Many Kenyans are killed in suspicious circumstances in this Arab country while many others are stranded in detention camps. Last year alone, the Kenyan embassy came to the rescue of more than 800 people languishing in Saudi jails. This has however not stopped Kenyans from flocking in droves to Saudi Arabia in search of greener pastures. But is this risky sojourn worth it?
A 38-year-old woman, who was allegedly strangled to death by her employer three years ago in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was buried in Thogoto, Kiambu, last Wednesday. In Mombasa, a mother recently mourned the death of her daughter in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
These are just some of the most recent harrowing tales of the plight of Kenyan workers in the Middle East country. A young woman who survived a similar ordeal has come out to narrate her narrow escape from the tentacles of a ‘mad’ Arab in the oasis town of Sakakah, barely a month ago.
Naomi (not her real name) also told the Star sad stories of other Kenyan women stranded at a jail in Al-Jawl, Sakakah, after escaping from their inhuman employers. Some of these women have been waiting for months to get passage back home, a mission at the mercy of their agents and/or families back home, most of who are not aware of their daughters’ predicament.
Sakakah is an oasis town in the north western Saudi Arabia, lying on the old caravan route from the Mediterranean Sea coast to the central and southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It lies north of the Al-Nafud desert and north east of Al-Jawf oasis.
In June when Naomi was taken to the camp on leaving hospital after a brutal attack by her employer, she found about 20 other Kenyans stranded there, most of who had been bodily assaulted, overworked and denied food by their former employers. The only way for these people to get information out for their families to compensate the Kenyan agents and send air tickets for them to travel back to Kenya is when one of them is ‘bailed’ out and informs their next of kin. They have no way of contacting the Kenyan embassy in Riyadh.
Naomi, a single mother of one, told the Star of the case of a woman who had arrived in Sakakah less than a month previously, but is now stranded at the jail and nobody in her family is aware of her fate. The woman who like Naomi hails from Kiambu was overworked with only one meal a day and in the end assaulted to the point of death.
“Apart from other household chores, she looked after chicken that were housed in an earthen coop. One day as she fed the chicken, she saw what looked like a human skeleton in a shallow grave inside the enclosure. She was so shocked that she left the enclosure in haste, which made her employer suspicious.”
The woman was subsequently locked in a room with six Arab men who whipped her demanding that she tell them what she had seen in the chicken enclosure. Despite the torture and in terrible fear, the woman kept insisting that she had seen nothing. Earlier the woman had noticed dry blood on some clothes in her room and a Safaricom SIM card.
She would not be allowed to go back to the coop, but a few days later she was able to escape and was picked by the police who brought her to the camp. “At the camp she could not sleep and when she closed her eyes for a few hours she would only have nightmares about what she had seen.” This woman and others are still stranded at the Al-Jawl jail in Sakakah.
Efforts to get in touch with the Kenyan embassy in Saudi where fruitless as the phone was not being picked up, but when contacted, an officer at the Diaspora Desk in the ministry of Foreign Affairs said the ministry was not aware of the Sakakah case.
“We have not received any report from the embassy about those cases, but then this is a complicated case as the agents who send these workers to Saudi Arabia do not inform or go through us, so neither the embassy nor ourselves know where these people are,” said the officer who gave her name as Harriet.
We gave the name of the lady who had allegedly seen a corpse in the chicken enclosure to the Foreign Affairs official and she promised to follow up the matter with the Kenyan embassy. However, she cautioned that this was a complicated process as the Saudi employers confiscate the passports of the workers immediately they arrive and since there are many other immigrant workers, it could take long to verify their citizenship without the cooperation of the local agents.
“Once the embassy is informed, it takes the fingerprints of these people for verification, after which we prepare travel documents for them and provide air tickers for those who cannot raise the money.”
Harriet said last year the government assisted 800 stranded Kenyans to travel back home. Most of these workers are sent to Saudi Arabia by suspicious agents, who are only known to them by their first names, but not through their official agencies; it thus becomes very difficult for the ministry to trace them.
