‘I just appreciated that I was alive’

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Living in a cramped slum with her widowed mother and two little brothers, Fasika Sorssa dreamed of a better existence.

So badly did she want to pull her mother, Werkitu Delesa, out of poverty that, at the age of just 16, she was prepared to travel to the Middle East to work as a housemaid.

(l-r) Fasika Sorssa, her husband Paul Timblick, with their children Soliana Timblick, two, and Hermella Timblick, four weeks old, and Fasika's mother Werkitu Delesa. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142932-590)

(l-r) Fasika Sorssa, her husband Paul Timblick, with their children Soliana Timblick, two, and Hermella Timblick, four weeks old, and Fasika's mother Werkitu Delesa. ''Picture: Sarah Standing (142932-590)

Full of hope, Fasika bought a fake passport on the black market, which added three years to her age.

Fasika signed up with an agency to get work in Lebanon.

Her mother pawned her treasured wedding ring for the equivalent of £100 to pay to join the agency.

She flew out, hopeful of providing a better life for her family and discovering a new, modern world, where she could earn money and be free.

10/10/2014 (EB) real life''Fasika Sorssa (29) originally from Ethiopia now living in Portsmouth, talks to The News about when she was seventeen and went to Lebanon to work as a house maid but ended up being a slave for three years. ''Pictured is: Fasika Sorssa (29).''Picture: Sarah Standing (142932-982) PPP-141010-183356001

10/10/2014 (EB) real life''Fasika Sorssa (29) originally from Ethiopia now living in Portsmouth, talks to The News about when she was seventeen and went to Lebanon to work as a house maid but ended up being a slave for three years. ''Pictured is: Fasika Sorssa (29).''Picture: Sarah Standing (142932-982) PPP-141010-183356001

And, at first, it seemed that was how life would be. But it quickly turned to one of drudgery as she was kept a prisoner, unable to leave the flat for three years, on call 24 hours a day, not even allowed a telephone call home to let her mother know she was alive.

She was beaten, survived on food scavenged from the family’s leftovers, and banished from rooms the family were eating in because they, cruelly, said she put them off their food.

Despite the horrors, now 29 and living in Old Portsmouth with her husband Paul Timblick, 50, and two beautiful children, Fasika says she does not regret her experience.

Rather, it has taught her never to value money over family and happiness.

jpns family life cover story rep eb pic 1''Maids praying in the streets of Beirut

jpns family life cover story rep eb pic 1''Maids praying in the streets of Beirut

She says: ‘The first week was fantastic for me. I was living in a penthouse – in Addis Ababa I was living in a slum. I felt very happy with my boss because I thought she was very modern and very pretty and she had lots of smiles. I thought I was living like a queen. But soon everything changed.’

For the first few weeks she was taken out of the house with Madame – the woman of the house – for hospital check-ups to make sure she did not have HIV or any other diseases.

But the door was soon locked and she was not allowed to leave under any circumstances.

‘My duties started at 5am and I did not finish until 11pm,’ says Fasika. ‘But, if Madame’s son came home in the night drunk I had to get up and cook for him.

‘If Madame’s grandchildren (who lived with her), cried in the night I had to change their nappies and feed them so they did not wake their parents.’

Fasika’s wages were withheld and she was told she would not receive them until her two-year contract was up.

Her passport was taken from her in case she tried to flee. But, in Fasika’s culture, it would have brought shame to her family if she had gone home early because people would have assumed she had had relations with her Madame’s husband and had been sacked. She was trapped.

There were distant, fleeting moments of interaction with other maids. Fasika explains,’Sometimes I saw other maids across the verandah. We could not speak to each other so we would wave and do sign language.

‘Some other maids had every Sunday off to go to church.

‘I felt scared every day. I was not allowed to go to church but I prayed to Mary and Jesus. And I always remembered my mother’s words, “Put your head down and it will pass”.’

Unbeknown to Fasika, letters she wrote to her mother were never sent by Madame. With no word in three years, her mother believed she was dead.

She was given days-old leftover food and old rice. Embarrassed, she tells how she would steal potatoes and bananas and put the peelings down the toilet – until it blocked up.

Madame then trained CCTV on the huge family fruit bowl and beat Fasika for taking a banana when she was starving.

‘From then on, I only took food where I could eat the peelings, like cucumbers or tomatoes’, she says.

Fasika would be beaten for getting things wrong, even by the son of the house, who was in his 20s.

But she feels she was lucky. Many maids and nannies from Africa and Asia, who are seen as a status symbol in the Middle East, suffer unrelenting abuse at the hands of their masters in Lebanon.

‘I felt bad but I just appreciated that I was alive,’ says Fasika.

‘I was not dead. I did not have boiling water poured over me. When Madame was angry I had to be very soft with her.’

At the end of Fasika’s two-year contract Madame simply refused to let her go. She was pressured into staying for another year,

And she tried again at the end of the third year, only letting Fasika go because she promised to return after seeing her family.

She returned home with £2,000 in her pocket – just £55 a month for three years working almost 24 hours a day.

But she was able to buy back her mother’s wedding ring.

‘I walked into my home at midnight as I did not want to cause a fuss in the neighbourhood.

‘My mother could not talk. She was in shock. She stood up and said “I have to go to church to give thanks to God”.’

Once back in Addis Ababa Fasika met husband Paul, who was teaching English, and within six months they were married. They have lived back in the UK for three years.

She is not bitter about what happened to her, saying: ‘I learned so many things. Money does not mean everything. It does not give you happiness.’

Book based on Fasika’s experiences

Fasika’s husband Paul Timblick has written a book about her experience in Beirut.

It details the horror of his wife’s servitude and the cruelty dished out to other maids.

He says: ‘In many Middle Eastern countries there is a strong cultural mindset which looks down on Africans.

‘They are regarded as good only for manual labour and there only to serve. Racism is entrenched.

‘There are thought to be 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon today with around a third of these from Ethiopia.

‘The Ethiopians are regarded as the cheapest/lowliest of the migrants and thus treated the worst.’

Paul adds: ‘When Fasika was there 10 years ago, maids were pushed off window ledges and killed, especially if there was any sign of sexual activity with the man of the house.’

Paul says that people can help to get the book published through the crowdfunding site unbound.co.uk/books/no-lipstick-in-Lebanon.