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An Interview from a Women’s Shelter in Addis Ababa

The broker could’ve easily bought her a plane ticket directly to Tripoli, but then, of course, he wouldn’t have made as much money

We are proud to introduce Huddled Masses, a journal of writing and arts on the themes of Migration and Mobility sponsored by the Zolberg Institute and published in partnership with Public Seminar. Our goal is to provide the middle ground, to bridge the gap between the academic journal and the news, to raise solidarity with the vulnerability of the arts. The forthcoming first issue contains poetry, fiction and non-fiction that provide, we hope, alternative perspectives on the issues that saturate the airwaves and fill our classrooms. From poems of the Caribbean Diaspora to an essay on the flocking of starlings, to the piece highlighted below, we are a platform for the long-form or the “deep-form,” for nuanced investigations that challenge and broaden. In the coming weeks, Public Seminar will publish selections from the magazine which will have its print launch May 10 at 4 P.M. in Conference Room D1618 at 79 5th Ave. 16th floor which is free and open to the public and will feature festivities and readings from magazine. Huddled Masses has rolling submissions and we encourage submissions, responses, additions, heckles and comments. Email us at huddledmassesmag@gmail.com. -Daniel Horowitz, Editor-in-chief, Huddled Masses

The following essay is featured in the first issue of Huddled Masses.

Coming Out of Eternity: 

The following account was told to me by Derartu, a young woman I’d met in a women’s shelter while interning for a non-governmental organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her interview was one of several conducted during my travels in the Amhara region while conducting research for my Masters thesis on Ethiopia’s international labor migration.[1]

Introduction

The new Ethiopian Overseas Employment Law (Proclamation No. 923/2016) [2] which went into effect in January 2018, is specifically set to improve labor migration management and protection mechanisms for migrant workers. Most importantly, the deployment of workers under the age of 18, without an 8th grade of education, and without a certificate of occupational competence is strictly prohibited. In order to circumvent these laws young men and women who don’t qualify but still want to migrate abroad for work, hire the services of human trafficking networks to work outside of Ethiopia. Several returnees I’d interviewed told me they’d sought the assistance of traffickers to facilitate their journeys to the Sudan, Libya or across the Red Sea to Yemen, from where they might would move onwards to Saudi Arabia or other countries in the gulf region. Many of the traffickers are known to the families, live in the village or are friends of friends.

During each interview a common thread which tied the stories of the men and women I spoke to was their relationship to their spiritual beliefs. As I processed each story over time, I recalled the modern and classic works of Sufi scholars and saints, particularly in their themes of inner and outer journeying, absolute reliance on the divine, and the practice of patience and transcendent love. Charles Upton’s Versions of Rabi’a,[3] The Conference of the Birds by Farid Ud-Din Attar,[4] and Purification of the Heart by Hamza Yusuf,[5] were some of the books I regularly consulted during the course of writing my thesis. These books contain philosophical and religious poems, prose, stories with common cultural idioms and tell of the lives of saints and poets. Reading these works over the months of writing my thesis inspired me to name chapters of my narrators’ stories with verses quoted from these books. Reading them also reminded me of the many conversations I’d held; of the stories narrated against the backdrop of the evening call from a nearby mosque, or the sound of music ever-present in the air of Ethiopia.

Note: I have tried as much as possible, between translations and hours of transcribed conversation to remain as close to the interviewee’s narrative as possible.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 2018

“Until 6 years ago I used to live with my family. Now I live in a shelter. I’ll be here until my family is located and until I finish a training course which will provide me with the skills to operate a small business. The training will enable me to own a small shop, support my family and allow me to become financially independent. Once I’m financially independent I won’t need to seek jobs abroad; and, anyway, after the experiences I’ve had, I don’t ever want to travel to another country again.”

Derartu is twenty years old but doesn’t look a day older than fifteen. She has bright brown eyes which light up every time she talks. She smiles often despite sharing difficult stories of having run away from the family she was working for in Libya as a domestic worker after months of not being paid. Alone on the streets of Tripoli and without identification papers (which were in the custody of the family she was working for), she’d been caught by the Libyan police and jailed for months. She doesn’t exactly remember how long her imprisonment lasted but says it could’ve been anywhere from three to six months.

A dimple appears and disappears on her left cheek as she talks.

Derartu’s father was a farmer in the Daalo Kebele (neighborhood) located in the rural area surrounding Harar in Ethiopia. Her mother was a housewife. Derartu grew up with five brothers and six sisters. Her husband, whom she married at the age of fifteen is also a farmer. When Derartu decided with a group of friends from her village to leave for Libya, it was primarily because she wanted to bring about a change in her family’s economic status. She’d met other men and women in the village who’d come back with enough financial resources to buy a car or a motorcycle. Some brought back foreign goods. Derartu, like most youngsters, was also tempted by the allure of travelling abroad and wanted to experience living and working in another country. Sometime in 2016 she arrived in Addis Ababa with her friends, leaving two sets of twins and her husband behind. One set of twins was left with her mother’s family and the other set was left with her husband’s side of the family.

I asked Derartu if she’d discussed working abroad with her husband prior to making the decision to leave. She told me that she’d spoken to him twice in two years, once before leaving for Libya and again when she was living in Libya with her employers. Since that last call, she’d misplaced his cell phone number and has been unable to communicate with him. She had wanted to get in touch with her friends with whom she’d traveled to Libya, but they’d been separated by the trafficking agent after reaching the airport in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.

