Category Archives: Domestic Violence awareness month

Shyima and the US…the story of trafficking and a 2nd chance

 by Sarah Hudson

On April 3, 2002, an anonymous caller phoned the California Department of Social Services to report that a young girl was living inside the garage of 28 Pacific Grove. A few days later the owner of the home, Nasser Ibrahim opened the door to a detective from the Irvine Police Department. When he was asked if any children lived there beside his own, he first said no, then replied, “actually, a distant relative.” He said he had “not yet” enrolled her in school. She did “chores just like the other kids,” according to the police transcript. A ten year old Shyima was upstairs cleaning when Ibrahim came to get her.

Shyima at 11

While searching the house, an officer asked one of the Ibrahim children if anyone other than his immediate family lived in the house. He said, Yeah. She’s uh — my — uh — How do I say this? Uh … My dad’s … Oh, wait, like … She’s like my cousin, but — She’s my dad’s daughter’s friend. Oops! The other way. Okay, I’m confused.” He eventually admitted that Shyima had lived with the family for three years in Egypt and in California. The police put Shyima in a squad car as they noted her hands were red and caked with dead, hard-looking skin. For months Shyima lied to investigators, saying what the Ibrahims had told her to say. When police searched the house again, they turned up several home videos showing Shyima at work. They also seized a contract signed by Shyima’s illiterate parents permitting her to work for this family in California.

Dusty Egyptian Village

 

Shyima’s story is just one – of many. An Egyptian report published earlier this month by the Unit for the Prevention of Trafficking Children said there is “a new subculture of brokers existing in Egypt that are promoting the benefits of selling and marrying off underage girls”. Tens of thousands of children in Africa and Egypt, some as young as 3, are recruited every year to work as domestic servants. They are on call 24 hours a day and are often beaten or sexually assaulted if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. Shyima would have complained, but who would she complain to? And where would she go? She eventually told investigators, “He told me that I was not allowed to say anything… That if I said anything I would never see my parents again.”

 

Egyptian villager children

According to a 2001 survey by the Moroccan Government, in the city of Casablanca alone there are more than 15,000 girls under the age of 15 working as maids. A “maid” in many corners of the world has multiple meanings separate from one who works as a domestic servant for pay. A study by the U.S. State Department found that over the past year, children have been trafficked to work as servants in at least 33 of Africa’s 53 countries. Children from at least 10 African countries were sent as maids to the U.S. and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities, including the U.N., Interpol and the State Department, have no idea how many child maids now work in these areas. Once behind the walls of gated communities much like the Ibrahims, these children have no access to the outside world and never go to school. Their chances at a normal life are destroyed. They live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.

 Shyima had just turned 10 when the Ibrahims, a very wealthy Egyptian couple, brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. For a year before that, Shyima had worked in their lofty Cairo apartment. Her father, a bricklayer, had become very sick a few years earlier so her mother had found a “maid recruiter” to find work for their most eligible daughter. Shyima’s parents signed a contract effectively leasing her to the couple for 10 years and told Shyima to be strong. Every month, her mother came to pick up her salary. Shyima cried when she found out she was going to America in 2000. She arrived at LAX on Aug. 3, 2000, and the family brought her to their spacious five-bedroom, two-story home, decorated in the style of a Tuscan villa. She was told to sleep in the garage. It had no windows and was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Soon after she arrived, the garage’s only light bulb went out. The Ibrahims never replaced it.

From that day on, Shyima lived in the dark.   She was told to call them Madame Amal and Hajj Nasser, terms of respect. They called her “shaghala” or servant. Their five children called her “stupid.” If you could fly the garage where Shyima slept 7,000 miles to the sandy alleyway where her Egyptian family now lives, it would pass for the best home in the neighborhood.

The garage’s walls are made of concrete instead of hand-patted bricks. Its roof doesn’t leak. Its door shuts all the way. Shyima’s mother and her 10 brothers and sisters live in a two-bedroom house with uneven walls and a flaking ceiling. None of them have ever had a bed to themselves, much less a whole room. At night, bodies cover the sagging couches.

When Shyima’s mother was shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, she made a clucking sound of approval. Shyima’s mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in America. “If she had stayed here in Egypt, she would have been ordinary like us,” said Awatef, Shyima’s older sister. “It’s much cleaner than where many people here sleep,”  she says and tries to explains that Shyima’s treatment in the Ibrahim home is considered normal, even good, by Egyptian standards.

