By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS
Nadia Usriya is almost manic as she gathers gifts for her family in Indonesia. â€˜Are these jeans the right size for a 10 year old boy,â€ she asks me quizzically as she holds them up to the light while inspecting every seam for perfection. Then she quickly stuffs them back into her bag as she whips out a T-shirt, again putting the garment under the same razor-sharp scrutiny. Nadia is leaving Kuwait, albeit temporarily, just as soon as she can get her paperwork in order and hop on a plane. Her reasons for leaving her husband of 2 years behind are not so that she can have a little â€˜R & Râ€™ or visit her family. No, she is leaving because otherwise she faces incarceration and a 2-year travel ban. Nadia is an illegal resident of Kuwait.
At the tender age of 13 years old, when most girls around the World are discovering make-up and fashion, Nadia decided to become a housemaid, â€œWhen my father died we lost everything and I felt bad because my mother did not have work,â€ she shares, â€œa friend told me that I should go to Bahrain for work and I did.â€
Nadia lived in Bahrain for 5 years, and worked in a large home. Despite her young age, her employers put the full weight of the household duties squarely on her shoulders. She was still a child herself yet she was required to care for 2 toddlers and an infant while also cooking, cleaning and tending to animals that the family kept. â€œThe worst part of my job was cleaning out the familyâ€™s chicken coop. The smell was awful and the chickens scratched me.â€ Nadia suffered from back pain and exhaustion as guests visited the house around the clock. She was expected to always keep the house tidy and make sure there were no dirty dishes left in the sink. Nadia sent all of her paychecks home to support her mother and younger siblings while keeping very little for herself as she felt she was better off than her family in Indonesia.
After 5 tedious years in Bahrain, Nadia decided to return to her homeland of Indonesia. A friend of hers lived in Kuwait, so she decided to visit her in transit. But when she landed in Kuwait her friend convinced her to stay and helped her sign up with a local recruitment agency for housemaids in the country. Nadia was given a job with a local Kuwaiti family. She was given room and board as well as a salary of $100 a month. But things quickly turned ugly when her employer became dissatisfied with her. â€œNo matter what I did, the Madam would yell at me and sometimes hit the back of my head,â€ Nadia shares, â€œI tried to please her but she simply did not like me.â€ Nadia had not been issued a residency visa as of yet and continuously asked her employer to provide the paperwork that would allow her to remain in Kuwait legally. But the employer refused and even stopped paying her salary. So one night, Nadia snuck into the employerâ€™s room and retrieved her passport, which has been taken away from her the moment she entered the house. Then she ran away.
Nadia was homeless for a couple of days with no money or means to feed herself. One morning she was walking the streets while sobbing audibly. A man, a Muslim like her, stopped her to see what was wrong. His name was Mohamed and she quickly told him her story. He took pity upon her and gave her a couple of hundred dollars from his wallet and helped her rent a small room. Mohamed was not rich but was also an expatriate laborer who had just gotten paid. He gave his entire salary to help this total stranger whom he just met on the street. Once she was settled in the empty room with only a blanket for furniture, Mohamed would stop by her room and drop off prepared meals twice a day. Nadia was scared and would only open the door the space of a few inches to grab the much needed parcels before slamming the door fast. â€œI did not know why this man had decided to help me and I was not certain of his intentions.â€ Mohamed continued caring for Nadia, through the door, for a couple of weeks until an unexpected guest knocked on her door. It was a Kuwaiti woman who knew Mohamed through his work at a local grocery store. The woman sat Nadia down and told her Mohamed wanted to marry her. Nadia agreed and the couple were married at a local mosque the following week. The first thing her new husband did, once they were married, was try to make Nadia a legal resident of Kuwait. But Mohamed was not able to do it as the employerâ€™s name was listed as Nadiaâ€™s sponsor on all of her paperwork. And that cannot be changed.
The sponsor system in Kuwait has come under fire from many MPâ€™s in the local parliament recently. Anyone who wishes to work or reside in Kuwait must have a Kuwaiti sponsor who will be responsible for them. It is completely governmental â€˜red tapeâ€™ but without a sponsor an expatriate cannot get a residency card to prove they are legal residents of Kuwait. The police routinely check expatriatesâ€™ residency cards whether they are driving or walking down the street. Life without a residency card means that you constantly live in fear of being arrested and banned from Kuwait. â€œEven going to the local corner store is scary. I feel like a criminal as I duck down so that any passing police cars wonâ€™t see me,â€ Nadia says.
The residency card is also paramount for leaving Kuwait. Itâ€™s not enough to simply have a passport. Anyone trying to leave Kuwait without the proper documentation will be arrested on site. Nadia has been stuck in a legal limbo up until now. The Kuwaiti government has opened an Amnesty for illegal residents to leave Kuwait in harmony with the commencement of the Holy Month of Ramadan. It is expected that at least 3,000 illegal residents will leave this month alone, and Nadia is one of them. She must reside in Indonesia for a full month as her husband prepares her paperwork so that she can reenter Kuwait. However, it remains to be seen if the Amnesty will work for Nadia and Mohamed. The cost of a residency permit is over $2,000, which is an enormous sum for someone like Mohamed who has a very limited income.
â€œDonâ€™t worry Sister,â€ Nadia tells me as my eyes are blurred with tears, â€œI will be back in Kuwait before you know it and I will bring a gift for you!â€ All I can say is â€˜Inshaâ€™Allahâ€™ as she makes her exit, not knowing if she will ever be reunited with her husband again.