"I heard the planes overhead and other maids in the building shouting. I heard the bombs." Trapped on the eighth and highest floor of a building in Beirut, Kumari was terrified. It was the summer of 2006, and an aerial bombardment had begun in Lebanon. Many Lebanese were fleeing the city, but Kumari couldn't even leave the apartment where she worked.
"I shouted but no one came. I cried a lot because I couldn't go out; the door was locked."
Most doors in America can be unlocked from the inside. You might not be able to get into a locked room, but you can always get out of one. In the Middle East, if you don't have the key, you're in trouble.
Every single day, across Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, women are thinking about that key. Where it is. Who has it.
No Way Out
The women thinking about it are live-in maids, often from poor areas of countries like the Philippines or Sri Lanka. The people who hold the keys, and won't let go, are their employers—wealthy couples who hire help from overseas.
Some maids are treated well. Others aren't. Some, like Kumari, are worked 18 hours every day and not allowed to sit down.
"My eyes would hurt from not sleeping," she says.
Others are never paid. Some are starved by families who own jewelry and cars and country houses; the employers jealously watch the refrigerator and the maids search the garbage for food. Some maids are raped.
The abuse differs from family to family, but one thing is the same. The maids can't get the key—so they think of other options.
Perilous Bids for Freedom
Fay,* a young woman from the Philippines, was in an apartment ten stories up. She ate rotten fruit and four-day-old leftovers rather than suffer the anger of her employer, "Madam." When Madam became enraged, she bit Fay, hard. It happened more than once. Finally Fay lowered a letter on a string down to a Filipino neighbor, who got help. Fay got out.
For Rekha,* a girl from Nepal who was fed only a small bit of cheese each day, the answer was also the balcony of her Beirut high-rise. She tied sheets together and managed to scramble down them. Hungry though she was, she's proud of the athleticism that helped her escape: "In Nepal, I played soccer and did karate. I like sports."
Sometimes the sheets rip. Sometimes women jump.
At a CRS-supported shelter for abused maids in Beirut, out of two dozen women, 16 were almost always locked in. One by one, the women talk about their own escapes:
"I jumped from one floor from the fire escape."
"My employer was sleeping—it was 5 or 6 a.m.. I crept out."
"They forgot to lock me in."
"I tied sheets together to get down three floors."
"I pretended I was going out to throw away the garbage."
Most remember not only the day, but the exact minute they escaped. "It was 7:25 in the morning on July 19," says a woman named Indrani who was locked in, unpaid, for eight years. Her employer's grown son felt sorry for her, and unlocked the door as he gave her money, asking Indrani to "go out and buy me a chocolate bar." The fictitious chocolate bar was her way out of slavery, says Indrani: "I couldn't have climbed down from the tenth floor."
As the bombs fell in the summer of 2006, Kumari was also too high up to jump or use makeshift ropes. She was unable to call the police—or anyone. "Sometimes they locked the phone," she says, and that day the phone was locked for outgoing calls.
Kumari ran to her balcony to talk to other panicked maids. Eventually Madam—Kumari's employer, a banker who was at her own job elsewhere in the city—called. "She told me not to worry."
Fortunately, the bombs did not hit Kumari's building. But she had had enough. As the war in Lebanon continued, she begged to be sent to the embassy of Sri Lanka, her homeland. "I stayed there a week," she says. "There were hundreds of Sri Lankans sleeping on the floor in the basement of the embassy."
Other maids were abandoned by their employers as families fled the bombing. A Catholic Relief Services partner, the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, took them in, bringing them to a safe house in the mountains outside of Beirut. Later, the Migrant Center got them to Damascus in neighboring Syria. There, the women received food at a shelter before taking a plane home. The tickets to Sri Lanka were paid for by Caritas and other groups, including the Sri Lankan government.
Caritas' Lebanon staff had helped them get this far. Caritas in Sri Lanka would help them get home. When the Sri Lankan women first started arriving at the airport in their country's capital, the government brought the exhausted and shell-shocked women to a bus station. "Caritas said, 'Don't just dump them at the bus station,' " remembers John Worthington of CRS Sri Lanka. "Caritas got the flight schedules and met them."
Worthington joined Caritas teams helping women as they arrived at the airport. "They were like the walking dead," he says. "Some had jumped from the third or fourth floor."
"They were very thin, too."
The Caritas teams took over 3,000 women to a center near the airport where they could shower, eat and call their families. If they needed the help, Caritas organized transport back to their villages and gave pocket money to some women.
Better Ways to Earn a Living
Rescuing Sri Lankan women from slavery and war was the first step. Giving them alternatives to dangerous employment abroad was the next. With CRS' help, Caritas began providing vocational training grants to maid-returnees from Lebanon. They learned soap-making, gardening, poultry-keeping and more.
Now 36, Kumari lives outside the Sri Lankan city of Kandy with her family, including her two-year-old son. With a Caritas Kandy loan, she started growing vegetables, rice, vanilla and cinnamon. "My husband grows rice, but he has no other job," she says. "So if it weren't for Caritas, I don't know what I'd do." After paying back her first loan, Kumari received a second loan for pepper and tea cultivation.
She talks about Beirut as she sits in her brother's house—a place less luxurious than her high-rise prison, and much happier. Then she walks out the open door to show visitors the vanilla pods and tea leaves she'll soon gather to sell. "Now I am able to face life," she says. "I don't want to go abroad. I have things I can do here in Sri Lanka." As the visitors leave, she moves around her large garden, walking freely.
*Some names have been changed at the request of Caritas
Laura Sheahen is CRS' Regional Information Officer for Asia.