The Ewa’a Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking in Abu Dhabi is a safe haven for women who have been used and abused by human traffickers. Many of them were lured by the promise of a decent job, others ended up in the sex trade pursuing dreams of a better job, or running away from bad employers.
The shelter provides victims with therapy, rehabilitation and a safe return to their home country. The women are given educational and occupational training opportunities including, languages, tailoring, embroidery, computer skills and cookery. These skills are aimed at enabling the women to be gainfully employed upon returning to their native country and thus continue to fend for themselves and their families.
“When we started eight years ago, there wasn’t enough awareness. Our team at Ewa’a and the many other departments that are involved in this operation have worked hard to achieve what we can see today,” said Sara Shuhail, General Director at Ewa’a.
Apart from reuniting them back with their families, Ewa’a also helps by sending money to their home countries on the victims’ behalf. They say almost all victims are trafficked by people from their own country, with Asians forming the highest number of traffickers in the country.
Ewa’a also educates the women about “dos and don’ts’ in the hope of them informing others when they return home. “We teach them to not run away and to not make their status illegal. Being illegal will make them very vulnerable. When you receive a job contract, contact your embassy to make sure it is valid. These are just the basics that we teach them,” said one social worker at the shelter.
They encourage anyone who thinks someone is being held against their will to contact their hotline, 800 SAVE (7283).
But how do the staff cope with having to deal with the aftermath of some of the worst crimes against humanity, on a daily basis, with the horrific stories never ending?
“It is very difficult at first but when we see the end results, the victims recovered, reunited with their families and with a plan for their future, it makes it all worth it. If we feel sorry for them, if we break down, then we can’t help them,” said a staff member. All staff at Ewa’a share the sentiment.
However, they admit that it is always heart breaking when the victims of trafficking are children.
Anita spends most of her time at the shelter stitching embroidery on fabrics to keep herself busy. It is her way of keeping her mind off the horrors she faced when she was held against her will by a sex-trafficking ring.
The mother of three is so fixated on her embroidery that she would return to the sanctuary of her stitching in between her interview with Gulf News.
As she tells her story of how she was captured by a sex-trafficking ring, she breaks down in tears when she reaches the part where she is reminded of the first night the traffickers sold her to a queue of customers who wanted the ‘new girl’.
“On the first night they brought four men to my room and told me I had to have sex with them, I pleaded and cried but it was useless. The next night, they brought nine men,” she said. It is all she can say before breaking down completely. She has received therapy since her rescue several months ago however, the wounds are still fresh.
The staff at Ewa’a comfort Anita and remind her how strong she is and how her bravery in contacting the police while in captivity resulted in the rescue of other victims and the capture of some of the most wanted traffickers in the UAE.
Anita is one of the few women in the shelter whose husband is aware of what happened to her. While in captivity, unknown to her, one of the traffickers informed her husband, who was frantically searching for her, that she was working as a prostitute.
Upon hearing back from Anita after her rescue, he was initially said to be very angry and accused her of being a “liar”. However, with immense support from Ewa’a, who fought to convince him that she was not a willing participant, he is said to have calmed down and is supportive of Anita these days.
Ewa’a has been providing Anita with advice as to how to cope with her situation when she returns home.
At one point, she leaves to speak to her children on the phone and returns with her face red and covered in tears, “I miss them so much,” she says.
Mary looks like any other teenager, but at 15 years, she has already seen it all in the vulgar world of sex-trafficking.
Having met her on a few occasions at the shelter, she runs over to give me a hug and remains in proximity for the remainder of the day, coming in for a hug at every chance she gets.
She looks younger than her age and there is a certain innocence about her. Hard to believe that ANYONE would have thought she was in the sex industry willingly. And yet, she met no one with the conscience to call the police or try to help her escape.
Having lost her mother at a young age, one night she was sold by her drunken father to a trafficker.
