‘Mona’ is a work of fiction, based on the based on stories of Ethiopian women who have been to the Middle East as domestic workers.
Mona is under police custody. She looks distraught and depressed. Her once long hair has been cut short. She appears as if she just came out of a fight club. Her face is terribly bruised. Her eyes are swollen. She wants to make a call to Ethiopia. But that is only a dream as she is currently locked in a maximum-security prison somewhere in the Middle East. She must find a way to let her relatives know what has happened to her. She has to get in touch with Salima, her close friend. But how? Her eyes are filled with tears again. The realization that she may never see her relatives again is already killing her; before even facing the death penalty that those who imprisoned her are talking about…
Mona comes from a small town in Ethiopia. She met her best friend Salima at a Christian worship center here in the Middle East. Mona and Salima have been close friends ever since they met each other. Their real names back in Ethiopia were Monaliza (after Mona Lisa) and Selamawit (peaceful one). They had to modify their names before they came to the Middle East so that their employers would think they were Muslims. It was their broker’s idea. He ordered them to remove the cross necklace from their neck too. Otherwise, he threatened, he would give the opportunity to other girls. He said that the employers preferred Muslim maids or those who were willing to convert. “You want to make money or not? Keep your faith to yourself and act like a Muslim.” the man shouted. They listened to him, and they obeyed what he ordered them to do. They needed no obstacle in the way of their “Middle East Dream.” They had borrowed so much money, most of which had already been used for various expenses- including a broker’s fee and airline ticket. They had to get out of the country by any means necessary, and paying back that money was their priority. Thus, Monaliza became Mona, after the Arabic name Muna, meaning wish, desire. And Selamawit became Salima, the same meaning as the original one.
Alima and Ayesha are two other friends of Mona. They have always been Muslims. Alima was born in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Abeba, and Ayesha in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Because the best place for these two to meet their fellow Ethiopian and Eritrean sisters is at the worship center, they too go there whenever they can, and that is how they first met Mona and Salima. The four of them are now very close friends. For these young migrant workers, national and religious differences have no place because in this harsh environment, they need each other’s support more than anything else in the world as they work as domestic workers, maids, in (upper) middle class Middle Eastern households.
Salima and Mona work in the same neighborhood. Also Alima and Ayesha work more or less close to each other. Salima and Alima are the lucky ones from the group; they both have very kind employers that pay them well and treat them nicely. Unfortunately, for Mona and Ayesha, the situation is very different; they have been dealing with disturbingly abusive households.
Ayesha has been working for a four family household since her arrival from Khartoum after she ran away from Eritrea’s labor camp, risking her life. She now takes care of two small kids in a household of four. The husband and the kids are nice to her. She speaks good Arabic because of her stay in Khartoum. But the wife is very mean to her. She treats her worse than a wicked witch. This lady finds excuses to physically and verbally abuse Ayesha. One of the reasons is that she can’t stand the fact that Ayesha is a beautiful African woman. She hates seeing her face. She spits on her when she feels like it. She tries everything to break Ayesha’ spirit. She is paranoid that her husband might sleep with Ayesha. The husband is a nice gentleman, and is aware of his wife’s jealousy. He has done everything possible to tame her insecurity. But the lady is impossible to tame. The man has never crossed his line. He only admires Ayesha’s hard work and how she is good at dealing with the children. His two kids love Ayesha like crazy. But the wife fails to appreciate that. Ayesha is a threat to her. So she abuses her whenever she can since she cannot fire her without her husband’s consent. Once she hit her with a hot skillet; the marks are still visible on Ayesha’s skin. And this has never been reported to anyone. The husband did take Ayesha to a clinic for a check up, but he told the doctor she had an accident, and that was it. And when the wife found out the husband took Ayesha to the clinic, she was furious. She told her husband to stay out of it. “Let her rot!”, she said. Despite the never-ending abuse, Ayesha still works there because she likes the husband and the kids. She is willing to tolerate the abuse until she finds a better place.
Mona’s case is worse. She has switched employers twice. It has only gotten horrible. She has slaved for over a year and she still has not paid back the money she owes people in Ethiopia—the reason why she is still here, though she wants to leave this hell. Mona’s first employers were a family of five: Three sons, wife and husband. Here, not only was she abused by the wife, but the three sons also harassed her, attacking her with racial slurs and attempting to rape her. One day she was almost raped by the older son as she was cleaning his room, but before it happened the wife luckily showed up. However, when Mona complained about the son, the wife beat her up with an electric cord, and accused her, “how could you dishonor my innocent son?” Mona ran away from that household. She never went back and she never claimed her nine months worth of salary, which she was told she would be paid at the end of the year instead of every month.
