Image Credit/Rachel Levitt
Growing up, we have had several maids, nannies, or domestic helpers, call them what you may, live with us over the years. They may have all held different job titles but one factor remained constant. They were members of our family and remain so to this very day.
There was the lovely Umrah, the kind Indonesian lady who helped my mother raise my two sisters and I. She would bathe us, play with us and although she could not read she did teach us the art of crochet. Every evening instead of spending hours glued to a television screen, we would work away at some new project she had given us. Sometimes it was a simple place mat, others it was a blanket for our dolls. She would travel with us on our annual vacations and was treated with respect and dignity by everyone who walked through our doors. In fact, my mother insisted she not be referred to as “the girl”, a common term of endearment in our culture, but by her name, Umrah. After ten years of loyal service to our family she returned to Indonesia having educated her children, built her own home and opened her own business, a lovely shop where she sold her gorgeous crochet and cross stitch designs. We remained in constant touch with her until sadly, she passed a few years ago.
Then there was Sally, who was equally caring and a very hard worker. She cooked the most delicious of dishes and kept our home beautiful. She took great pride in caring for my younger brother who was born prematurely, when my mother was too weak to do so. Sadly after five years with us and an affair with the neighbor’s doorman she was left with an unwanted pregnancy and no other choice but to travel back home. Her time with us came to a very sad end as she was not ready to leave. She had looked forward to years working with us and supporting her family. Of course as her sponsor and the responsible man of the house, my father was detained and questioned extensively as to how she had come to fall pregnant while in his care. You see when it comes to domestic help, we are not only employers but sponsors, with a duty to not only provide, but protect.
One particluar rant I hear regularly from expats is one expressing disgust that domestic helpers are not allowed to go and come as they wish. Those expats, in particular the westerners have not grown up in an environment where live in domestic help is the norm. They are not privy to the dangers faced by the young women once they leave the safety of their close knit communities. Would you leave a friend or family member who had never left home or travelled abroad go out and about in s strange country without heed or precaution? Probably. But there is local saying, “Every shepherd is responsible for his flock.” If they would only take a break from scouring the Daily Mail for celebrity fodder and pick up a local paper they would read of countless incidents of men (in many cases expats) befriending and embarking on sexual relationships with the maids, with promises of marriage and a better life. Of course when she falls pregnant the only solution becomes deportation, or a far worse fate.
The role of any family who hires domestic help is not only that of employer, but also sponsor. This means that it is the responsibility of the family to not only pay a salary but care for the wellbeing of their maid, who is often an extension of the family. This involves putting certain limits in place for their own protection. What many do not understand it that they do indeed have a very social life. They may not share a love of brunches and many do not care to knock back a few drinks on a night out, but they do have a social life non the less. Many families get together on the weekends and the maids gather for lunch or a chat many hours a week. There are also many family outings and gatherings where they meet with other maids and enjoy some leisure time.
Having maids live with us in our household taught us many valuable lessons. We learned very early on that no two cultures are the same and although people might look different, worship differently or enjoy different foods, they are non the less just like us and deserve every dignity and respect we can afford them. We were privileged enough to have lessons of cultural sensitivity and compassion afforded to us in our very own home. We also know that not all expats have this opportunity.
We learned that just because someone was employed by us or provided us with a service did not mean we could talk to them in a demeaning way, a concept I find lacking in the behavior of many expats. “I said SYRUP ON THE SIDE, why can’t you simply do your job!” I heard a British “friend” balk at a waitress on the Pearl last week. Ironically that morning she had clicked and shared and article on domestic help abuse on her Facebook page. Needless to say our coffee mornings had to come to an abrupt end.
Whether in a five star hotel or a local coffee shop, I have bore witness to some abhorrent behavior from the expat community. The very same behavior they are quick to chastise on their social media channels. Personally, I believe it stems mainly from a lack of cultural sensitivity and exposure. Or, many would say, an upbringing lacking in manners and etiquette. One thing is certain however, I would never assume that the entire expat community is guilty of such behaviour simply because I have seen one or two act in such an odious manner.
I have many expat friends and what I have noticed amongst many of them is that although they are quick to click and share articles on worker abuse, they are the first to speak to their servers rudely at restaurants.
Recently I had a coffee with a western expat friend. As we enjoyed our lattes she went on to animatedly express her disgust a family who had just walked in with a nanny. “Slavery is what that is.” she spat. I sat silently as I knew this lady had little exposure to life outside her small village in the UK and trying to reason with her or explain the dynamics of their life would be futile. Ironically when the server was late with her desert she went on to speak to him in a manner that left me feeling embarrassed and apologetic at having been associated with this vulgar woman.
From where I was sitting the maid who had just entered and was the focus of my “friend” was enjoying lunch with her family. The children were chatting with her as was the mother. She was happy and smiling.
Our server however was evidently upset at the way he had been spoken to by my companion who saw nothing wrong with the way she acted and said “I’m not being racist or anything but it’s those Indians you know, you simply cant get the staff these days.”
I am not disputing that there are countless cases of domestic abuse that take place in Qatar, but they are no more prevalent amongst locals than they are amongst expats. The figures may seem higher but this is simply because more domestic help workers are hired by locals than there are employed by expats. I have shared a table with many westerners who have spent an entire afternoon dishing out disgust and disdain at the way locals treat their maids only to act like vile, uncultured savages to the very waitress serving their meals. Hypocrisy much?
Sometimes we focus so hard on the lives others, lives we know nothing about. We speculate on why they may or may not do things, not once taking the time to actually gain a deeper understanding of this new society we are so happy to be a part of. Then of course, blind judgement ensues. I firmly believe that education and cultural exposure is the only way to overcome the issue of domestic worker abuse. And I am not referring to the locals.