Shyima now

Shyima would awake before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family’s crystal. While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims’ 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them for school, combed their hair, dressed them and made them breakfast. Then she ironed clothes and fixed breakfast for the three girls, including Heba, who at 10 was the same age as the family’s servant. Neither Ibrahim nor his wife worked, and they slept late. When they awoke, they yelled for her to make tea. While they ate breakfast watching TV, she continued to clean the house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry. She earned $45 a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off. Her employers were never satisfied. “Nothing was ever clean enough for her Shyima testified. She would come in and say, ‘This is dirty’, or ‘You didn’t do this right’, or ‘You ruined the food’”.

At one point, Shyima started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank and so did her oversized T-shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore. Once while doing the family’s laundry, she slipped her own clothes into the load. “Madame” slapped her. “She told me my clothes were dirtier than theirs. That I wasn’t allowed to clean mine there,” she said. She was given a bucket to wash her clothes in the garage. She hung them to dry outside, next to the trash cans. When the couple went out, she waited until she heard the car pull away and then she sat down. She sat with her back straight because she was afraid her clothes would dirty the upholstery. It never occurred to her to run away. “I thought this was normal,” she said.

Shyima when she first tasted "freedom"

After investigators found Shyima and took her from the home, she went without sleep for days at a stretch, she was nervous and scared. She was put on four different types of medication, had horrible mood swings and moved from foster home to foster home.

Investigators arranged for her to speak to her parents. She told them she felt like a “nobody” working for the Ibrahims and wanted to come home. Her father yelled at her for being ungrateful. “They kept telling me that they’re good people,” Shyima said in a recent interview. “That it’s my fault. That because of what I did my mom was going to have a heart attack.” Three years ago, she broke off contact with her family. Since then she has refused to speak Arabic and can no longer communicate in her “mother tongue”.

During the 2006 trial, the Ibrahims described Shyima as part of their family. They included proof of a trip she took with the family to Disneyland. Shyima’s lawyer pointed out that the 10-year-old wasn’t allowed on the rides, she was just there to carry the bags.

The couple’s lawyers tried to retaliate by collecting photographs of the home where Shyima grew up, including close-ups of the feces-stained squat toilet and of Shyima’s sisters washing clothes in a bucket.

In her final plea, Madame Amal Ibrahim told the judge it would be unfair to separate her from her children. Enraged, Shyima, then 17, told the court she hadn’t seen her family in years. “Where was their loving when it came to me? Wasn’t I a human being too? I felt like I was nothing when I was with them,” she sobbed. The couple pleaded guilty to all charges, including forced labor and slavery. They were ordered to pay $76,000, the amount Shyima would have earned at the minimum wage. Their sentence was 3 years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both.

“I don’t think that there is any other term you could use than modern-day slavery,” said Bob Schoch, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles, in describing Shyima’s situation. Shyima was adopted last year by Chuck and Jenny Hall of Beaumont, Calif. They live near Disneyland, where they have taken her a half-dozen times. She graduated from high school this summer after retaking her exit exam and hopes to become a police officer.

Shyima, now 19, has a list of assigned chores. She wears purple eyeshadow, has a boyfriend and frequently updates her profile on MySpace. Her hands are neatly manicured. But in her closet, she keeps a box of pictures of her parents and her brothers and sisters. “I don’t look at them because it makes me cry,” she said. “How could they have done that to me? They’re my parents.”

Meanwhile, on a recent afternoon in Cairo, Madame Amal Ibrahim walked into the lobby of her apartment complex wearing designer sunglasses and scarf. After almost 2 years in a U.S. prison cell, she’s living once more in the spacious apartment where Shyima first worked as her maid. “The apartment is adorned in the style of a Louis XIV palace, with ornately carved settees, gold-leaf vases and life-sized portraits of her and her husband”. Before the door closed behind her, a little girl slipped in carrying grocery bags. She wore a shabby T-shirt. Her small feet slapped the floor in loose flip-flops. Her eyes were trained on the ground. She looked to be around 9 years old.

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A Knock at the Door…

Last night just before dinner-time, as the sun was setting and the eerie dusk of a rainy day had sent in, our door knocker clanked loudly against the silence. Alarmed I looked up at my husband who instinctively uttered “uh-oh”.

In a split second I remembered where I was and retorted, “what do you mean uh-oh? Go see who’s at the door”. You see, we live in a safe suburb with mowed lawns, alarm company patrol cars and a functioning government in tact. Still, a sudden knock at an off hour can send our hearts racing, even if for an instant, until we remember we are not in a law-less land.

