Caritas ensures migrants are informed about the risks before they make the decision to go abroad.

Credits: Laura Sheahen/CRS

“I told the agency there was no food,” said Julia. “They said they didn’t care if I was hungry.”

Julia*, a 48-year-old Sri Lankan woman, was calling her employment agency in Saudi Arabia out of desperation. She had left Sri Lanka several times to work as a maid in the Middle East, once in Dubai and once in Jordan. Though her time in those countries was difficult, she had never faced what she was facing now in Saudi Arabia: nearstarvation.

Julia’s wealthy employers – a doctor and a teacher – rarely ate at home. Days would go by and Julia might receive a piece of toast or a little meat. “They’d give me some fried chicken one day, and then there would be two or three days with no food,” she said.

Like hundreds of Sri Lankan women who go abroad as domestic workers, Julia couldn’t leave her employers’house. The doors were locked. In her case, she couldn’t even see outside. At the mercy of her employers and her agency, she worked for months, not only at her employers’home but for their relatives.

Julia had dealt with ill-treatment in Jordan, where she worked from 5am until late in the evening. “I usually slept five hours a night,” she said.

She earned about $100 (€78) a month, wages typical for Sri Lankan maids abroad. But at least she was fed.

In Saudi Arabia, she had to contend not only with hunger but with suspicion. “Madam was afraid her husband would fall in love with me,” she said. “She wouldn’t let me talk to him.”

Though her agency had promised her $133 (€103) a month, it paid only $88 (€68). After four months of hunger, Julia told Madam she wanted to leave. Again she was lucky as they let her go.

Julia is back in Sri Lanka now, living near Kandy. Her husband is unemployed and beats her. There is little money for their son. She is receiving support and training from Caritas Kandy (SETIK).

Caritas trains migrant returnees in skills like sewing, soap making, mushroomgrowing, fabric-painting and home gardening. The goal is to give women options so they can earn money in their home country.

For those who decide to go overseas, Caritas and Sri Lanka’s Catholic Migrant Commission provide advice that prevents women from being exploited, such as keeping copies of their passport in Sri Lanka, or leaving the employer’s contact information with relatives. They put posters in temples, churches and government offices, making sure women know how to stay safe.

Caritas Kandy has formed a group called Rakawarna Hawla (“Guardian Gathering”) in which ex-maids tell village women about the risks and challenges of working abroad.

For migrant women who have been abused and have returned home, Caritas provides financial aid. In the worst cases, Caritas helps maids’ families take legal action.

“We don’t simply give them loans, we also give them training and identify their talents,” said Father Roy Clarence, Director of the Catholic Migrant Commission (Diocese of Kandy).

Julia is in the group, excited to learn how to make a space-saving garden. After a lifetime of being at the mercy of others, she now has access to the skills that can help her become independent.