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Legal Center Aids Human Trafficking Survivors

By David Snyder

With a nervous smile and dark, furtive eyes, Jennifer Viola Tabios seems like a woman used to looking over her shoulder. As a Filipino in Jordan, she stands out already, and although desperate for work to support herself, standing out is the last thing Jennifer wants to do these days.

Jennifer Viola Tabios

Jennifer Viola Tabios, who left her native Philippines in search of work in the Middle East, says she sometimes felt like a prisoner in her apartment in Jordan. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

"I had many job opportunities, but each time this man find me and breaks my dreams," Jennifer says.

The man she is referring to is someone Jennifer once thought of as a friend but now fears. Arriving in Jordan in 2007 to look for work, Jennifer, like many migrant workers who travel to the Middle East in search of jobs, soon found herself powerless and voiceless in a foreign culture. Duped by a man who promised to help her work legally in Jordan, Jennifer unwittingly signed a statement agreeing to pay him money.

The man signed on as her Jordanian sponsor for employment, and then took possession of her passport, making it impossible for her to leave the country. Once he had that control, Jennifer says, his demands for payment soon began.

Several times over the years, he has tracked her down at jobs, harassing and threatening her in front of employers, who, more often than not, let her go to avoid any trouble. Jobless and without a passport, she is stuck in Jordan.

"God knows, I don't know how long I'm going to be here," Jennifer says. "Sometimes I just don't want to think about it."

'They Are Treated as Slaves'

Unfortunately, Jennifer's story of abuse and maltreatment is not uncommon among the estimated 300,000 foreign migrant workers legally residing in Jordan today. Of these workers, nearly 75,000 are women, mostly from Asian nations such as Indonesia or the Philippines, who are drawn to the country by promises of domestic work.

For many, like Jennifer, their dreams turn into nightmares when their employers place extreme demands on them, refusing to pay even the $150 minimum monthly salary required by Jordanian law. Some employers lock workers in small rooms to keep them from leaving. Some force women to work 7 days a week with no leave.

"Of all of the women that I have met with—and we have 200 or 300 cases—none have a single day off," says Bilal Odeh, a lawyer and legal assistant for the Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies, which provides legal counsel for migrant workers in Amman. "They are treated as slaves."

Bilal Odeh with Filipino passport

Lawyer Bilal Odeh holds up the passport he retrieved for migrant worker Eva Mendoza within 24 hours of her request to the Adaleh Center for Human Rights Studies for assistance. Odeh is employed at the center in Jordan. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

Opened in 2003, the Adaleh Center is a human rights organization in the Jordan capital city. For years, the center concentrated mostly on educating Jordanians about human rights and civil society. In 2010, with support from Catholic Relief Services, Adaleh opened a legal unit dedicated exclusively to providing legal assistance to foreign migrant workers in Jordan.

The unit's lawyers help migrants get their passports back from unscrupulous recruitment agencies, fight trumped-up legal charges brought against them in Jordanian courts, or secure their release from jail so they can return to their home countries.

It was to Adaleh that Jennifer turned in 2010. At first, she was unsure of the agency and what help they might be able to provide.

"It's hard for me to trust people, and I didn't trust them at first," Jennifer says. "But they told me they are a human rights organization, and I told them that I needed their help, and from that I got some faith."

Now, Jennifer works closely with Adaleh lawyer Bilal Odeh to bring the man who extorted money from her to justice. At the same time, they are trying to get her passport back so she can either work legally in Jordan or return to the Philippines.

Finally being given a voice through the work of the Adaleh Center, Jennifer hopes that one day soon she'll be able to work—legally—which is all she ever wanted when she first arrived in Jordan as an eager 25-year-old. But alone in a one-room apartment, with little money and no way to leave, the burden of her ordeal in that country has taken a toll on her.

"I'm stressed, but I'm a brave woman," Jennifer says. "I try always to be strong in front of people, but inside I hurt."

David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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