As Saudi Arabia curbs its vital but "illegal" migrant population violently this week to appease high unemployment, I cannot help but reflect on my moment with such destitute citizens a few years ago.
As the Kingdom announces deaths of its migrant population as a result of a stubborn and unnecessary police brutality, I cannot help but think of the memories and voices of the destitute I heard as a transit passenger in Bahrain on my way to Addis Ababa from Canada.
I was disillusioned by the experience and saddened by what goes on in the Middle East by way of cheap labor from mostly African and Asian countries. While in transit, I came across countless Ethiopian maids and laborers in distress. I witnessed many sobbing and dozens sharing their nightmares to anyone who will listen. I could not help but listen to their tales.
Around the entrance of the airport, I was also told that there were countless Ethiopians begging for the most basic necessities such as food while dreaming of flying back to Ethiopia after escaping from their workplace with nothing but a miserable working experience in the Middle East.
Like almost all migrant workers everywhere including in North America, these people perform jobs that their own citizens would not dare touch. The ones I met left Ethiopia looking for a new opportunity but most experienced violence, trauma and dejection with absolutely no basic human rights.
Among the hundreds who flew back to Ethiopia with us from Bahrain, the lucky few, there literally was no one who told of a fulfilling experience working as a maid. There were hundreds of young girls sent to find work in all parts of the Arab world, including Lebanon, Bahrain and Oman and especially Saudi Arabia. They all spoke of a mutual experience that was dark, brutal and abusive.
One such person was a young 16-year-old named Tigist who sat next to me for four hours on a flight back to her hometown of Adama. With the help of her employment agent, she faked her age in order to find employment in Lebanon. She was determined as she paid 10,000 Ethiopian Birr (about $550) for an agency to help her find an employment placement in Beirut for a two-year assignment. This was a hefty sum for someone from a working class background.
She reflected with me about how her day began at 5 a.m. when she was always awoken by the man of the house and was pressured to perform sexual favors. Beatings would follow when and if she refused the advances. The more she refused, the harder the beating became. Around 6 a.m. until 1 a.m., seven days a week, her duty entailed cleaning the seven-room mansion, cooking, ironing countless clothes for the large extended family and, oftentimes, she would be asked to do cleaning for families outside the owner's mansion.
As the long days became weeks and then months, the work pressure became much to bear for such a young girl with a large dream of helping her struggling family back home. Beyond taking care of her family, she also had the extra burden of repaying the loan she took in order to pay the employment placement agency that delivered her into her new nightmare.
As months passed, the unending sexual advances and the pressure of the job it took its toll; she contemplated suicide as the only escape from her nightmarish life. After a two-month period that felt like a lifetime, she faked an illness so that she could be sent back home. Even though she worked for two long months, she was paid barely enough to buy her one-way ticket back to Ethiopia with a debt that is almost like a life sentence for such a young girl from a disadvantaged background.
Feeling both scared for what lies ahead and happy to return to a friendly territory, I asked her what her future would be. She quickly told me that she will soon embark on a long walk to Sudan and look for opportunities to go to western countries such as Canada and the United States.
Tigist's story is no different than the experiences of thousands of Ethiopian maids in the Middle East. As horrific as Tigist's story is, she is among the lucky as she returns back home with her life still intact and her determination stronger than ever. A couple of years ago, in the neighboring Emirates, a 26-year-old hung herself, leaving a hand-written note asking her mother for her prayer. Another one was burned alive with boiling water. This week, in Saudi Arabia, we are witnessing them dying before our own eyes.
According to the respected Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, "the abuse in the Middle East goes beyond just physical. We know that often girls have to perform sexual favors. But unfortunately for us, to talk about sex and sexuality in Ethiopia is taboo and to get the hard facts from girls is very difficult."
On the flight to Ethiopia, I witnessed girls who were physically and emotionally paralyzed. Many shared with me the story of many of their colleagues who became victims of suspicious deaths where their death seemed suspicious yet the authorities always labeled it suicide without adequate investigations. However, non of them fail to recall anyone being held responsible for the countless of deaths of migrants in the Middle-East.
As Tigist drifted away at the Bole International airport, I could not help but wonder where she would be in the near future. Would she succeed in reaching her dream destination or will she give up along the way to entertain other options. I might never hear from her again, but her story is not unique, Tigist can be any one of countless Ethiopians who go to the Middle East only to be caught in a paradigm of nightmares and pain.
In a perfect world, there would have been a safety net to protect her well-being and that of the world's vulnerable youngest citizens. They are living a destiny while risking their own existence without any human rights protection. The dreams of Ethiopians as well as the rest of all migrant workers should never be relegated to the whims of those that seek to exploit innocent young girls and turn these hopeful immigrants into indentured servants.
As Saudi Arabia was invited by the U.N. Human Rights Council as a member, which the kingdom rejected to make way for Jordan this week, I hope the UN and its members would demand a higher standard and swift action for basic human rights and dignity for migrant workers from their prospective members. It's not just Saudi Arabia's reputation that is at stake here but the United Nations credibility to be an advocate for good, not evil, in the world.
As the late Emperor Haile Selassie once remarked, "Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph." Indeed.
The UN should speak up. Canada should speak out. We should all speak up and at the very least join an international protest planned for this Friday, November 15th at Toronto's City Hall beginning at 6 PM.