What you need to know:
- It is not always rosy for migrant workers who travel to the Middle East in search of better opportunities. Subjected to hard labour and racism, 27-year-old Rebecca Najjemba, who dropped out of school to find school fees and fend for her family in Saudi Arabia, recounts her story to Gabriel Buule.
“In 2015, I had just completed my high school [Senior Six] final examinations and I had a desire to further my studies but hope was frail as we were not doing so well financially at home.
Besides, I was not yet even sure of what career path to take, and my parents could not afford to take me to university right away.
My mother wanted me to do a random course as long as it was affordable and I would get a certificate for it. Considering that my father had my siblings to take care of, I decided to look for work instead.
I remember buying by then airtime credit cards to sell at home while I hawked jewellery in the course of the day.
Making a decision to go to the Middle East was not easy, especially with the number of horror stories shared by those who had earlier gone there.
Deep down, I was terrified of the uncertainties but I was also excited when I looked on the bright side of things. I was determined at heart but did not really trust my wisdom to make the best decision so I chose to let God do that for me.
Travelling to Saudi Arabia
On December 24, 2015, all was set for me to go and work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. Like any first-time traveller, who previously had little hope of leaving the country, I barely slept on the eve of my travel date.
I just couldn’t stop thinking about so many things and topping the list was the dream of sitting on a plane and flying so high in the sky, especially since I had never been anywhere near an airport.
Our flight was scheduled at 4pm, but I was ready and all set by 10am.
We were a group of 24 girls set to travel, and we were all dressed in uniforms that are usually provided by travel companies to the girls who travel to the Middle East.
From Entebbe International Airport to our first stop at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I could neither blink nor sleep until we landed at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
That cold night
Together with the group of girls, we were piled in one large room at the airport in Saudi Arabia and it was extremely cold. Much as no one stopped us from either adjusting or switching off the air conditioner, none among the girls knew how to operate the device.
On the second day, I was separated from the other 23 girls, with whom I had travelled from Uganda and I was taken in the opposite direction.
At that point, I knew I was either lost or doomed and to make matters worse, I didn’t have any identification on me as my papers had remained with our agents.
I was introduced to another group of Ugandan girls with whom we spent another night somewhere in an apartment.
In all those collection centres, I recall a masked person who would occasionally enter and “fumigate” us with unknown substances as we quietly waited.
Days later, the labour agent in Saudi Arabia took me to a family where I was destined to work. There, I was received by a migrant worker in the same house, who gladly chose to train me about the dynamics of the job.
Salama, an Ethiopian, was in her last days of the contract and she spent a month giving me survival tricks much as we did not speak the same language.
She was fluent in Arabic and I could only speak English. Nevertheless, we got along quite well as she often used illustrative skills to guide me in a troublingly racist household.
Subjected to racism, hunger and hard work
My daily duties happened in a four-storey home. I had to clean the whole house alone; wash windows, do the laundry, iron the clothes, prepare all meals and do the dishes, among other chores that I did singlehandedly on a daily basis.
Surprisingly, when the family visited neighbours with me, I found girls who did more than I did and others who did less.
I must confess there were days when I had to work all through the 24 hours of the day nonstop without rest.
These hectic days usually came when Mama (my lady boss) hosted her friends for an overnight house party or during their family reunions.
Such days meant an excessive workload for me; from cleaning numerous times to preparing very big quantities of food. I was required to stay awake through the night cleaning the mess and serving them more drinks and food until the party ended. Then when all the guests were gone, it was cleaning time again.
I was never denied food but the work pressure and the big workload meant that sometimes I would not find time to eat, especially in the initial days of my work.
After enduring a long day of hard work, children would randomly wake me up and paint my face with black shoe polish, and they would all start laughing and saying “Wala kulo aswati” meaning, “of course you are both black!” In other words, I and the shoe polish are black so it’s okay to smear my face with black shoe polish.
Whereas making fun of Black people seemed normal in most families, I was shocked to hear that coming from children. Much as it was so hurting, I was required to keep my emotions under control and not react. I am not proud of my reaction but out of anger, I remember one day pushing the child and he fell upon the fridge.
The mother saw all this happening and her response was contrary to what I expected. She told me, “Yah Rebecca, these are just children,” referring to a 13-year-old, who one might expect to do better. She continued: “they don’t know what they are doing but you want to kill my son!”
I went to the bathroom, cried it off and washed my face. There was nothing more I could say. I chose to calm down and move on.
To everyone who is going to work in Arab countries, prepare your mind for painful situations and accept that you won’t do anything about it. Sometimes you will just swallow the pain and not react because if you did, you would get yourself into a hot mess.
With a phone and social media in a lonely dwelling
A phone is not a mere gadget to a migrant worker. To a migrant worker, having a phone is the closest one can be to their family and friends.
It is also the migrant worker’s source of entertainment and motivation. It is such an important thing to him or her.
The biggest conflict many people get as soon as they reach their placements is being denied freedom to use or have phones.
Being so far away from home, every migrant should at least have their phones. Some mean bosses may stop you from using the phone and sometimes confiscate the phone. What most people do is complaining, fighting, exchanging words and feeling like they are tortured. Whatever it is, there is no need for all that reaction. You can choose to ignore and override.
Sometimes it is out of experience that your boss does that to you. You could find that those before you misused their phones hence your bosses thinking you may do exactly the same.
You can choose to only ask to use your employer’s phone when you want to send money back home or hear from your relatives back home but don’t allow your family to make frequent calls to them [employer]. Use this opportunity wisely even if you miss your family back home so much. You may buy yourself a phone from your salary if you are allowed to have one.
While alone in the house in Saudi Arabia, the phone and social media were never a luxury but a companion.
I returned, survived. You can survive
By December 2017, my contract had ended and I was set to return home. Much as I was very eager to have the Christmas holidays with my family, I missed the opportunity.
I had requested earlier to leave as soon as my contract expired but the principle of the house where I worked was not in my favour. I had to train the new housemaid and offer guidelines for a month before I left.
I trained four different girls who never stayed, as they often got scared because the house was so big and they couldn’t handle the work. They kept leaving, thus I only managed to return to Uganda on January 12, 2018.
I invested the little that I was paid in a business, which collapsed months later and I resorted to hustling again. The most important thing is that I completed the construction of my grandmother’s house and I fended for my family, although I never created a business that would sustain me.
My story is my personal experience. It does not necessarily depict what happens to everyone living and working in the Arab countries as a househelp nor does it show how every employer in those countries treats their employees.
Some have had better or worse situations.
Living for others
My dissatisfaction will never be swept under the carpet but I believe if my mind was set for what had awaited me, I would have done better and also saved better.
For now, I am working with various labour externalisation organisations to pre-train those who wish to work in the Middle East and tell them the truth to lower their expectations as opposed to labour agents who often excite them with false expectations.
Ugandans in the Middle East
On April 20, this newspaper reported that on a daily, approximately 300 Ugandans travel to the Gulf States. We revealed that many of them get employed in casual jobs.
These jobs earn them anywhere between $200 (about Shs750,000) and $500 (Shs1.9m) per month.
Statistics from the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development indicate that at least 28,000 Ugandans seek household jobs in the Middle East annually due to poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and family breakdown, among others.