Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Faced with a growing and politically-loaded African refugee crisis, Egypt struggles to accommodate those who seek refuge. Gamal Nkrumah writes on the challenge and the hope

The one who got away ... and the one who didn't

Tina is from Sierra Leone. Born in Freetown, where she worked for a wealthy Lebanese family as a domestic servant, she fled her homeland as the civil war intensified, making the country unbearable for her employers. She, too, wanted out and couldn't believe her good fortune when they asked her if she would like to work for them in Lebanon. She jumped at the opportunity, hurriedly said goodbye to her family and friends and left Sierra Leone, never to return.

Unbeknownst to Tina, her employers had different plans in store for her in Lebanon than those they had outlined. Tina's naive concept of life in Lebanon was painfully flawed, but nothing could have prepared her for what lay ahead. As soon as she boarded the plane that took her and her employer's family to Europe for a summer break, Tina got a glimpse of what was to come.

In Sierra Leone, Tina worked hard during the day, but always left for home before dusk to have supper with family and friends. Throughout the wayward journey to Lebanon, whether flying, in hotels and airport lounges, she minded the children. There was simply no time off. She worked from the moment the kids woke up, which was often just before she did, until well after they were fast asleep. Tina was homesick long before the plane touched down at Beirut's Al-Khuld international airport and she was already exhausted and deeply disturbed.

In Lebanon, things grew more difficult. Nobody spoke her native Creole, or pidgin English, and she spoke neither Arabic nor French. Only the kids spoke to her in Creole, and as the year dragged on, less and less so. The food was different and she ate less and less. Her eyes were listless and her look distant and forlorn. She moved about lethargically, which irritated her mistress. For Madame M, Tina was getting infuriatingly forgetful. Worse, she was clumsy and sullen-faced. Tina was wasting away.

It dawned on Tina that she could not escape. Even worse, it suddenly occurred to her that she could not remember the last time her employers gave her pocket money, let alone her salary. Tina could not even write home, nor did she receive any letters since leaving Sierra Leone. She did not even know if her parents were still alive, but that was the least of her problems. While back in Freetown, she received what she then believed was a good monthly wage. In Bekfaya, Lebanon, she worked for nothing. Tina was virtually a slave.

There is no Sierra Leonean embassy in Lebanon. The only Sierra Leonean diplomatic mission in the entire Arab world was in Saudi Arabia, and she had absolutely no intention of going there.

In Sierra Leone, Tina had a day off. In Lebanon, she had none. In fact, the summer holidays, when the kids were not at school, were the hardest times and asking for time off from her employers was out of the question. Her chance came when the family decided to holiday in Egypt and made the mistake of taking her along.

Tina met a compatriot of hers and managed to escape from her employers. She got hold of a passport by faking the identity of a dead Sudanese woman and fled to the US as a Sudanese refugee. After a brief spell in windswept Wyoming, Tina tried her luck somewhere else. The last I heard of her, she was in Indiana, trying to start a new life.

Though her story is fraught with woes, Tina is one of the lucky ones. Many women are not so fortunate to get the chance to start over. Dessetta was an Ethiopian teenager working in Egypt who knew that her time was limited. She could not afford to get depressed about it, though, because no matter how tough things became, she knew she still had to manage the mounting domestic chores that her exacting mistress would not touch. But her sallow complexion, weight loss, general fatigue and recurring illnesses were unmistakable warning signs and her mistress insisted on an AIDS test.

The results showed that Dessetta was HIV positive. Her mistress drove her to the airport, Dessetta pleading with her in vain. She became hysterical and was heavily sedated by the time she was forcibly put on the plane to Addis Ababa.

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