Mona had a tough childhood. Born from a working class family, she joined the work force when she was just six years old, selling fruits in the streets. Because she was beautiful, they named her Monaliza. Mona’s father was an elementary school teacher. And her mother worked as a traditional midwife. Four other children were born after Mona. As an eldest child, Mona had to carry the burden of the family on her shoulder, as she grew older. In addition to looking after the four children, she had to help her mother dealing with household tasks. Mona’s dream was to finish school and to go to university so she could study engineering like her neighbor’s son. She was a top student in school. But the household tasks made it impossible for her to focus on studies. Her father retired early because of a car accident. That left her and her mother to be in charge of the whole family. She was forced to quit school from the 9th grade, after passing the 8th grade national exam with high scores. And when her mother saw the constant harassment Mona was facing from rude men, she gave her up to one man who promised to be a good husband.
Mr. Husband soon decided that Mona must go to the Middle East like the other girls and make money for the family. He borrowed a large sum from his friends to fund her trip. Mona spoke no Arabic. She barely knew English. She was only good at her native tongue, Amharic. Let alone go to the Middle East; she had never left her small town. She did not want to leave. But for the sake of her family, and the husband, she convinced herself she could do it. After she arrived here, she wanted to go back right away. She was totally lost. Confused. It was painful to go through the culture shock, never mind the added abuse. One day she telephoned her husband crying, “I don’t want to stay here. I want to come home.” Husband responded, “Are you crazy? What about my money, and the money I borrowed? Who is going to repay it? You better stay there. Don’t you come over here. Or else I will sue you and your family!” She cried every day and every night. She talked to her mother as well. Her mother cried over the phone, “I wish you could come back, daughter. But …” It was pointless. She understood that nobody wanted her over there. Even though she hated it over here, she realized she had to endure the suffering until at least she made enough money. Unfortunately, the longer she stayed, she wasn’t even getting paid despite working like a donkey.
After she ran away from the first place she worked, she found a new household. In this household, there are three people: A husband, a wife, and a daughter who studies abroad. Sadly, it seems Mona’s luck only leads her to the wrong place. Here, the husband and the wife have been harassing her, one after the other. The husband does inappropriate things that make Mona uncomfortable and the wife angry. His irresponsible behavior has created a friction between the two women. The wife never confronts her husband. But when he steps out, she becomes the devil incarnate against her maid. Do this, do that, non-stop. If Mona says she is tired, she gets beaten. And the lady sends her away to clean her friends’ mess.
Yesterday, something terrible happened. As Mona was washing dishes, the husband sneaked behind her and grabbed her bosom. She screamed. The wife came in. She saw her husband standing very close to Mona. She questioned, “Is everything okay?” He told her to ask the maid why she was rude to him. And he walked out. Then the wife began beating Mona. Finally, Mona couldn’t take the abuse any longer. She retaliated. She hit back. But she hit the lady so bad that she knocked her down. The lady fell on the floor, unconscious. And Mona panicked. She shook the lady. The lady did not wake up. She screamed for help. But no one appeared. She then called police, and the lady was confirmed dead. Mona was taken to police station. The husband went to the prison, and shouted, “Murderer. Murderer.” And the media reported, “An Ethiopian maid murdered her employer’s wife. She will be facing the death penalty, no doubt.”
Mona now sits in the cold prison cell. All alone. Her tears fall like the two rivers that pass through her small town. “I’m not a murderer, I’m not a murderer. She hit me, and I hit her back. It was an accident. I’m not a murderer.” She keeps telling the wall. The wall listens. But everyone calls her a murderer. She is not even allowed to have a visitor.
How Mona misses her close friend Salima. She misses Ayesha and Amina too. She is particularly worried about Ayesha.
No one is around to tell Mona, “It’s okay, you will be alright.” Instead, she has been charged guilty before any trial.
*Alem Dechasa, the maid in Lebanon who recently passed away, was screaming for help in front of the Ethiopian consulate. But what did the consulate do? Nothing until she was dead. She was beaten and dragged into a car by criminals who later on forced her to check into a mental hospital. And after she had already “committed suicide”—she was killed in my opinion—the consulate officials tried to save face by telling the media that they would sue the abusers.
When other countries stop sending maids to the Middle East, demanding the governments improve their laws to protect the rights of foreign workers, the Ethiopian government is busy taking a counterproductive measure.
FYI: Ethiopia plans to send 45, 000 women domestic workers to Saudi Arabia every month. Government officials are determined to increase revenue by sending our poor women to the Middle East, but they have done nothing so far to ensure that the women’s human and civil rights are protected in those countries. All the promises that you read in this article are just empty talks.
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