Stories from the Gate

by Michael Clancy

Escape from white slavery

Stories from the gateThelma was a bright young woman, college educated at the Davao Campus of the University of the Philippines. She had worked as an elementary teacher in her native hometown of Marawi in Lanao de Sur before, at the age of 35 and still single, she decided that the time had come to seek her fortune overseas.

She chose to work in Abu Dhabi since she had heard of exciting developments there and that this was the preferred destination these days for many young Filipino women such as herself. Her confidence was strengthened after talking to a local recruitment agency. The woman who interviewed her was herself a former OFW who had worked in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and painted a glowing picture of a life there that Thelma had so far only dreamed about. It took some time to convince her family but eventually they agreed; perhaps because she had promised to send home a part of her salary on a regular basis that would enable her parents (with whom she still lived) to finally build a more substantial home than the timber and straw structure that they had been the family dwelling for several generations.

She was almost 38 years old when she finally arrived in Abu Dhabi to work as a domestic helper for her Arab sponsor, a businessperson of some means who owned and managed a number of investment properties in Abu Dhabi and the nearby financial centre of Dubai.

Her sponsor’s house formed part of a family compound. Adjacent to the home in which she lived attending to her sponsor and his immediate family was the original family home where his parents and other siblings lived. Another building, part of the same complex, served as a common dining area, kitchen and laundry. The various structures were separate from one another but bounded by a common high fence with security lighting and patrolled by armed watchmen who remained on the premises at all times.

In the house where she was living, she was the only helper and was paid
AED600 per month (around AUD180). While this was a small salary, all her meals and accommodation were provided for and she was treated well by the family. There were a number of Indonesian women working for other members of the family. They knew each other very well and ate together in the communal kitchen every evening. She found that all her needs were met by the extended family grouping in which she found herself.

She was happy and contented with her small world and as the days passed she felt increasingly reassured that she had made the right decision.

A sudden change of circumstance

Her happiness lasted for 10 months but then her circumstances changed abruptly. She remembers the day well. It does not rain much in Abu Dhabi but this day was particularly wet. By the evening, there were puddles of water everywhere. The air was particularly humid and that added to her lassitude. She decided to retire to bed early. She had not been in her room very long before there was a knock on her door. She opened it to find one of her Indonesian colleagues there telling her that she had a package from her friend and that she had to come to the gate to sign for it.

She was tired, half-asleep in fact, but to receive a parcel was unusual and her curiosity was aroused. She quickly put on her housecoat and a pair of rubber shoes and with her friend, Miriza; she shuffled outside to the gate of the compound. Instead of finding a delivery person with a package, she was confronted by three Bengalis who grabbed both women by the arm and forced them to a waiting car parked nearby. They were immediately covered with black cloths and forced inside the back of the car wedged between two of the abductors. Before even the doors were closed, the car sped away at high speed.

Thelma recalls that both girls were wriggling and screaming out to one another but they were warned to keep quiet “or else…”. Frightened to the core, both of them obeyed and became docile for the duration of the trip that, from Thelma’s reckoning lasted between two and three hours.

The local quarter in Dubai. Thelma would have been confined in a house similar to this

When they arrived at their destination, the night was pitch black. Not even the stars were visible to provide some basic illumination. With both arms held securely by their captors, the two girls had their head covers removed and were marched to what appeared to be an improvised shelter at the back of a two-storey house. Thelma recalls that the building was cramped with low ceilings and was more akin to a place that housed animals although there was no distinct animal smell. Rather, she recalled a feint odour of turmeric and other Eastern spices. The two were forced into one of the rooms where there was just sufficient space for them to lie on the floor and sleep. Frightened and exhausted they fell silent for the night, barely daring to whisper to one another. Instead the comforted each other with hand gestures, clenching themselves together in a bond of mutual security.

It was barely daylight when they were awakened by the distant chanting of a mullah from a nearby mosque. They could hear the feint wail of a prayer rising to Heaven but from where it was coming they were unable to tell. That morning, Heaven had never seemed so far away. They were still lying and were talking softly to one another when the door of their room was unlocked and a Bengali woman brought them some rice for their breakfast.

After eating quickly, scooping the rice into their mouths with their bare hands, they were ushered from their temporary lodging and back into the vehicle that had taken them from their sponsor’s home the previous night. The car ride lasted around 30 minutes and this time they were not covered. Thelma recalls that it was a wide paved road although the side streets appeared unpaved and very dusty. Pools of water were everywhere although the rain had disappeared with the night. The air was unusually humid. At last, they arrived at a new destination. Thelma and Miriza were ushered into a small ground floor room in what appeared to be another two-storey apartment building. Once inside, a new surprise awaited them.

