by Sarah Hudson
On April 3, 2002, an anonymous caller phoned the California Department of Social Services to report that a young girl was living inside the garage of 28 Pacific Grove. A few days later the owner of the home, Nasser Ibrahim opened the door to a detective from the Irvine Police Department. When he was asked if any children lived there beside his own, he first said no, then replied, “actually, a distant relative.” He said he had “not yet” enrolled her in school. She did “chores just like the other kids,” according to the police transcript. A ten year old Shyima was upstairs cleaning when Ibrahim came to get her.
While searching the house, an officer asked one of the Ibrahim children if anyone other than his immediate family lived in the house. He said, Yeah. She’s uh — my — uh — How do I say this? Uh … My dad’s … Oh, wait, like … She’s like my cousin, but — She’s my dad’s daughter’s friend. Oops! The other way. Okay, I’m confused.” He eventually admitted that Shyima had lived with the family for three years in Egypt and in California. The police put Shyima in a squad car as they noted her hands were red and caked with dead, hard-looking skin. For months Shyima lied to investigators, saying what the Ibrahims had told her to say. When police searched the house again, they turned up several home videos showing Shyima at work. They also seized a contract signed by Shyima’s illiterate parents permitting her to work for this family in California.
Shyima’s story is just one – of many. An Egyptian report published earlier this month by the Unit for the Prevention of Trafficking Children said there is “a new subculture of brokers existing in Egypt that are promoting the benefits of selling and marrying off underage girls”. Tens of thousands of children in Africa and Egypt, some as young as 3, are recruited every year to work as domestic servants. They are on call 24 hours a day and are often beaten or sexually assaulted if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. Shyima would have complained, but who would she complain to? And where would she go? She eventually told investigators, “He told me that I was not allowed to say anything… That if I said anything I would never see my parents again.”
According to a 2001 survey by the Moroccan Government, in the city of Casablanca alone there are more than 15,000 girls under the age of 15 working as maids. A “maid” in many corners of the world has multiple meanings separate from one who works as a domestic servant for pay. A study by the U.S. State Department found that over the past year, children have been trafficked to work as servants in at least 33 of Africa’s 53 countries. Children from at least 10 African countries were sent as maids to the U.S. and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities, including the U.N., Interpol and the State Department, have no idea how many child maids now work in these areas. Once behind the walls of gated communities much like the Ibrahims, these children have no access to the outside world and never go to school. Their chances at a normal life are destroyed. They live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.
Shyima had just turned 10 when the Ibrahims, a very wealthy Egyptian couple, brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. For a year before that, Shyima had worked in their lofty Cairo apartment. Her father, a bricklayer, had become very sick a few years earlier so her mother had found a “maid recruiter” to find work for their most eligible daughter. Shyima’s parents signed a contract effectively leasing her to the couple for 10 years and told Shyima to be strong. Every month, her mother came to pick up her salary. Shyima cried when she found out she was going to America in 2000. She arrived at LAX on Aug. 3, 2000, and the family brought her to their spacious five-bedroom, two-story home, decorated in the style of a Tuscan villa. She was told to sleep in the garage. It had no windows and was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Soon after she arrived, the garage’s only light bulb went out. The Ibrahims never replaced it.
From that day on, Shyima lived in the dark. She was told to call them Madame Amal and Hajj Nasser, terms of respect. They called her “shaghala” or servant. Their five children called her “stupid.” If you could fly the garage where Shyima slept 7,000 miles to the sandy alleyway where her Egyptian family now lives, it would pass for the best home in the neighborhood.
The garage’s walls are made of concrete instead of hand-patted bricks. Its roof doesn’t leak. Its door shuts all the way. Shyima’s mother and her 10 brothers and sisters live in a two-bedroom house with uneven walls and a flaking ceiling. None of them have ever had a bed to themselves, much less a whole room. At night, bodies cover the sagging couches.
When Shyima’s mother was shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, she made a clucking sound of approval. Shyima’s mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in America. “If she had stayed here in Egypt, she would have been ordinary like us,” said Awatef, Shyima’s older sister. “It’s much cleaner than where many people here sleep,” she says and tries to explains that Shyima’s treatment in the Ibrahim home is considered normal, even good, by Egyptian standards.