The knock at the door was a woman looking to sell us some magazines, because she was a single Mother of 4, trying to make a fresh start after, to her own admission, she had made some mistakes. My husband had stood outside in the drizzle for 30 minutes listening to her tale, and finally assented to buying two books from her list, for our two kids, who were safely playing video games downstairs, blissfully unaware of the intrusion.

I was alert, but still, safe inside the house working on dinner, secure in the knowledge that my husband would be back inside soon enough. Sure enough, he was.

Iraqi woman

But the sense of alarm stayed with me through the night. Not because I was frightened but because I was all too aware of the fact that in too many corners of the world, the same knock would have been a harbinger of hell knocking just before dinner-time. There would be no safety if I were a woman and mother of 3 in Baghdad, for example, in the same situation. The knock would most likely have been a warning sign for the end of my husband’s life and an impending rape for me. I cringe to think about the possibilities for my children. Where would I turn? Nowhere. Where would I be able to go? No place. How could I have escaped the brutality that would have come? I couldn’t have.

In 2003 Suzanne Goldenberg writing for the Guardian wrote from Iraq that “Amid the ordinary lawlessness of a city of 5 million with a barely functioning police force, there are particular horrors for women.” Those horrors have grown since 2003. Today armed thugs kidnap the family members of rival gangs and either beat them, rape them and then either tear them from limb to limb or discard the beaten lump of a human by the way-side. The lucky ones die. The unlucky ones are later killed by family members in the name of “honor”. Not so honorable.

Iraqi women

Women are under effective house arrest across Iraq. A nation that once boasted a secular society replete with educated women who were part of the work force as teachers, dentists, doctors, hair dressers and more, Iraq’s women are now relegated to the role of men’s property and a tool for settling scores. Abduction and rape has become a way for gangs to get back at one another for deeds and mis-deeds. Kidnapping and rape have become so common as to simply have evolved to a pass-time men engage-in simply because – well, because they can.

In 2003, all of the women Goldenberg spoke to recounted some horror of abduction. She notes soberly that “in a society like Iraq’s, where a family’s reputation is measured by the perceived virtue of its women, [a] woman suspected of transgressing social codes suffers extreme consequences for bringing shame on her family….She may even be murdered by her family to wipe out the stain on their reputation.”

Life in Iraq

“We know of a lot of cases against women,” says Nidal Husseini, a nurse at Baghdad’s forensic institute. “When a girl is kidnapped and raped and returned to her family…the family will kill the girl because of the shame.” (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/oct/11/iraq.suzannegoldenberg)

“Iraqi traditions are hard,” Says Mari Samaan, an Iraqi psychologist quoted by Women’s e News. “Every woman without a husband or family watching over her is seen as prostitute. I have seen girls raped by armies and militias and then killed by her own families.” (see: http://womensenews.org/story/war/101011/in-syria-iraqi-refugee-daughters-risk-being-sold)

So a knock on the door at dusk in Baghdad is likely to bring more than just an impoverished mother selling books or magazine subscriptions to try and make a living. In fact, impoverished women in Iraq sell their teenage daughters to brothels and traffickers with unspeakable consequences. In 2009, Rania Abouzeid wrote for TIME Magazine from Baghdad that “the buying and selling of girls in Iraq, [is] like the trade in cattle,” A resident says “I’ve seen mothers haggle with agents over the price of their daughters.” (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883696,00.html).

With rampant crime in Iraq, a woman may find herself suddenly widowed. Tradition dictates that she will be unfit to marry again and unable to hold a respectable place in society. She is likely to be ostracized by her family, shun by the community and ultimately sold into prostitution. Many would rather end up in prison than in a brothel. Some are lucky enough to make that arrangement, if they have a friend or acquaintance on a police force they can pay to save their lives. Many aren’t that lucky and live their final days in the horror of a modern-day Baghdad Brothel or shipped to neighboring countries with no better circumstances.

“Hinda” an anti-trafficking activist in Iraq who was raped at 16 and disowned by her family soon thereafter tells TIME that she has been beaten by the security guards of pimps who suspect her of encouraging young victims to escape or offering them help.

“In the past week she has received several death threats, some so frightening and persistent that she penned a farewell letter to her mother. “I’m scared. I’m scared that I’ll be killed,” she says, wiping away her tears. “But I will not surrender to that fear. If I do, it means I’ve given up, and I won’t do that. I have to work to stop this.”

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1883696,00.html#ixzz12kmARogK

What can you do to stop this? Write your representative to the Congress and you state Senators to help Iraqi women escape a brutality that goes against everything we believe in, here in the States. We said we would liberate Iraq. Now let’s stand by their women who are imprisoned at home. Log onto thelistproject.org and join a growing chorus of voices committed to helping innocent Iraqis.

