Tag Archives: human trafficking

From Saudi to Addis, A Conversation with Migrant Workers

20 May

Returning from my recent trip to India I had some pretty long layovers in Saudi Arabian airports. Considering I could never actually visit Saudi Arabia on my own (the whole independent woman thang), I’d say spending a collective 27 hours in Riyadh and Jeddah airports gets me as close as I’m going to get.

On my return flight from Jeddah to Addis Ababa my friends and I were the only non-Habesha (non-Ethiopian) passengers. The security men were so confused to see us that they actually pulled us aside to ask if we were on the right flight. Considering we were having full conversations in Amharic with other passengers seemed to make them believe us.

Having these full conversations brought forth some very interesting stories. Not only were we the only foreigners on the flight, but there were also almost no men. The flight was almost exclusively Muslim, Habesha women returning home to Ethiopia after working as household servants for Saudi Arabian families. These “returnee” flights have been happening for some months now, causing fire sale prices for Saudi Arabian flights out of Addis, which come in full and leave almost empty. This is how we got such cheap tickets to India.

I sat between two women, who both had worked for families in Jeddah. Their stories were unique, but also typical. Their passports had been taken, their visas had expired, and due to the push from Saudi to deport illegal workers (with much negotiation with the Ethiopian government), scores of these women have been going home. The problem is, many of these women arrive in Addis without any way to get home. Maybe they left a broken family, maybe they ran away, maybe they simply do not have the financial means to get themselves back to their villages. These “returnees” (a play on domestic refugee) have been swarming Addis, causing a pseudo refugee resettlement industry to pop up.

One woman was from Assela, in the Arsi region where I actually spent three months in a small town during my training. This is where I was introduced to Ethiopia, learned Amharic, and lived with a host family. Two of my language teachers were from Assela, and I remember going in to the city on weekends to use an internet café and update my family. The other woman was from Dessie, my first site, from which I had to move for safety reasons. I remember driving up the East Amhara road and seeing scores of these young women in the lines for visas to the Middle East. Ready to give up their lives in Ethiopia for the chance to make some money abroad. Many of the women were barely 15, having dropped out of school. Working for a family in Saudi, or Dubai, or Bahrain could yield more (immediate) results than finishing their education would, was the common assumption.

One woman had worked there for over three years, the other just 18 months. They compared photos on their phones – the girth of the Saudi children they raised surpassing any child I’ve seen in Ethiopia. This was a common joke – “Look how fat he is!” one of the women said. Seems that many of these priviledged Saudi families, with oil subsidies smoothing the way for easy lives, run a special kind of risk. Diabetes is rising fast in this region, and I remember overweight children were a common sight when I visited Kuwait as well.

They also compared salaries – something to the tune of 800 a month. I never figured out if this was 800 Birr (Ethiopian – 19:1 USD) or 800 Riyal (Saudi – 3.75:1 USD). Either way, this is much more than the 100 birr a month (about $5) many family servants in Ethiopian receive (a whole different story). I could see the temptation.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to young Muslim women, though they do make up the bulk of migrant workers to the Middle East from Ethiopia. I have known Orthodox women who have worked in Bahrain, and one of my favorite local business owners actually got his start as a chef in Dubai. He reinvested the money he made abroad into a thriving restaurant in Gondar, catering to tourists. His story gives me hope for how these beneficial migrant worker relationships could work.  Unfortunately, many of these workers come upon a dead end. Desperate women looking for any way to get abroad, fall prey to fake visa programs where their passports are detained and they have to work to repay “travel loans.”

Though most workers go willingly, they end up in situations where their options are incredibly limited. These limitations dance dangerously close to the line of human trafficking, and in some cases women who encounter domestic violence in the homes (at the least), and outright sex slavery (at the potential worst) have no legal advocate as “non-citizens” of the country they are trapped in.

Migrant work is a sticky subject. It has bounced around the US Congress for decades, but it is not unique to the Mexican border. Migrant workers from Africa and South East Asia flock to the Middle East and Europe every day. The money to be made can really make a difference for families back home. But the risks are high. Much of my work here is aimed at getting young girls to see the benefits of education, and staying in school.

My high school Girl’s Club has gone through 10 documentary shorts with the Girl Rising video this year. The film relates stories from around the world of challenges and successes for girls’ education.  Check it out here. Staying in school can dramatically increase a girl’s potential for success, the catch is, how to convince girls that is worth the investment. Peace Corps volunteers around the world work on these issues, though sometimes these unique challenges in Ethiopia can make our jobs seem more like sale pitches. But it is worth it. You just have to hope your girls, especially the ones standing in line to work abroad, agree.


“Please meet my servant”: The Concept of a Seratenya

14 Feb

When I first moved in to my new home, I met the people living on the compound with me: my landlord, his sister, his brother, and a 16 year old girl named Wubit. Or maybe it’s Wudit. I’ve asked about 100 times, but I still don’t know- it’s a nickname either way. Her history is also a bit of mystery to me. What was made clear was that she was the seratenya. My landlord, who’s English is very good, introduced her as the servant.