Waiting for them inside was somebody else Thelma knew. It was Liza, an Indonesian friend of Mariza. With her was her Bengali boyfriend, a young dark and bearded young man named Dadir. Dadir had sharp piercing eyes and a stare that brought immediate fear to the two captured women. This was not a man you would want to anger, they could tell that immediately and so they sat docile in front of their abductors. Liza sought to console them while Dadir disappeared into an adjacent room.

It quickly became apparent that it was Dadir that had arranged the kidnapping of the two girls and he and the three kidnappers who had abducted the girls, the previous evening were arguing over the distribution of money. Thelma was listening intently and while the language was foreign to her, she was in no doubt as to the subject of their heated discussion. Meanwhile, Liza was speaking to both Thelma in Miriza in English, seeking to console them and explaining to them that really, they were quite “lucky” to have been kidnapped because they would have the opportunity to make “lots of money”. They listened, nodded in silent agreement but kept their thoughts to themselves. You could tell their real thoughts from their eye contact: “Safer this way,” they were saying to one another.

Sometime later, another car arrived and a second group of men came into the room. Evidently, they were there to inspect the “merchandise”. This time they were speaking in Arabic, which Thelma understood a little. She quickly learned that she and Miriza were being “sold” by Dadir. One of the Bengalis came to where Thelma was sitting and gestured to her to stand up. She obeyed. He turned her around, his eyes intent on inspecting her.

Uncomfortable in the extreme, her modesty affronted, she kept her eyes to the floor but the Bengali grabbed her by the chin and forced her to look at him. His face broke into a wide grin and he turned to claim Thelma as his own. “Filipinas are very good” he appeared to say in Arabic over his shoulder to his colleagues. With that, he grabbed her by the hair and escorted her to another room in the house where she was locked away. From her cell she could hear further arguments taking place between the men and distinctly remembers the driver of the vehicle that abducted them complaining about being paid only AED 100 for his part in the abduction. Then all became silent.

Thelma explained that this part of her ordeal was the most terrifying. She was kept locked in this room for four days. It was small, dank and had only a small high window from which she could tell day from night but nothing more. The only time the door was opened was she was brought some food or when the Bengali came in to sexually abuse her.

She recalls this happened six times in four days. He was unclean, unshaven, his breath was bad and his body odour extreme, she remembers. The first time she put up a struggle, after that, she knew it was pointless and she became increasingly more compliant, preferring to switch off her entire being while enduring his advances.

Change of “ownership” and new work

The United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates

Then it was time for another change. After this, she was taken from the room and given to another Bengali who introduced himself as “Jasim”. It appeared that she was now his property and Jasim took her from this first place to an apartment on the second floor of the same building. By this time, the others, including Liza and Miriza had disappeared and she was never to see or hear from them again. Thelma was now on her own.

Jasim offered her food which she refused and this made him angry but he did not touch her. Evidently, Jasim was another broker who was arranging a further sale. She was being passed from one to another but of them all, Jasim she recalls, was the most courteous, if that term can be applied in such a context. “Perhaps, he just did not want to damage the merchandise” she said in a broken laugh. Her sarcasm was obvious.

She slept that night under guard at Jasim’s house and the following morning was taken by him to another Bengali man introduced to her as “Mudin”. This was the final transaction and Mudin became her “boss” for the duration of her ordeal.

Mudin took Thelma to another small apartment where there were five other girls, Bengalis and Indonesians, and all the victims of earlier abductions from their sponsors. Two of them were still teenagers. This was to be her place of living and her place of work depending on the time of day. The apartment had a small kitchen cum living area and two bedrooms.

Thelma recounted the arrangement to us: The working day began at 10am and lasted until 2am the following morning. During this time, the apartment operated as a brothel. Between the hours of 2am until 10am, it was their sleeping and living quarters. This arrangement operated seven days a week.

The girls were confined to the apartment and never ventured outside. There were three men guarding the girls at all times: one at the gate to the building, a second at the door of the apartment and a third within the apartment who also acted as the telephonist, receptionist and cashier. Knowing a little Arabic, Thelma was able to overhear the conversations while the guard was taking bookings. In his manner she learned that the location of the building was near Mamria, a suburb of Dubai.

During “working hours” the girls waited at the apartment for customers to arrive. When a customer came in the girls were required to be seated while the customer made his choice. After picking out the girl he wanted, he paid the guard and then took her into one of the two bedrooms. The girls were unable to refuse any customer and those who dared to do so were punished severely. Aside from beatings (which were rare because of the physical evidence), the favoured punishment was to insert a hot chilli pepper into the vagina of the recalcitrant woman.

