my witness,” she said.
Race and national origin are also weapons. Edget, whose employer often locked her in a room and threatened to beat her, mocked her using Ethiopia’s history of famine. “[She said] ‘There is nothing to eat in Ethiopia. People are eating soil so I better stay in Kuwait working for multiple households to fill my belly’. It is awful to imagine how those people perceive us,” Edget said.
According to Hala Alkarib, a women’s rights activist and the Regional Director for the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), some of the religious discrimination that Ethiopian migrants face is likely rooted in racism. Alkarib notes that even when Christian women convince their employers that they are Muslim, Ethiopian domestic workers are treated badly. “We also have to observe that the Philippine women workers are not Muslims, for example, and they do not pretend to be. Yet they are not discriminated against or oppressed as the African workers,” Alkarib said.
At the foothills of Addis Ababa’s Mount Entoto, Good Samaritan Association (GSA), runs a shelter for women who have returned from the Middle East. As many as 30 women make their home here with a round-the-clock staff of nurses, caregivers, and guards.
Homecoming for Ethiopian domestic workers is seldom sweet. All of the women who stay at the shelter are “mentally unstable,” said Tirubrhan Getnet, the director of GSA. “Many of them don’t remember anything about their past and don’t recognize where they are currently, some of them don’t speak a word, others scream loud and others try to harm their fellow returnees and the shelter’s staff members, some try to jump out of the fence or down from the building,” Getnet added. Shelter staff at GSA recount stories of women who have returned from working in the Middle East in wheelchairs, completely paralyzed, or with disabling physical injuries due to rape.
On top of physical and emotional scars from their years with abusive employers, the women at the shelter have often returned empty-handed. Rejection by their families, who paid a steep price to brokers, adds to their trauma and feelings of shame.
In some cases, returnees are unable to face the pressure. Getnet tells the story of one woman who hanged herself in a bathroom at the shelter, presumably because she did not want to face her family, who had borrowed a large sum of money to send her to Saudi Arabia.
However, even when a migrant domestic worker is economically successful, the difficulty of the experience seems to overwhelm their hard-earned gains. Edget brought back around US$5,000 that she saved from four years of working in Kuwait. After GSA helped her open a bank account, she seemed puzzled, asking, “What am I going to do with this money?”
Rebekah Kebede is an Ethiopian-American writer currently based in Kingston, Jamaica. A former Reuters correspondent, her work has appeared in National Geographic, Quartz, and GOOD magazine, among others.
This article is based on a research paper titled ‘Caught Between Poverty and Trauma: Addressing the Human Rights of Trafficked Domestic Workers’ published by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA). All quotes from this article are derived from SIHA’s report and other organisational documents.