“How did you find out about the employment opportunities in Libya?” I asked. She’d become aware of opportunities in the domestic work sector through a group of friends in the village who she considered ‘educated’ and were also on their way to Libya. She was able to get a passport from the town of Dredua (near Harar). The entire process took just one week. The visa was then facilitated by a broker, who had procured it from the Libyan embassy in Addis Ababa. But instead of flying directly from Addis Ababa to Libya the group was driven to Khartoum, Sudan. The cost to go to Sudan from Metamma, a border town off the western border of Ethiopia was Birr 6000 (approx. US $214.00). The broker could’ve easily bought her a plane ticket directly to Tripoli, but then, of course, he wouldn’t have made as much money.

Derartu is illiterate, she’s never attended school and speaks only Oromo, one of the official languages of Ethiopia. As she talks there are two translators in the room through whom we conduct a meaningful conversation. One of them translates from Oromo to Amharic and the other from Amharic to English. This is indeed a quite an enterprise and makes me wonder at the dilemma faced by migrants from non-Amharic speaking regions of Ethiopia who arrive frequently in Addis Ababa to find work and potentially face language barriers. There’s also another factor to be considered in Derartu’s case: she’s a young girl from a rural area, and besides being enticed by stories of economic gain, she doesn’t have any knowledge of the simple procedures which are intrinsic to the migratory process. Acquiring a visa, a plane ticket, or even knowledge of the customs of a foreign country are unknown to many of the migrant workers seeking domestic work abroad. These lapses are further exploited by the traffickers. This is one of the areas addressed in Ethiopia’s New Proclamation from 2018.[6] All potential migrants will have to go through government certified agencies and training centers prior to starting domestic work in a foreign country. They also have to have attained an 8th grade education. As several migrants are illiterate and do not possess this criteria, going through illegal channels become all the more necessary. How measures from the New Proclamation are being implemented will need to be assessed in another research paper.

Over the course of the interview I was curious to find out how she and her friends had acquired the financial resources to pay the brokers and the traffickers. I had observed during my travels in the Amharic region that while people living in rural areas might be short in cash, they own much in kind; animals, livestock and jewelry which they sell in order to procure cash for the brokers. Borrowing money from friends and relatives is also common. Another more sinister aspect is hiring the services of a broker and agreeing to pay them after they find work. Frequently this practice leads to bonded labor and slavery as the migrants are bullied to work during the journey as well as hounded for payment after finding work in their country of destination.

After arriving in Sudan by car and spending a week in a small camp located outside Khartoum, Derartu and her group flew to Libya. The cost of leaving from Metamma (border of Ethiopia) to Sudan is Birr 6000 ($214.00) while the total cost of an air ticket from Addis Ababa to Tripoli is around Birr 8000 ($285.00). The extra cost of Birr 6000 for the journey to Sudan was unnecessary and purely for the purposes of lining the broker’s pockets. Derartu was chosen by her future employer in Libya through a photo selection which is usually provided to the clients by traffickers. The traffickers then facilitate the process of gathering the women and taking them to their destinations. In Deratu’s case, when she arrived in Tripoli, a man was waiting for her at the airport. He singled her out amongst the other women waiting for their employers and took her to his home. He had a wife and 4 children. This man was her employer.

“They were good to me in general but never paid me for all the time I spent working as their maid. They also confiscated my passport,” (a practice known as the kafala sponsorship system prevalent in the GCC countries). [7] She stayed and worked for them for over a year before running away. After being on the street for three days, Derartu was arrested by the police in Tripoli. She was imprisoned for several months and then spent another month in a hospital with other girls who’d undergone similar experiences. The hospital was able to communicate with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) which later secured her passage back to Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, IOM contacted a local organization, whose staff picked her up directly from the airport and organized food, clothing, shelter and medical aid.

Currently Derartu lives in a shelter sponsored by a local NGO based in Addis Ababa. She longs to return home and spend time with her family. The NGO working on her case is trying to locate her family, as several of the returnees don’t possess contact information for friends or family members.

Priya Singh holds a Master’s degree in International Affairs from The New School’s Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs; at present, she resides in New York City.


[1] Singh, Priya. Between Narratives and Borders: The Impact of Labor Migration on Ethiopia’s Returnees.Master’s thesis, The New School University, Studley Graduate Program of International Affairs, 2018.

[2] “The Ethiopian Overseas Employment Proclamation No. 923/2016: A Comprehensive Analysis.” International Labor Organization. May 01, 2017.

[3] Upton, Charles. Doorkeeper of the Heart: Versions of Rabi’a. New York: Pir Press, 1988.

[4]ʻAṭṭār, Farīd Al-Dīn, and C. S. Nott. The Conference of the Birds. Srinagar, Kashmir, India: Gulshan Books Kashmir, 2017.

[5] Yusuf, Hamza. Purification of the Heart: Signs, Symptoms and Cures of the Spiritual Diseases of the Heart. Place of Publication Not Identified: Sandala, 2012.

[6] “The Ethiopian Overseas Employment Proclamation No. 923/2016: A Comprehensive Analysis.” International Labor Organization. May 01, 2017.

[7] “Reform of the Kafala (Sponsorship) system.” International Labor Organization.

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