Rape, Violence, Twitter and Haiti

By: Jane Helpern

 

When the devastating earthquake struck Haiti last January, celebrities rushed to their twitters and blogs to broadcast their feelings about the tragedy, and more importantly to inform the public about what they were doing to help, and how the rest of us could get involved too. One of the most vocal members of the Hollywood community was musician and native Haitian Wyclef Jean, who, through his twitter account, asked that the public text “Yele’’ to 501501 in order to donate $5 to his Yele Haiti Foundation.

Rape Victim in Haiti

With twitter’s unprecedented ability to dispense “news” to millions of individuals in 140 characters or less, an entire uncharted pathway for charitable giving, instant communicating and information sharing is beginning to clear. Today, nine months after the initial shock of the quake, relief efforts and American interest in the state of Haiti have greatly dissipated, abandoning Haitians to fend for themselves in the rubble and uncertainty that remains.  Camps continue to house thousands in squalid conditions with little safety, while women and girls are routinely subject to unchecked physical and sexual assault.

On  September 23, 2010 an intrepid Mother Jones journalist named Mac McClelland live-tweeted her journey to the hospital alongside a girl whose tongue was bitten off during a gang rape in Haiti.  Via twitter, McClelland sent out frequent updates about the girl’s condition for the duration of the ambulance ride, and upon arriving at the hospital, “tweeted” that the male doctor scolded the victim, saying it was “her fault she got raped bc she’s a slut and smokes pot.”

14 year old rape victim

There are few subjects that are as universally hush-hush as rape and sexual violence.  Even here in the states there exists the widespread perception that women who get raped were either “asking for it” or that the victim secretly “wanted it.”  Sexual violence against women is a hard subject to stomach, and the case documented by McClelland is particularly unsettling and difficult to look at, due to the savage and brutal nature of this crime and the fact that the victim had already survived the trauma of the earthquake less than a year ago.

Due to its immediate, short-hand nature, Twitter lends itself to being a “fluffy site” rich with catchy quips, witty one-liners, political satire, and celebrity buzz.  You can imagine the backlash when unsuspecting inhabitants of the twitter-verse, accustomed to receiving the latest in shocking political scandals and celebrity sex tapes straight to their blackberries, caught wind of the atrocity committed against this young woman in Haiti.

Haitian tent-city rape victim

“She was choked so hard that all the blood vessels in her eyes popped, but doctor says they’ll heal,” read one of McClelland’s tweets.  Phil Bronstein, Vice President and Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, blogged to the Huffington Post, “The topic itself also turned some tweeters off; sexual violence is a touchy subject and not something normally served up in the midst of the cultural peep shows of high-ranked search engine stars like Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher.”  Bronstein poses the question: whether using this type of blunt and brash social media when discussing subject matter of this nature is effective in raising awareness or whether it simply offends the public and forces them to look away?

Bronstein’s point is valid but mostly in the sense that it highlights how backwards the priorities of the mainstream media consumers are.   If twitter and Facebook are the most efficient ways to shed light on a topic, or product, or celebrity, or an event, then in the name of human rights, women’s rights, and equal rights, it is absolutely imperative that no matter how uncomfortable we might feel when faced with the reality of violent sexual crimes, we must force this issue which is truly a global epidemic to be examined and combated head on.

As long as taboo stories such as McClelland’s are relegated to sparsely trafficked niche publications and websites, the media will perpetuate this nation’s ability to deny legalized rape, and domestic violence, and gendercide, and female genital mutilation.  October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and on the 1st of the month President Obama presented his proclamation.  He notes,

 

Waiting at a clinic in Haiti

“We have broken the silence surrounding domestic violence to reach thousands of survivors, prevent countless incidences of abuse, and save untold numbers of lives.  While these are critical achievements, domestic violence remains a devastating public health crisis when one in four women will be physically or sexually assaulted by a partner at some point in her lifetime.  During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we recognize the tremendous progress made in reducing domestic violence, and we recommit to making everyone’s home a safe place for them.”

 It is inevitable that McClelland’s “live-tweeting” would insult many a twitterer, but what should be more offensive is the jarring statistic that one in four women will be a victim of domestic, and often sexual, violence in her lifetime.  Twitter is just one more tool we have at our disposal to tear down the veil of silence women and victims of sexual and domestic violence have been forced to wear through fear and shaming tactics.  Just as Wyclef Jean was able to direct a generally unsympathetic generation’s attention to Haiti relief, McClelland, and those reporters brave enough to follow in her footsteps, have the ability to do the same for the women of this world, many of whom have no other support system or voice.