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.