The women were despondent and often thought of suicide. One girl, she recalls, kept banging her head against the wall as of to punish herself for her situation. Thelma too thought of taking her life but admits, she did not have the courage to do so.

Time for promotion

After spending several months in this environment, Thelma was transferred to another building in another compound.  Again, by listening intently to the phone conversations of her guard, she learned that the location of this latest building was somewhere near a “Jesco” supermarket in the Al Baraha area of Dubai. She assumed that she was somewhere near the airport as she could clearly hear the sounds of aircraft taking off and landing.

Thelma told us that this new location was evidently a bigger operation. There were three apartments in this building that were used to accommodate the girls and at different times all three were used and she was introduced to different groups of women, most of them Bengali or Indonesian.

Another distinctive feature of this new location is that there were never any Arab customers. The girls at this complex served only Bengalis, Pakistanis and Indians.  She was forced to service on average between three and four customers a day but noted that the younger girls were forced to look after around 20 customers a day. They received board and lodging but were never given any income.

All the time, Mudin was observing and monitoring the situation. He was obviously the “boss” of the entire operation. Thelma had learned to be compliant for her own safety and Mudin appeared well satisfied with her “progress”.

A dash for freedom

Because she was able to gain the confidence of Mudin, she was rewarded by being “promoted” to making out-service calls, meeting customers in their hotels. Mudin was under the impression that Thelma was now accustomed to, and enjoying, her new life, but in reality she was planning her escape.

The opportunity to flee arose late in August 2007. Mudin was taking her to a beautician in preparation for meeting with an important client. At the last moment, Mudin had some urgent business to attend to and told Thelma to go ahead in the car that was waiting for them at the gate. Upon reaching the gate, she made an instant decision to flee. Running in the opposite direction so that the car could not easily overtake her, she fled as fast as she could towards a distant taxi. She was in luck, the taxi was vacant and she jumped inside. Her anguish was evident and the driver took off immediately. She headed direct for the Philippine Consulate General in Dubai, which gave her initial shelter and discovered the facts of her situation.

Because her visa was issued in Al Ain, an inland city and province within the UAE, and not in Dubai, under the local system, the Emirate of Dubai claimed to have no jurisdiction in the case and Thelma was transferred immediately to the Philippine Overseas Labour Office which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, the administrative capital of the UAE.

Once safely out of reach of her abductors, we were able to discover the true facts of her abduction and inform the police. Through quick action on their part, one of the abductors of Thelma (Mudin) stood trial and was successfully prosecuted. He was gaoled for ten years.

Nevertheless, it was not easy. Under UAE law, a complaint should be made within 48 hours in order for an investigation to proceed and clearly, that was not possible in this case. Because of the seriousness of the offence, we were able to obtain a delay through having the Embassy issue a Note Verbale to the UAE Foreign Ministry that then cooperated in the handling of the matter.


Author comment

There are two types of expatriates in the Emirates and they rarely ever meet – at least, not socially. The foreign expatriate executives live in a world, largely of their own creation. They are a community of their own, living in air-conditioned apartments, and with domestic helpers to attend to all their needs. They socialize at their clubs, restaurants and bars where they congregate after work and weekends, watching the televised football and enjoying their favourite beer or whisky at the bar. In the UAE, it is all available for a price and invariably their Italian meal will be cooked by an Indian chef and served by Filipino wait staff.

Enjoying a lifestyle that has largely disappeared from the rest of the world. It is perhaps unsurprising that the vast majority of these middle managers choose to shut-out the tribulations of the underclass from their minds. Rationalisations are to be heard in almost every conversation about life in this part of the world: “… well, they are earning more than they would in their own country, so they are probably happy”.

But they all have their housemaids and their drivers and the grapevine of gossip is alive and well in this part of the world. Press a little, especially after a few beers, and they will loosen up a little on the dark side of life. Generally speaking, household workers far prefer expatriate business households because at least they have a chance of returning home at the end of their contract. Many other workers it seems disappear without trace. The number is hard to measure but everyone knows the stories. These are not urban legends.

Speaking in hushed voices and looking to ensure the conversation is private you will be told that it is common for “young girls” to disappear shortly before the end of their contract. They are reported by their local employers as “runaways,” nobody thinks to ask why a young woman with two months to go before the end of her contract would run away, leaving her passport, belongings and the chance to be paid off and return home within a short time.

Some may indeed be runaways, but not all. One journalist told me he is documenting the stories he hears and will shortly go public. He scoffs at the “runaway” label. No, he says, these girls are sold so that the employer can avoid paying their return airfare. Unlike foreigners who are charged high prices to bring in contract workers, it costs a “local” next to nothing. It is cheaper to sell a girl, make a profit on her and use the money to bring in another. That way, the employer ends up with no outlay for the helpers he hires.