By Zoi Constantine, Gulf News
Dubai: Like many women before her, 28-year-old Zaitouneh arrived in the UAE in search of a life better than her poverty-stricken upbringing in southern Ethiopia.
Initially she hoped to pay-off the Dh5,000 loan that she took to pay the illegal agent who organised her papers to get her into the UAE to work as a maid in Umm Al Quwain. However, unlike many other women who have been exploited in this manner by illegal agents in their home country, Zaitouneh was also nine-months pregnant when she arrived to the UAE and gave birth to her daughter, Jameela, in her employer’s kitchen, just days after she arrived in the country.
In a villa in Jumeirah, over 20 Ethiopian women who have been living illegally in the UAE are awaiting their departure on Sunday, to face an uncertain future back in their home country.
Little six-month-old Jameela now crawls around the women’s shelter – the only place she has ever known as home. She has no legal status here, but has been given an outpass to leave the country and travel to Ethiopia with her mother.
Speaking through a translator and social worker at the City of Hope Shelter, Zaitouneh – who is illiterate and can only communicate in her local dialect – says she hopes to learn some basic skills back in Addis Ababa so that she can provide for her daughter. She is visibly overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving the relative security of the shelter, and the thought of re-paying the loan she took to travel to the UAE.
While Ethiopians in the UAE are certainly not alone in falling victim to illegal agents, according to members of the community, it is the isolation of some of their compatriots scattered around the country, as well as a language barrier that have made them more vulnerable.
Several months ago, out of desperation another young Ethiopian woman told Gulf News that she handed over her entire life-savings and money she borrowed from friends to someone she trusted.
He was from within her own community and promised to help her secure a UAE work visa so that she could continue to live in the city she had called home for five years. But, as soon as she paid the Dh4,000 fee, he disappeared.
Although she now has a valid visa, 26-year-old Hanna from Addis Ababa says she learnt the hard way about the problems that are plaguing her community.
According to Consul Techan Girmay, the Consulate General of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in Dubai is working at full-capacity to try to bridge the communication gap and assist the hundreds of people seeking their help every day. It is estimated that the Ethiopian population in the UAE now hovers at around 40,000.
On any given day, the nondescript office building in Bur Dubai that houses the Ethiopian Consulate teems with people, mostly young women, waiting in the long queues for their turn to seek advice and assistance from one of only a handful of consular staff.
The office has even resorted to employing volunteers from within the community and is also relying on other organisations such as City of Hope to step-in to help the most sensitive cases.
“Our nationals really are suffering from a lot of problems … we have many instances of women being raped and abused within the community,” said Girmay. “We have had cases where women have come to us because they are confused because they do not know what the amnesty is about and how it will affect them.”
Over the past three months since the beginning of the amnesty for people staying illegally in the country, the consulate says it has been overwhelmed by the influx of people through its doors. Since the amnesty, at least 7,500 Ethiopians have taken advantage of the reprieve and left the country, according to Girmay.
The information in Amharic – an ancient Semitic language spoken almost exclusively in Ethiopia – is posted around the consulate and distributed throughout the community.
“But, [at the end of the day] our community has to work together to try to help those most vulnerable,” said Girmay.