Carmen, Wubit, and me

Carmen, Wubit, and me

Seratenya really translates to something like “helper.” There are all sorts of jobs with seratenya in the title- like secretaries, accountants etc. But a compound/household seratenya is really a cross between a maid, a cook, and a guard, so basically yes, a servant. Having a servant in America is jarring- you employ a butler (rare), or a cook (I wish), or a weekly cleaning service (more normal), but to call someone a servant has so many connotations, most of them conjuring up a Downton Abbey-esque existence with tumultuous social conditions and giant mansions.

But here, the concept of a servant is commonplace, expected, even positive. If you live in a grand estate in Ethiopia, you have a seratenya (or 5). If you live in a mud hut in a village and have 15 children and are barely working class, you also have a seratenya.

The path of a seratenya is varied. Many work for extended family members. Nieces and nephews come in from the rural countryside (from that family of 15) and work for their more situated relatives who may be teachers or shop owners. Usually a girl comes to work in the house, and a boy might be a farm hand.  Many of our host families employed seratenyas. Mine did not, but much of the work was done by the oldest daughter—a substitute seratenya. Others are hired from agencies, or through networks (social capital!) of people who know people who need servants or are looking for work. Many Ethiopians also go abroad to work as household servants for families who will pay them five times as much in Dubai, Abudabi, and Saudi Arabia.

This is Wubit’s story, from what I gather of our extremely broken conversations. She has no English, I have minimal Amharic, but I try to talk with her, mostly because she’s the one who’s always around. The only time she leaves the compound is to go to the market or to take night classes.

Wubit making Berbere

Wubit making Berbere

Wubit is from a village east of Gondar in the Woldia region (I think), which is about an eight hour drive from here. She came to Gondar to work when she was 14 and is not related to my landlord’s family. Her daily duties include cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and general household upkeep. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor in a small room that also doubles as the pantry. She is the last one to go to bed, after she lets the guard dog off the leash, and the first one awake to make breakfast for the others in the compound. She had never been to school before, and started to take extension (night and weekend) classes when she came to Gondar. She is 16 years old and now in Grade 2.

Sometimes she shows me her exercise book, which is full of notes of new English words that she cannot read. The education system here is very much done by rote, a topic for another time, and so she copies things off the board she does not understand. But it is impressive that she continues to study and attend class when she started so far behind and probably will stay in the housework industry until she gets married, and then will still do housework. But this is an advantage of the system. Young girls who would not be able to go to school living in the countryside (either because they help at home, it is expensive or too far away, they get married young, or their brothers are already going and so why bother?) They now have the opportunity to take alternative education classes in the towns where they come to work. It is hard. Their days are filled with chores and responsibilities, and education is only valued by some of the population, one of whom is my landlord, which I appreciate.

When she isn’t working, I see her staring out down the mountain towards the road, people watching

When she isn’t working, I see her staring out down the mountain towards the road, people watching

But sometimes these girls are easy targets for other fates: trafficking, sexual exploitation or abuse, especially the ones who go abroad. But the lure of high pay tends to trump these worries. Many of these women come from Muslim communities in the east part of the country because the cultural ties are stronger to head to the Middle East.

Labour here is cheap, and people need jobs. In fact, in a town where the average “ferenji” is a doctor or university professor and making a foreign salary it is somewhat expected that I would have my own seratenya. I have been approached multiple times on the street with offers by women to do my laundry, and neighbors have asked who cooks for me. A single woman who works and runs her own home is fairly rare. Even single women who do not work employ servants, and single men, if they don’t live with family, absolutely do. Some volunteers do hire someone to do their laundry every couple weeks, or cook a meal here or there. The monthly cost would be the same as one nice meal out here.

Male volunteers face this question more than most. Friends of mine who loved to cook in America get some weird looks when they make their own meals and do their own laundry. Half of it is gender roles, but the other half is the same associations I get- that you are foreign, ipso facto you are rich, so why don’t you employ someone? But even though I am not “rich,” I could still afford a seratenya at the labor rates here.

For now I like to do my chores on my own if only to prove a stubborn independent American point, though after a year of hand washing my clothes I may sing a different tune. But for better or worse seratenyas become a member of the family. Chores are done by women together. A few weeks ago everyone on my compound was out together grinding peppers and other spices to make berbere, laughing at my high pitched sneezes (I couldn’t help it!). And even though she doesn’t work for me, Wubit is like a little sister. Sometimes I help with homework, and she knows the names of all my friends. And every time I walk through the gate she greets me and her eyes light up with that adorable smile. She talks a mile a minute in a language I don’t know, and when I’m tired sometimes I can’t handle it, but it’s always with a giggle and a kind “Algabashim?” (You don’t understand?). Nope, I don’t girl, but we get along just fine in spite of it.