Jobs or slavery? Kenyans speak of abuse in the Middle East

Nancy Cherotich, 30, at her home in Mosoriot, Nandi County after she returned from Lebanon.
Three weeks after burying her last born daughter, Lenah Masai still harbours questions about circumstances surrounding her death. The daughter, Carris Chepkirui, fondly known as Totoh by her Mosoriot-based family, died just three days after travelling to Lebanon for work.

A report from a District Attorney’s office in Bsous, 14km from Beirut, the Lebanon capital where the 23-year-old was assigned as a domestic worker, revealed that her corpse was found hanging by the staircase inside her employers’ mansion.

Reports from the Foreign Affairs Department in Kenya indicate that Chepkirui hanged herself with a cloth in her employer’s house, just two days after starting work. “A blanket was wrapped around her neck where the other end was tied in a tight noose at the balustrade of the staircase...” reads the report in part.

Investigations into circumstances that led to her hanging have, however, not been revealed to her family with the Bsous District Attorney’s report stating that the young woman was depressed and placed suspicion on suicide.

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The Form Four leaver’s sad death is the latest of Kenyan women lured by crooked employment agencies to work in the Middle East as domestic workers with promises of good pay.

Chepkirui’s elder sister Nancy Cherotich, 30, returned to her home in Nandi after three months in Lebanon. Tears run down her cheeks as she recounts her experiences in the hands of her employer.

To date, she does not know the town she was sent to work in.

Code of Silence

“My employer withheld my passport and other documents. My communication with my family was restricted to once a month, where I was allowed to contact one person for a limited period of time, with my employers hovering at the background, eavesdropping,” she says.

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Cherotich says she was overworked and given direct orders not to speak or associate with neighbours.

“I remember a Kenyan girl who was in a worse predicament at her employer’s house, who happened to be our neighbours. We would steal waves every time we happened to be at the balcony. She cried most of the time, she is still there,” she says.

Cherotich  says that as uncanny as it sounds, Chepkirui’s death was her saving grace. Cherotich was allowed to return home after she threatened her employers with suicide. “Home is best, I will never go back,” she says.

Steven Ngunyi’s sister is currently admitted to Kijabe Mission Hospital where she is suffering severe dog bites after her Saudi Arabian employers pushed her into the dogs’ kennel.

“They pushed her into the dogs’ kennel, and the dogs attacked her,” says Ngunyi.

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His sister is currently fighting for her life after being deported without treatment. Several family harambees have not been enough to cater for her medical expenses.

Househelp Shared Out

Hers is an alarming tale of modern day slavery that Kenyan women undergo in the hands of Arab employers. The high rate of unemployment and abject poverty back home has made them vulnerable victims of recruiting agencies.

Grace Nyambura, 25, and a resident of Langas in Eldoret, has spent the last three months in a jail in Sakakah, an Oasis Town in the North West of Saudi Arabia.

Nyambura was lured into taking up the oppressive job by an organisation called Anyiro Agency, a recruitment agency based in Nairobi, and which has branches in Eldoret and Nairobi.

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With a monthly salary offer of Sh45,000  for housework, she embarked on a journey to the  Middle East with hope for changed family fortunes. She tells of ‘holding centres’ where women in search of jobs in Saudi Arabia are kept before being picked by their employers.

“It is at the holding centre that I said goodbye to the girls I travelled with from Kenya. I was there for a week before my employer picked me up,” she recalls.

Nyambura’s experiences at the hands of her employer were harsh. She was regularly circulated to her employer’s relatives in turns, where she was forced to do all kinds of work, including farm work.

“I eventually refused the abuse and was beaten up by the man of the house in the presence of the entire family. They said I was rebellious. I was denied my salary and food. He asked me to pack my bags. I thought he was taking me to the airport but he took me to jail instead,” she says.

At Sakakah Prison, she was shocked to find out that 300 other Kenyan women were in prison and their families were kept in the dark over their predicament.

“Five girls managed to get out of jail and back home, they informed my mother that I was locked up and she came to my rescue, otherwise I would still be languishing in the jail at Sakakah,” she says.

Despite her time in jail, Nyambura ironically preferred to stay in jail, opting not to go back to her employers’ house.

Sleeping Hungry

“The prison cells  were dirty and crowded, but I had food and some freedom. I preferred to die there than go back to my employers’ house,” she says bitterly. She returned home with 20 contacts of girls she left in jail who were desperate to contact their families in Kenya.

“I am lucky to be back home, many ‘rebellious’ Kenyan women have been kept in jail for months without the knowledge of their families, some gave me phone numbers of their families to convey their predicament,” she says. For the four months she worked in Saudi Arabia, Nyambura did not receive a single coin of her salary. Crooked recruitment agencies manipulate the eager recruits to sign Arabic written contracts. Despite promises of favourable working conditions, the girls are made to work for 22 hours straight with little or no association with the employers’ family.

“I was allowed two hours of sleep between 4am and 6am. I worked without rest, with supervision from my employer’s wife. She would wake up just to check if I was still working,” says Nyambura.

Sexual advances

“I would only eat after they had finished and there were express orders from my employer not to touch their food; sometimes they would clear everything and leave nothing for me. The wife would gesticulate ‘nothing for you tonight’ and I would sleep hungry,” she says.

“One day I went for three days without eating. I finally crept into the kitchen as they slept and made some black tea. I was famished, overworked and starved,” she recalls.

Despite promises of a Sh45,000 salary, she was told that she would receive Sh17,000 from her employer on dispatch. “I suspect the rest was being forwarded to the agency,” she says.

After resisting her employer’s sexual advances, a 22-year-old girl who identified herself as Nelius says she was stabbed five times after an attempted rape.

“I was rescued from imminent death by the man’s wife who screamed for help. I was rescued by neighbours who rushed me to hospital. The man was later arrested,” she says.

Despite her near-death experience, the man claimed the girl had threatened he and his family. Nelius was later compensated by the man and deported. As Lenah Masai buried her young daughter she expressed her regrets at allowing her  Chepkirui to travel to Saudi Arabia. “I did not know, I thought we had a breakthrough as a family,” says the widow.

The Standard on Sunday contacted Anyiro Recruiting Agency Eldoret Manager Eunice Ngige. Despite several attempts, she refused to see us or receive our calls.

In spite of knowing the experiences of deported girls, young women eager for recruitment are lined up in the Eldoret recruitment office seeking to travel to the Middle East.

“I will go, I there is no benefit from staying,” an eager recruit says.

Asked if she is not afraid of encountering a bad experience, she says, “I will cross that bridge when I get there.”

In early May, a domestic worker attempted suicide by jumping from  the seventh floor of a building on the Hadi Nasrallah Street in Beirut.

The Human Rights Watch documented deaths of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon in 2008 and found that there had been an average of one death a week from unnatural causes, including suicide and falls from tall buildings.

According to the Human Rights Watch, mistreatment by recruiters, forced confinement to the workplace, forced labour, non-payment or delayed payment of wages, verbal and physical abuse are the most documented complaints given to embassies by domestic help.

Parents of victims are now calling on the Government to close down all recruiting agencies in a bid to prevent more girls from falling victim into slavery. The government has said it will vet these agencies before they are allowed to recruit.

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Middle East slavery Saudi Arabia