Her face lights up in a radiant smile as she lowers herself into the waves on the beach at Muscat. At 19, Fatia, a maid from Ethiopia, has never before seen nor felt the ocean.
It’s been a long, tough journey to arrive at this happy day. Fatia came here aged 17 two years ago with hopes of making a living in the Gulf.
“My village has no power or electricity. I wanted to work so I had money to go back to school and finish my studies. I wanted to save my family. I had seen how my sisters had suffered in poverty,” she says.
“I wanted to come to the Middle East but I couldn’t. The Ethiopian agency told me that I had to give a different age on the application form. So I paid to change my birth certificate.
“Near my home in Sirri there is a government office where you can pay some money and they put whatever you want on the form. I told them I wanted a piece of paper saying I’m 24.”
According to the rules in Ethiopia, girls who want to leave and work as maids in the Gulf must be at least 24. But many who go are much younger, and pay for false papers.
“All the girls I know want to go to the Middle East, to Dubai, to earn money to buy land and look after their family. I told my father I wanted to go – but he said I was too young. I said to him you can’t provide for me.“
Two older sisters had left to work in Saudi Arabia – one was still there, while another came back after two years because of maltreatment by her sponsors, says Fatia.
Because her father refused her request, she secretly went to Addis Ababa to get a passport, but he found out and took it.
Despite this, she was determined to follow in their footsteps.
“I cried every day. Then I secretly got another passport. I had a brother. He wanted to go Sirri to college. My father said no. My brother was very unhappy. Then he killed himself.
“When my father found out I had another passport he was worried he would lose me too unless he let me go. He didn’t want me to go but he didn’t have a choice because he saw me crying every day.”
She wanted to go to Saudi Arabia, where the pay is better, but she found out that the minimum age was 25.
“I went to an agency – they said I was too young. I had to pay to go to Oman.”
The fee to enrol with the agency was 5000 Ethiopian Birr, or about $235. “My father sold an ox and some sheep to pay it,” she said.
However, she also had to pay for X-ray, urine, blood test and fingerprints.
For girls whose papers are correct, Ethiopia’s labour ministry offers a three-hour course to prepare and inform women about their roles and the countries they are moving to. But Fatia did not go as she feared they would catch her and prevent her leaving.
A stranger in a strange country
It was when she arrived in Oman that things began to turn for the worse.
“Only when I arrived in Muscat I saw in the contract it said 50 Omani rials a month ($130). I saw the paperwork listing different nationalities of maid – Indonesians got 80 rials, Philippines 100 rials and Ethiopian 50 rials.”
The Omani agency met her at the airport along with other Ethiopian girls. They took her to an office in al-Khoud, north of Muscat, where the sponsor came to collect her.
After five days in Muscat taking medical tests and waiting for her visa, her first employer took her to live with his father on a farm outside Muscat.
“There were 14 people living in the house. The son returned to Muscat. I arrived at 9pm – they just said put your suitcase down and start cleaning. I went to bed at 11pm. At 5am I was up working again.”
On her first day, Fatia says the sponsor’s sister, a nurse, took a blood sample from her arm. “She took a lot of blood,” and left a painful wound, Fatia recalls. “They didn’t care that I was hurt, they just said start work. My arm hurt for three days.”
There was a lot of work, and not much food, and she began to lose weight, dropping down to seven stone.
At the end of the first month they gave her 50 rial. At the end of the second month they did not pay her.
The withheld pay, lack of food and long working hours were only the start of it.
Hard work and harassment
Soon enough, the sponsor’s younger brother began to harass her.
“He followed me to the bathroom every day and watched me in the shower. He woke me at 4am and started asking me questions, but I didn’t understand what he was saying.”
Fatia says he did not touch or attack her.
To begin with she could only communicate in broken English and a few words of Arabic.
“I had to do everything for 12 people. Nobody did any work. I was washing and rinsing clothes out in the hot sun.“
All the work was outside and she suffered sunburn that scarred her face.
“I told them I wanted to leave.”
Meanwhile the sponsor had gone to Europe. The father told her she would have to wait six months.
“The next day I didn’t work. I put my clothes on, took my suitcase and I said take me back to the agency now.
“The father, Mohammed, said you are not leaving, we are not taking you to the office – if you want to go back to the agency, you have to pay 700 rial that we paid to them.
“I told him I didn’t get any money – I am not working. I want to leave.
“Then they took my suitcase. I ran away, even though they grabbed me and pulled at my clothes. In the struggle I lost one of my shoes. But I didn’t care – I just ran.
“The family went to a neighbour who had an Ethiopian maid and she spoke to me in the street. She said don’t run away, you will die – it’s just desert here.”
The other maid’s boss offered to take her in for the night.
