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The High Stakes of Leaving

Ethiopian migrants risk their lives for a better one in the Middle East

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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With its modern steel-and-glass facade and sleek jetways, Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa symbolizes Ethiopia’s coming of age in today’s fast-paced, globalized world. Businessmen wearing crisp suits and holding carry-on luggage whiz through customs. Members of the country’s well-heeled diaspora collect their bags, stuffed with gifts from overseas. And foreigners — tourists and the many expatriates who call Addis Ababa home — appear as comfortable navigating Bole as they might New York’s John F. Kennedy or London’s Heathrow international airports.

However, not everyone takes in stride his or her transit through Bole International; Ethiopian migrant workers also pass through the airport — either boarding for or returning from countries in the Middle East, where the demand for cheap labor is high.

Fifteen minutes from the airport, in a compound hidden behind a high, unmarked metal gate, a woman in her early 20’s sits on a white plastic chair in an empty room. Deported by authorities in Saudi Arabia, she arrived in the airport days earlier.

“This girl spent three years in Saudi Arabia and all she came back with was her passport and the clothes on her back,” says Sasu Nina, executive director of Agar, a charitable organization in Addis Ababa that supports vulnerable adults and one of the few that works with migrant workers returning from the Middle East.

Ms. Sasu has spent the past 24 hours in the young woman’s company. Yet, she still knows nothing about her background, apart from her name and, thanks to a sticker on the back of her passport, that of the employment agency that secured her visa abroad.

“Thank God she went through a legal agency,” says Ms. Sasu. “Very few come to us that way. It’s usually only women from Addis Ababa who have access to a legal agency. And most of the women we get here aren’t from Addis. They’re from rural villages where illegal brokers control this human trafficking.”

Too traumatized to talk, the woman hunches over her knees, staring at the floor. Ms. Sasu, however, has seen enough women in similar circumstances to fill in the rest of the picture.

“Maybe she had an abusive male employer. Maybe she lived with a family that suspected her of wrongdoing or a woman in the house that felt threatened by her. Somehow, she fell out of favor and was abused,” Ms. Sasu speculates. “Most of the time, she’s denied payment. One day she says, ‘Where’s my pay?’ And they say, ‘Leave,’ and call the police, telling them she stole something. Accused, she’s put in jail and before you know it, she’s walking the streets looking for a ticket to bring her back home. And she doesn’t want to return empty handed. Those things keep her on the street.”

Whatever the woman encountered as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Sasu will wait patiently until she is ready to talk about it.

Ms. Sasu already has summoned an interpreter, who speaks Oromiffa, the woman’s native language. She also contacted the country’s visa agency for more information about her case and asked members of the local Ethiopian Orthodox Church to locate her family.

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Tags: Ethiopia Middle East Migrants Women (rights/issues) Employment