Child maids being exported
Child maids being exported
IRVINE (California) - LATE at night, the neighbours saw a little girl at the kitchen sink of the house next door.
They watched through their window as the child rinsed plates under the open faucet. She wasn't much taller than the counter and the soapy water swallowed her slender arms. To put the dishes away, she climbed on a chair.
But she was not the daughter of the couple next door doing chores. She was their maid.
Shyima was 10 when a wealthy Egyptian couple brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. She awoke before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family's crystal. She earned US$45 (S$65) a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off.
The trafficking of children for domestic labour in the US is an extension of an illegal but common practice in Africa. Families in remote villages send their daughters to work in cities for extra money and the opportunity to escape a dead-end life. Some girls work for free on the understanding that they will at least be better fed in the home of their employer.
The custom has led to the spread of trafficking, as well-to-do Africans accustomed to employing children immigrate to the US.
Around one-third of the estimated 10,000 forced labourers in the United States are servants trapped behind the curtains of suburban homes, according to a study by the National Human Rights Centre at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group. No one can say how many are children, especially since their work can so easily be masked as chores.
Once behind the walls of gated communities like this one, these children never go to school. Unbeknownst to their neighbours, they live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.
'I'd look down and see her at 10, 11 - even 12 - at night,' said Shyima's neighbour at the time, Ms Tina Font. 'She'd be doing the dishes. We didn't put two and two together.'
Shyima cried when she found out she was going to America in 2000.
Her father, a bricklayer, had fallen ill a few years earlier, so her mother found a maid recruiter, signed a contract effectively leasing her daughter to the couple for 10 years and told Shyima to be strong.
For a year, Shyima, 9, worked in the Cairo apartment owned by Amal Motelib and Nasser Ibrahim. Every month, Shyima's mother came to pick up her salary.
Tens of thousands of children in Africa, 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 if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. In just one city - Casablanca - a 2001 survey by the Moroccan government found more than 15,000 girls under 15 working as maids.
The US 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 US and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities - including the UN, Interpol and the State Department - have no idea how many child maids now work in the West.
'In most homes, these girls are not allowed to use so much as the same spoon as the rest of the family,' said Mr Hany Helal, the Cairo-based director of the Egyptian Organisation for Child Rights.
By the time the Ibrahims decided to leave, Shyima's family had taken several loans from them for medical bills. The Ibrahims said they could only be repaid by sending Shyima to work for them in the US. A friend posed as her father, and the US embassy in Cairo issued her a six-month tourist visa.
She arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Aug 3, 2000, according to court documents. The family brought her back to their spacious five-bedroom, two-story home, decorated in the style of a Tuscan villa with a fountain of two angels spouting water through a conch. 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 didn't replace it. From then on, Shyima lived in the dark.