Then her sponsor’s sister came to the neighbour’s house and told her she had to come back.
“I said I’d rather kill myself than go back. Then the girl choked me – the family wanted to beat me up so I fought her and her brother and they left.”
‘That Omani guy saved me’
The other family grew scared and told her she had to leave. “Then a neighbour came and asked why I was crying. I said I didn’t want to go back to the house. He said ‘That’s democracy – if you don’t want to go back, don’t go. I will take care of it.’”
He went to the first house and told them they couldn’t take her back. “You can’t force her to work for you,” he said. They said no, so he demanded the phone number of the sponsor. He rang him and talked to him, explains Fatia.
After four days at the neighbour’s house, the sponsor called the father and said he had better take Fatia to the agency.
“That Omani guy saved me. If it wasn’t for him, I would never have escaped,” Fatia says.
“He and the son told the father to take me back – so he did.
“I stayed at the agency for two weeks. The sponsor came back from Europe to cancel the contract. He asked me why I didn’t want to stay and I told him, so he cancelled it.
“Then I went to another Omani family with five kids living in the countryside. Now I asked for a salary of 60 rial. The sponsor said no problem. But his wife was not good. She didn’t have any food in the house – she would go to her mum’s house next door to eat. She told me I had to get up at 4am and work till 10pm.
“At 9pm they would start to prepare dinner. They would eat at 10pm so I didn’t finish work till midnight. She told me to wash clothes by hand even though they had a machine.
“There were seven bedrooms in the house that I had to clean. I had to look after the babies too. My boss told me not to talk to anyone and refused to let me make any phone calls.
“I told the wife, I can’t go to bed at midnight and get up at 4am. If you don’t let me get up at 5am then I’m not going to work for you.
“She said no, so I told them I can’t do this. Her husband took me back to the agency.
“The agency were so mad at me, saying I didn’t want to work. I said I wanted to work but the people were not nice. If they are nice, I will work.
“They had to find another sponsor to cover the fees. I wanted to go back to my country. But they found another boss for me.”
Fatia had two other bad experiences with employers and reached a low-point where she desperately wanted to go home.
“This time the agent told me he was sending me back to Ethiopia. He said: ‘You don’t want to work.’
“But he sent me to another Omani. The people were not good at all. The kids were badly behaved, with lots of yelling – they told me not to talk to the kids and not to discipline them. Just clean up after them and shut my mouth.
“I lasted six days then I was back to the agency.
“I was so angry with myself because I wanted to come here to pay for school but my father ended up paying for me. I wanted to go home but I had no money so I couldn’t go home. I felt crazy.”
A better life
Then Fatia met Salma. She and her American husband came into the agency, and the agent saw an opportunity for a good match. He offered them an interview with Fatia. Salma told her she had four girls, and offered to pay 65 rial.
‘Come for a couple of days and see if you like it,’ she said.
“Initially I thought she would be the same as the Egyptian. But she wasn’t. She was nice, so I stayed.”
In January she called her mother in Ethiopia and she sounded strange. “I felt there was something wrong. She was hiding something.
“I called my uncle and he told me my father had died.”
Fatia sheds tears as she recalls this moment. “I feel sad because I didn’t listen to him. He warned me not to come here. Now I will never see him again.
“My family was hiding the truth from me because they did not want me to lose my job and stop sending them money. With my father gone, they needed me to support them.“
Salma told her she should go home to see her family.
When she arrived in her village in Ethiopia, she realised that almost all of her friends had also left to work in the Gulf. Those that were left wanted to go too.
“They said I looked good, I looked happy with new clothes and money.
“I tried to explain to them what it’s like but they didn’t listen. No one listened. They said there are good bosses and bad bosses – it’s a question of luck. They still want to take the chance.
“I would advise any young girl not to go. It’s not good for young girls because they are not ready for the difficulties they will face here. All they hear is good things. They don’t know the truth.
“I never told my family the truth – I didn’t want my father to know. My father told me ‘you are young and you have no idea what it will be like. It won’t be what you think.’
“Now my father has died, my mum sells vegetables and looks after my sister’s kids. I send all my salary to support them and buy seed for the farm. I don’t save anything for myself.
“I want to go to America with Salma. I don’t want to work for another family.”
Salma considers Fatia’s experience.
“Most girls would not be able to fight like her. She’s brave. Her friend was not paid for two years and had to go home with nothing.”
“I give her Friday off. I pay for all her necessities. She can call her friends and family whenever she wants on her phone. I took her to the Wave beach. She had never seen the sea. She was so happy.
“All her friends are stuck at home. They don’t get any free time to themselves.
“She’s a human being, but most people here don’t see it that way.”
*The names of the people in the story have been changed to protect their identities.