Shyima would awake before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family’s crystal. While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims’ 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them for school, combed their hair, dressed them and made them breakfast. Then she ironed clothes and fixed breakfast for the three girls, including Heba, who at 10 was the same age as the family’s servant. Neither Ibrahim nor his wife worked, and they slept late. When they awoke, they yelled for her to make tea. While they ate breakfast watching TV, she continued to clean the house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry. She earned $45 a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off. Her employers were never satisfied. “Nothing was ever clean enough for her Shyima testified. She would come in and say, ‘This is dirty’, or ‘You didn’t do this right’, or ‘You ruined the food’”.
At one point, Shyima started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank and so did her oversized T-shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore. Once while doing the family’s laundry, she slipped her own clothes into the load. “Madame” slapped her. “She told me my clothes were dirtier than theirs. That I wasn’t allowed to clean mine there,” she said. She was given a bucket to wash her clothes in the garage. She hung them to dry outside, next to the trash cans. When the couple went out, she waited until she heard the car pull away and then she sat down. She sat with her back straight because she was afraid her clothes would dirty the upholstery. It never occurred to her to run away. “I thought this was normal,” she said.
After investigators found Shyima and took her from the home, she went without sleep for days at a stretch, she was nervous and scared. She was put on four different types of medication, had horrible mood swings and moved from foster home to foster home.
Investigators arranged for her to speak to her parents. She told them she felt like a “nobody” working for the Ibrahims and wanted to come home. Her father yelled at her for being ungrateful. “They kept telling me that they’re good people,” Shyima said in a recent interview. “That it’s my fault. That because of what I did my mom was going to have a heart attack.” Three years ago, she broke off contact with her family. Since then she has refused to speak Arabic and can no longer communicate in her “mother tongue”.
During the 2006 trial, the Ibrahims described Shyima as part of their family. They included proof of a trip she took with the family to Disneyland. Shyima’s lawyer pointed out that the 10-year-old wasn’t allowed on the rides, she was just there to carry the bags.
The couple’s lawyers tried to retaliate by collecting photographs of the home where Shyima grew up, including close-ups of the feces-stained squat toilet and of Shyima’s sisters washing clothes in a bucket.
In her final plea, Madame Amal Ibrahim told the judge it would be unfair to separate her from her children. Enraged, Shyima, then 17, told the court she hadn’t seen her family in years. “Where was their loving when it came to me? Wasn’t I a human being too? I felt like I was nothing when I was with them,” she sobbed. The couple pleaded guilty to all charges, including forced labor and slavery. They were ordered to pay $76,000, the amount Shyima would have earned at the minimum wage. Their sentence was 3 years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both.
“I don’t think that there is any other term you could use than modern-day slavery,” said Bob Schoch, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles, in describing Shyima’s situation. Shyima was adopted last year by Chuck and Jenny Hall of Beaumont, Calif. They live near Disneyland, where they have taken her a half-dozen times. She graduated from high school this summer after retaking her exit exam and hopes to become a police officer.
Shyima, now 19, has a list of assigned chores. She wears purple eyeshadow, has a boyfriend and frequently updates her profile on MySpace. Her hands are neatly manicured. But in her closet, she keeps a box of pictures of her parents and her brothers and sisters. “I don’t look at them because it makes me cry,” she said. “How could they have done that to me? They’re my parents.”
Meanwhile, on a recent afternoon in Cairo, Madame Amal Ibrahim walked into the lobby of her apartment complex wearing designer sunglasses and scarf. After almost 2 years in a U.S. prison cell, she’s living once more in the spacious apartment where Shyima first worked as her maid. “The apartment is adorned in the style of a Louis XIV palace, with ornately carved settees, gold-leaf vases and life-sized portraits of her and her husband”. Before the door closed behind her, a little girl slipped in carrying grocery bags. She wore a shabby T-shirt. Her small feet slapped the floor in loose flip-flops. Her eyes were trained on the ground. She looked to be around 9 years old.