Tuesday, July 11 was my last day in Ethiopia this summer 2012. We achieved a lot. IOFA trained our Ethiopian partner organizations to implement the Project Prepare pilot, an innovative new effort to protect youth aging out care. So, it was well timed that one of my final experiences in the queue at Addis Ababa airport customs only reiterated the need to provide critical tools for youth to protect themselves as they transition to adulthood.
Ahead of me in line were at least 100 Ethiopian young women – more likely, girls under the age of eighteen. They were dressed in their best headscarves and dresses, all about the same height, and the same age. The first one tapped me lightly on my shoulder (which loomed about a foot above her) and then thrust her departure card and her passport into my hands. She wanted me to fill it out for her. Immediately, I thought she couldn’t speak or read English. I showed her that there was an Amharic translation on the back of the card. She thrust it back in my hands, and I understood that she could not read or write Amharic either.
Neither side of the departure card made sense to her. I filled it out for her the best I could. On the line asking for place of birth, I suggested she was born in Addis, she probably wasn’t, but she knew the name of the city. I asked her (using my arms in embarrassing airplane mimicry) where she was going. She said – “Oman.” She thanked me profusely and disappeared back in the queue. Then a second girl thrust departure card and passport into my hands, followed by a third, a fourth, and a fifth; every one of them off to Oman. Some of them were uncontrollably excited, while others looked like they were headed off to their ultimate doom. By number ten, my hand was starting to cramp, and I wasn’t doing these girls any favors with my garbled scrawl, plus a customs agent started looking at me strangely. At that point, I didn’t even know if what I was doing was legal. I clearly had to make up information, because they said yes to everything that I suggested.
Most likely, these girls could not read or write, and/or came from the countryside where they don’t speak Amharic, much less English. From what we’ve learned from IOFA’s research on labor trafficking in the region, it was more than likely that they were recruited to work in Oman as domestic servants, factory labor, or in some type of service industry. They were probably given promises of stable employment and money to send home. They probably shook hands over a verbal agreement, made with a middleman with no contract or a contract they could not understand.
This is all conjecture on my part or perhaps an inclination to see “human trafficking” everywhere: a hazard of the job, I guess. All 100 plus could be going to Oman for an enriching educational experience on Omani culture or a vacation with extended relatives on the Omani coast. I’m going to go out on a limb and think not. I don’t want to paint a picture of hapless young women as clueless victims with no ability to figure out their circumstances. Send me to their village for a day and watch as I try to feed myself, communicate on any basic level, and otherwise, or not immolate myself in a fiery ball of injera. However, do these young women know their rights and will their rights be protected? Are they even of adult age? Did anyone advocate on their behalf as they signed up to leave the only home they’ve ever known? Do they have any recourse if things go badly?
The next time I saw the first girl that asked me to fill out the card, she was staring at the escalator, figuring out when to jump on. Frankly, it scared me too – it groaned along way too quickly and there were massive gaps between the steps that could easily suck off a toe. I asked her to jump on with me. We climbed upward, rode it out together, and jumped off at the top (still a scary move in my opinion). She told me what I thought was “thank you”, but it wasn’t in Amharic. I told her “good luck” in English.
Maybe most of the 100 plus will find nice Omani families that will treat them like family. Maybe they will make money, send it home, and their mothers will have life saving medication that they desperately need for the first time. I also wondered if any of them would be abused, sexually assaulted, or forced to work around the clock without seeing any of the pay promised them. I’m hoping for the best. I’m sure they are too.
Migration for labor is often the last resort for young men and women living in countries where employment opportunities are few or non-existent. The ability to make money and send it home to your family is an incredible driving force. If in the same position, would any of us do anything differently?
Please, Oman, treat them well.