t r u t h o u t | 12.29
Child Maid Trafficking Spreads From
Sunday 28 December 2008
by: Rukmini Callimachi, The Associated Press
Irvine, California - Late at night, the neighbors 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
The trafficking of children for domestic labor in the
The custom has led to the spread of trafficking, as well-to-do Africans accustomed to employing children immigrate to the U.S. Around one-third of the estimated 10,000 forced laborers in the United States are servants trapped behind the curtains of suburban homes, according to a study by the National Human Rights Center 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 neighbors, 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 neighbor at the time, 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
For a year, Shyima, 9, worked in the
Tens of thousands of children in
"In most homes, these girls are not allowed to use so much as the same spoon as the rest of the family," said Hany Helal, the Cairo-based director of the Egyptian Organization 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
She arrived at
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.
She was told to call them Madame Amal and Hajj
While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims' 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them, 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 cleaned the palatial house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry.
Her employers were not satisfied, she said. "Nothing was ever clean enough for her. She would come in and say, 'This is dirty,' or 'You didn't do this right,' or 'You ruined the food,'" said Shyima.
She started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank. So did her oversized T- shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore.
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 washed her clothes in a bucket 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.
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.
Shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, Shyima's mother in the coastal town of
"It's much cleaner than where many people here sleep," said Helal, the child rights advocate. He explains that Shyima's treatment in the Ibrahim home is considered normal - even good - by Egyptian standards.
Even though many child maids are physically abused, child labor is rarely prosecuted because the work isn't considered strenuous. Many employers even see themselves as benefactors.
"There is a sense that children should work to help their family, but also that they are being given an opportunity," said Mark Lagon, the director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
That's especially the case for well-off families who transport their child servants to Western countries.
In 2006, a
In several of these cases, the employers argued that they took the children with the parents' permission. The Cameroonian girl's mother flew to
Shyima's mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in
"I didn't want her to travel but our family's condition dictated that she had to go," explained Mahmoud, a squat, round-faced woman with calloused hands and feet. She is missing two front teeth because she couldn't afford a dentist.
"If she had stayed here in
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
A few days later, Nasser Ibrahim opened the door to a detective from the Irvine Police Department. Asked if any children lived there beside his own, he first said no, then yes - "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.
Shyima was upstairs cleaning when Ibrahim came to get her. "He told me that I was not allowed to say anything," said Shyima. "That if I said anything I would never see my parents again."
When police searched the house, they turned up several home videos showing Shyima at work. They seized the contract signed by Shyima's illiterate parents.
Asked by police if anyone other than his immediate family lived in the house, Eid, one of the twins, said: "Hummm ... Yeah ... Her name is Shyima," according to the transcript. "She uh ... She works - she works for us at the house, like, she cleans up the dishes and stuff like that."
Twelve-year-old Heba got flustered: "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."
Heba eventually admitted that Shyima had lived with the family for three years in
The police put Shyima in a squad car. 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.
She went without sleep for days at a stretch. She was put on four different types of medication. She moved from foster home to foster home. Her mood swings alarmed her guardians. In school for the first time, she struggled to learn to read.
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.
"They kept telling me that they're good people," Shyima recounted 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. She 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
The couple's lawyers collected 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 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. The sentence: Three years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both. Their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
"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
Shyima was adopted last year by Chuck and Jenny Hall of Beaumont,
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? They're my parents."
When her father died last year, her family had no way of reaching her.
Epilogue: On a recent afternoon in
After nearly two years in a
She did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
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.
Editor's Note - This story is based on interviews in
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