Naomi’s journey to Sakakah started when a broker by the name of Michael from Muguga in Kikuyu took her to an agent’s office in a building near Jamia Mosque in Nairobi in early March this year. The office is run by a man called Kimemia and his wife. “Kimemia is the man with connections to agents in Saudi Arabia and he is the one who arranged for my visa and other travel documents. Two weeks later, I was on my way to Saudi Arabia.”
Naomi and her colleagues who numbered more than 20 arrived at the Dammam King Fahd Airport in Saudi on March 18, where they thought their sponsor (employer) would come to pick them up. “We stayed at the airport for about a week, with only one meal per day that was supplied by the airport guards. We would either get breakfast, lunch or supper.”
After a week, 10 of the girls were taken to an office in Dammam town from where they took a bus bound for Sakakah at around 7pm. “The place is so far that we travelled the whole night and only arrived the following day at two in the afternoon.” By that time the girls were so weary of the desert they were travelling through and more than homesick. The road trip between Dammam and Sakakah is slightly over 1,200km.
At Sakakah, their sponsors came for them and Naomi was taken by a woman with a family of five children “ranging in age from six years to three months”. The first thing the employer did was to confiscate her mobile phone, telling her that she would only get it back after her two-year contract had expired. While her employer did not physically torture her, she could not stand washing all the six small children after they had soiled themselves and she wanted out.
Naomi insisted that she be taken back to the agent’s office in Sakakah, where she sought alternative employment. She was taken by a woman who only had two children but she had just jumped from the frying pan to the fire. “The lady was about 30 years old but her husband was a much older chain-smoking man who appeared abnormal.”
The lady treated me reasonably well, but the old man would most of time make incoherent noises and even laugh at nothing, and when Naomi enquired about his condition, she was simply told that he was sick.
Unfortunately Naomi had also to contend with her employer’s sister who was staying with the family. She would order the maid to also wash her children, one who was over 10 years old, after they had visited the toilet.” One day the woman even physically assaulted her and insulted her and her Christian faith.
“Then on the first day of Ramadhan, my employer went to visit her extended family and left me with the younger child and the old man.” It was then that all hell broke loose.
When she had finished her work, she retired to her room with the small child and as the child slept, the old man cigarette dangling from one hand and a kitchen knife in the other pushed the door open and forced himself into the room. “He looked at me with wild eyes and when I tried to stand up, he pushed me to the ground again. I pleaded with him not to kill me, but he stabbed me eight times on the waist and the back even as I hopelessly screamed for help.”
On the verge of unconsciousness, Naomi asked God to save her life if only for the sake of the child she had left behind in Kenya and struggled with the old man until the knife fell to the ground and she picked it up.
As she bled profusely, Naomi could almost smell death but she gathered all her reserve strength and however hard he tried, the old man could not wrestle the knife out of her hand, despite the blows and the slaps that he rained on her. In trying to free the knife, the crazy man even burned her hands with the cigarette and lighter but to no avail.
The now demented man rushed to the kitchen to apparently pick another knife, but just at that moment Naomi’s employer returned. Naomi was taken to hospital where she stayed for more than two weeks, before she was released and housed at the Al-Jawf jail awaiting repatriation. “This jail is supposed to hold foreigners for their own protection until they receive air ticket either from their families or reluctant agents. However in the jail, there are also Saudi women criminals, some who have committed murder.” When travel arrangements are made, those to be repatriated are then transferred to Jeddah.
Most of those held in the camp include Kenyans, Ethiopians, Indonesians and many from the Philippines. “Some of these people have been in this facility for more than seven months with the knowledge of the Kenyan agents who insist they stay in Saudi or demand money spent in sending them to that country before sending them air tickets. Sometimes the families back home are unable to raise the money and the embassy is ignorant of their fate.
Naomi was lucky in that one woman in the camp was able to contact her husband and when this woman left after paying the agent Sh50,000, she (Naomi) and others gave her the telephone numbers of their relatives in Kenya. Naomi’s mother immediately contacted Kimemia when she got the SOS. “My mother had been told about my condition by this woman, but the agent’s wife kept insisting that mine had been only a minor injury and that I was already working in another homestead. My mother however insisted that they bring me back.”
Naomi earlier worked in Qatar, a country she says was very good to work in, for two years. She chose to go to Saudi Arabia when it took too long for her to process documents to travel back to Qatar.