As we take a tour of the children’s room in the shelter, she follows us and before you know it she is in the terrace where some of the toys are kept. She searches through them and examines some of the items with a small smile. Playing was something that she was robbed of over the last few years.
It is not clear how much longer she will have to stay at the shelter but for now, she is being taught to speak English, cook, make handmade items such as mobile phone covers, purses and learn skills that will help her have a chance at a normal life.
The other women and the staff at the shelter are very protective of Mary and guide her at every step.
Shirine’s ordeal in captivity started when she believed a friend, another housemaid from her own country, who told her she could have a job for three times more money than what she was earning.
The mother of four who had lost her husband is the sole breadwinner for her family. She bursts into tears as she recalls what she calls “her stupidity” for leaving the “nice family” she worked for in hopes of earning the money she needed quickly so she could return home to her children.
The anguish she was subjected to while in captivity gives even the shelter’s staff tremors. Despite staying at the shelter for almost a year and receiving constant therapy, she is in tears as she tells her story.
A sip of water later, she continues to narrate that one day, the traffickers made her have sex with 20 men. There is a long silence before she continues.
When Shirine escaped and was brought to Ewa’a, she contacted her children. “They were shocked and wept when I called them. They said, 'mum, we thought you were dead like dad,'” she said. She had not contacted her children for the three months she was held captive.
Shirine loves cooking and has been receiving cooking classes at Ewa’a. She said her dream is to open her own business when she returns to her home country so that she can support her family. Ewa’a said that they would help Shirine in whatever capacity they can to make sure she succeeds in whatever she chooses to do.
She said Ewa’a have been giving her money to send to her children, who think she is still working.
Shirine grabs the manager’s hand to kiss it, as her way of thank you, but she pulls her in and embraces her. She goes over to hug and thank everyone else, including me. She is filled with love and affection, despite what she has been through.
Mona is lost in watching her Bollywood film in the living room area of the shelter. It is one of the ways she keeps herself entertained and occupied.
Like every other guest at the shelter, she is in tears when she gives her account of what happened to her on the first day of captivity.
Having refused to listen to the first trafficker and insisting that she would not perform sexual acts on men, another trafficker was brought in to see her. She refers to him only as the “bad man”.
She said he dragged her to a room and her face fills with horror when she talks about the experience.
Mona was closely involved in the operation that led to the capture of the criminal ring and she explains, in detail, the CID’s skilful techniques that were used to lure the traffickers.
This part of her story seems to give her some peace.
Mona works hard to learn as many skills as she can at Ewa’a. Her love for computers and plans to hopefully work in an office when she returns home led her to take computer classes at the shelter.
She takes me to the library where a line of computers are arranged, to show off her new typing skills as well as her development in English.
Sima spent a few weeks in captivity but the terrors she experienced in that time were enough to drive her over the edge and as a result, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and has suicidal tendencies.
As if being sold to strangers on a daily basis against her will was not enough, she was also regularly beaten, at the hands of a man who also tricked her into marrying him.
At the Ewa’a shelter, she is kept under close observation at the shelter and receives regular therapy.
She says she has some peace knowing that her child is taken care of, thanks to the financial support Ewa’a has provided. The shelter has paid for his schooling as well as money for his daily expenditure. She said she is also thankful to Ewa’a for paying off the money she had borrowed to pay the agency fees required for a job visa, which had been taken by the agency man who trafficked her.
She likes sowing and making items such as mobile phone covers. She hopes to use her new skills when she returns home as a way of gaining financial income to support her child, and her thoughts are always with her child.
Sarvy Geranpayeh, Reporter
Malavika Kamaraju, Features Editor
Logan Fish, Videographer
Web design and graphics:
Jacob Hernandez, Senior Digital Designer
To protect the identities of the women in this story, their names and attire have been changed and a voiceover used for their narration. The women’s clothing is not a reflection of their faith or of their country of origin.
Copyright © 2016 Gulf News / Al NIsr Publishing L.L.C.. All rights reserved.