Saving a lost and voiceless generation

Two Sisters based in Amman take up the cause of Lankan migrant workers.
Kumudini Hettiarachchi reports, Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara.

They are on a mission to spread the word, a different kind of word. Having been in Jordan for 10 long years, two nuns, a Sri Lankan and a German, are in Sri Lanka to pass round the message that the “greener pastures” visualized by many across the seas may not be so green.

Sr. Concy Perera and Sr. Ursula Hopfensitz of the Salvatorian Sisters based in Amman have not only held the hands of many a Sri Lankan migrant worker through times of hardship and sorrow but also gone from home to factory, hospital to slum, saying a kind word here, providing a comforting shoulder, trying to help “illegals” and also teach the many illegitimate children of these illegals.

Working under the auspices of Caritas Jordan, an international Catholic aid organization serving the needy, many are the lessons they hold out to the thousands of women and also men who aspire to secure employment in Jordan.

Spreading a different kind of word among Sri Lankan workers in West Asia

Their experience would be similar in most West Asian and Gulf countries, points out Sr. Ursula who stresses that most migrants are unprepared for what awaits them over there. The examples they cite are numerous.

With their plea in 2004-2005 to stop housemaids seeking work in Jordan falling on deaf ears because “migrant work is big business”, they are now in Sri Lanka to create awareness on the hazards of migrant work with advice on how to come prepared.

Women who come should be prepared individually as well as by the authorities to adjust to a different culture, lifestyle, clothes and even food, stresses Sr. Ursula, explaining how one housemaid was crying for food, complaining that she was not being given to eat by her mistress. When the nuns visited the house where she worked, the mistress had opened the fridge and shown the food in there, telling them the housemaid was free to eat whatever she wanted. It was then that the housemaid had told them that she wanted rice and curry.

Think of a scenario where a woman with very small children leaves them behind in Sri Lanka and comes to Jordan. She is placed with a family with small children. Isn’t home sickness natural, asks Sr. Ursula, with Sr. Concy adding that from the moment she comes, she wants to go back home. The two nuns have seen lactating mothers who have left infants behind in Sri Lanka unable to control the flow of milk, going through much emotional trauma.

But, what they forget is that they have signed a two-year contract, says Sr. Ursula, focusing on Amali*. “She came to Jordan to work in May to pay off the family’s debts. A mother of four small daughters, the lamentations began the very next day. She was adamant that she wanted to go home. Reason was thrown to the winds, even when told that her husband would have to pay for the breach of contract.
“The poor man then struggled to collect the money,” says Sr. Ursula, after the nuns negotiated and got the amount reduced to US$1,400 from US$2,000. Getting deeper into debt he got her home with the nuns paying for her air ticket.

Dealing with more complex issues such as the mental, physical and sexual abuse some housemaids face not only at the hands of their employers but also by the agents, Sr. Ursula says the agents only care about their business. They don’t care a hoot for the housemaids.

Sr. Ursula and Sr. Concy.

When there are issues in the houses they work at, the maids decide to run away. Where can they run to, asks Sr. Ursula, answering, “Nowhere.” Then, the Sunday Times learns, they go live in the slums on their own, becoming part-time workers.

They have to fend for themselves, pay the house rent, find their own food and clothing. A residence permit also costs US$ 600 per year and sometimes they find a sponsor who will dupe them, take their money and disappear. If the police catch them they are carted off to jail.

They become “illegals” dodging the law, explains Sr. Ursula. Some remain with this status for 15-20 years. There is also a grave risk of these women finding partners from among migrant workers such as Egyptians, Pakistanis, Indians or Bangladeshis. “The women’s husbands are back home as are the men’s wives.”

Such alliances, it is learnt, create new families. When the women get pregnant, in some cases the men disappear, leaving them to carry the babies. Even if the men don’t take off, the children are illegals as well, with no birth certificates or passports. The children, therefore, don’t go to school, says Sr. Ursula, doling out statistics. There are around 40,000 Sri Lankan workers, mainly women, in Jordan. It is difficult to ascertain the number of “illegals” because they are in hiding but it could be as many as 6,000.

The King of Jordan has granted an amnesty to illegal migrant workers from June 1, cancelling all dues to the government. What illegal workers need to do is go to the Sri Lankan Embassy, get a travel document, secure a ticket and return to Sri Lanka.

“The return home is not smooth. Even when they come back, they are ostracized in their villages,” says Sr. Ursula. Trafficking of under-age girls is also rampant, cautions this crusading nun. Kamala* had been sent to Jordan when she was 16, on a false passport. Having worked in the home of a journalist, she had run away with a Bangladeshi man, sans her passport which her employer kept locked up.
It was while she was pregnant that the man was deported. While struggling to bring up her child, she had befriended another pregnant woman whom the nuns think is a commercial sex worker. Soon after delivery, the woman had sold her day-old baby to an Iraqi, says Sr. Ursula, unfolding yet another pathetic story.

With the amnesty, all passports handed over to the police by the employers are released and Kamala gets hers back after 10 years, with the nuns taking a peek only to find that it is forged. “It is not her photo,” says Sr. Ursula.

The Bangladeshi man reappears in Kamala’s life and she becomes pregnant again. Her eldest child is now five years old. The nuns get a frantic call from hospital for Kamala has attempted an abortion, been rushed for medical care but cannot pay for treatment. The nuns pay the money and watch in sorrow as the doctors await the death of the baby in the womb before removal, for abortion is illegal in Jordan. The dead baby wrapped up in a bundle is handed over to Kamala for burial, as the nuns watch helplessly.

Four weeks ago it happens again – heavily pregnant Kamala is having difficulty delivering. The man has not come home. The doctors perform a caesarian but the baby lives only six hours. Another dead bundle is handed over to Kamala.

Back home many a potential housemaid is told that there is only a little ironing, a little wiping of the floor as work in Jordan. They think it is very easy to hop on a plane and get out in Jordan and work. They are not prepared psychologically or mentally, says Sr. Ursula, urging that action is needed not only on the part of the housemaids to prepare well before coming over to Jordan but also the authorities to ensure that they are equipped with skills as well as the mindset to take up jobs far away from home.

For these crusading nuns, this is a lost and voiceless generation that needs to be pulled back from an abyss of shame and ignominy.

Save Kande Sriyani

A priority on the itinerary in Sri Lanka of the two nuns is getting a letter of appeal into the hands of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sr. Concy and Sr. Ursula are lobbying for Kande Sriyani from Ratgama who is languishing in Juweida Prison in Amman on a 15-year sentence for murder.

There are extenuating circumstances, pleads Sr. Ursula, pointing out that it has been more a case of self-defence than premeditated murder.

Sriyani, a factory worker runs away and is befriended by a Sri Lankan woman living in a slum, who allegedly is a Madame running a house of ill-fame. Sriyani is told in no uncertain terms that she has to “live” with the woman’s Indian friend and threatened with a hammer when she refuses.

“In terror and desperation, she seizes the hammer from the woman and hits her on the forehead. The blow is fatal. Sriyani herself reports the incident and gives herself up to the police,” says Sr. Ursula.
Please intervene and save this hapless woman, is the plea of the nuns.

(* Names have been changed to protect identities)

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