Selina, the Migrant Houseworker in Oman
Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." — Matthew 25:37-40
As a young girl, Selina dreamed of leaving her small hometown, Salem, in Tamil Nadu, a tropical part of southern India with lush green fields and vegetation. When she was older, while neighbors would gather and laud their successful family members, Selina, her husband and their three children would work on the family's frugal maize and tapioca farm, with the children foregoing school because they needed to help their parents.
Other children from the neighborhood, however, went to school, and their parents who had found employment in the Middle East would return with gifts for their families, money and exciting tales of Arabia. Selina wanted to be like them so that she and her family wouldn't have to struggle to make ends meet.
One day, on her way back from the local market, Selina ran into a neighbor, Chitra, who introduced her to Sreenivas. He had been telling Chitra about all the opportunities that she would have if she went to work in the Persian Gulf as a housekeeper. Sreenivas, with his pumped-out chest, neat beard, and fine rings and a thick gold chain, claimed he worked for a "big businessman," earning thousands of dollars. He told Chitra that he would put in a good word for her if she was interested in moving.
But to arrange this, she would have to pay him the equivalent of US$5,000. She would soon be able to recover this amount, as she would earn a princely salary of US$250 a month, including food and a comfortable room with air-conditioning. To travel, she would need a passport and a visa, which he could also organize. This of course would cost her an additional US$1,000. Chitra was very excited about the prospect and encouraged Selina to go with her. So they ran to the local moneylender and borrowed the money they needed. The interest rate on the loan was high, and each had to place her land as surety against the loan.
After almost six months of waiting, the women's papers were finally ready, and they excitedly boarded an Indian Airlines flight to Masqat, the capital of Oman. Sreenivas met them there and drove them to their new "homes." Chitra's employer was a kind and patient woman who taught Chitra basic housekeeping skills, from cooking to cleaning to taking care of the children. But Selina's situation was different. Unlike Chitra, Selina lacked the skills to be an efficient housekeeper-burning clothes while ironing, making a mess in the kitchen — and she faced a language barrier. In frustration, her female employer violently abused her and refused to pay her wages. Selina succumbed to crying herself to sleep every night.
Selina looked for an escape but didn't know where to go, as she didn't have her passport or her work papers, which had been retained by her employer. Selina tried calling Sreenivas, who, like a mirage, disappeared when needed. Chitra was also "too busy" to speak to her. Unable to bear the torture and loneliness any longer, Selina ran away. Flitting from one job to the other, she managed to make ends meet for a while, but she developed a severe kidney infection, attributed to her diabetic condition and poor nutrition. Although she was initially treated at one of the private clinics in Masqat, there was little improvement in her condition. Selina managed to contact the Indian Embassy, which put her in touch with our organization.
Upon seeing Selina's quickly deteriorating condition, we immediately sought medical attention for her. At the time of admission to the hospital, Selina was incoherent, and there was a fear that she might lapse into a coma. A campaign was then launched to find the resources to pay for her hospitalization. In response to the appeal, members of the community contributed funds, and one individual even offered to "adopt" Selina by making a commitment to cover her hospital fees and assist with her repatriation. Thanks to what could be seen as a miracle, the hospital authorities agreed to waive the medical fees.
After two weeks of fighting for her life, Selina finally returned to a stable condition. Shortly thereafter, she flew back to her family in India. From what we have heard, she is now well and happy, and busy at work on the family's farm. Selina may still have dreams, but she is much more aware of the harsh realities of leaving home to work in foreign lands, and much more wary of placing her trust in strangers and their promises.
Selina's experience is real, although a story has been woven around her situation. Other workers lured by unscrupulous recruitment agents and abusive employers could perhaps tell similar stories. While Selina's story has a happy ending, there are many others that do not finish so fortunately. Faith-based organizations are working in the Persian Gulf to address the urgent crises of many women like Selina. At the same time, many are engaged at the global level in shaping policy that would monitor the practices of recruitment agencies and hold them accountable for abuses and stolen documents. They are also calling on nations to address not only the rural poverty that drives Selina and millions of others to migrate in search of livelihoods but also the demand for cheap migrant labor in wealthy nations.
What emerges from Selina's story is the spirit of human kindness, and that, with the grace of the Almighty, miracles do happen-in this case, through the support of an interfaith social service agency and the generosity of those who mobilized to save her life. As God said to Samuel, "For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
Father, we thank and praise you, for, though you do not always remove trials and tribulations from our lives, you always provide sufficient grace for us to bear them and carry on. For this, we are so grateful. Amen.
Bridget Gangulyhas lived in the Persian Gulf for almost 30 years. During this time, she has been involved with both secular and church organizations. Bridget works with the Al Amana Center, which collaborates with the Reformed Church in America on Christian and Muslim relations. The organization has a charity wing that extends help to low-income workers.