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Not Exactly Free, A Filipina Domestic Worker's Life In Cairo

In downtown Cairo
In downtown Cairo
Natasha Pradhan

CAIRO — On a hot summer day in 2012, two smartly clad Filipina women arrived at the JW Marriott Hotel on Cairo's ring road, toting handbags in the crooks of their arms as they had often observed their female employers doing. They lingered in the lobby for hours over small cups of coffee as they waited for a phone call.

In one of the rooms upstairs was Coco, another Filipina woman, in Cairo for the first time. She was accompanying her matron from Alexandria and had prepared carefully for the occasion, bringing along a scarf to cover her hair so as to avoid being questioned by the hotel staff. She knew she would not be able to take any belongings with her when she left and so had resorted to layering multiple sets of underwear beneath her dress.

In the late afternoon, Coco's matron was deeply absorbed in a TV game show she had been avidly following that summer. Taking this as her cue, Coco snuck into the bathroom. She pulled the flush hard and with its sound masking that of the room's door, slipped out. The keycard she had taken, which she hoped would operate the lift, did not work. Coco saw a guard approaching and grew nervous. She turned to take the stairs and he caught up. The hotel guard questioned her in Arabic, a language Coco had yet to learn. Her heart thumping, she made a phone signal with her hands and feigned an air of calm to give the impression that she was simply heading out to buy cell phone credit. The guard conceded. Once in the lobby, Coco dialed the number she had memorized months ago. On the other end, Sandra, who was sipping cold coffee in anticipation of this call, instructed Coco to head to the taxi stand. Coco was frantic. What does a taxi in this city look like? she wondered. Still terrified of being caught in the act of escape, she scanned the windows for something resembling a white car with a yellow sign on top.

Near the taxis, Sandra spotted Coco and signaled for her to get inside a cab. Sandra generously tipped the hotel guard and together the three headed to the other side of town in 6th of October City. There, Sandra lived with her husband and was to host Coco until she could get back on her own feet.

The daughter of a fisherman, Coco's first job was as a promotion girl selling shoes at a department store in the coastal province of Sarangani in the Philippines. At 17, she placed second in a national singing competition. "I came second, so it didn't mean anything. If I had placed first I could have competed in America," she shrugs. Coco married the following year and left Sarangani, a place she describes in idyllic terms, in order to reside with her husband in General Santos City, an hour's drive away. After becoming a mother, Coco supported her family by working in a tuna canning factory. The job paid little and she could only get hired as a seasonal contract worker, meaning that though she worked there on-and-off throughout her 20s while raising her children, Coco was only assured of having a small income for two to three months at a time, with no guarantee of having work during the rest of the year.

After her husband was imprisoned on drug-related charges, Coco was solely responsible for providing for her family. She realized that she would not be able to put all of her children through school on her small income. At the age of 30, she accepted an offer to work in Japan as a singer. The pay she would receive there far exceeded anything that Coco could earn in the Philippines.

Rumors associating all Filipina women who took up work in Japan with sex workers had filtered down to Coco's three daughters. Upon her return, they confided in their mother the things they heard while during her time away. Unwilling to cause her children embarrassment, Coco vowed to remain in the Philippines despite requests from her employer to return to work in Japan. After years of waiting, it became evident that Coco could not depend on the possibility of her husband being released from prison. While visiting him in custody, she conceived a fourth child. This time, a son.

Desperate for income and short of options, Coco approached a company in General Santos City that offered contracts for women to become overseas domestic workers. A two-year contract with a family in the Gulf promised a monthly salary of $400 plus annual leave to visit home. Now operating as a single mother, Coco anticipated that nearly all of this sum could be sent back to her family.

She was allowed no more than five minutes per day to talk with her four children back in the Philippines.

Upon arriving in Kuwait in 2010, her employer, a wealthy Palestinian woman wed to a Libyan man, informed Coco that her salary was to be half of that promised, only $200 per month. Further, Coco would not be given any leave. Her passport was taken away and locked in a safe. Two weeks after her arrival, the couple relocated to Alexandria, Egypt, and took Coco along with them.

Coco's matron did not allow any of her domestic workers to leave the house unless accompanied by a guard. The room where she slept in the basement did not have cell phone reception and she was allowed no more than five minutes per day to talk with her four children back in the Philippines.

Such abusive breaches of contract in the Middle East are widespread. Situations in which domestic workers are forcibly held in a household against their will and often subjected to daily abuse are common enough that the Philippines Embassy in Cairo has a dedicated shelter to house overseas Filipino workers who have fled the homes of their employers. The embassy routinely issues travel documents to replace those passports locked in the safes of employers and provides funds when necessary to fly these workers back home. However, many workers like Coco find themselves short of options as forced repatriation would only place them back in the same economic conditions from which they needed to escape in the first place.

Working in Alexandria, Coco was subject to various forms of abuse on a daily basis. One morning, her matron's husband deliberately toppled all the contents of the shelves beside the house's main entrance. "I'll be back in five minutes and I want this all cleaned up. Five minutes, do you hear?" Helpless, Coco scrambled to return the shelves to a state of order. On another occasion, Coco was scrubbing dishes late into the night. At the time her hair was long and nearly reached her hips. Her matron came up from behind and pulled hard on Coco's long ponytail, saying "You want a man, don't you?" Pained by her employers' repeated subjugation and unable to leave on her own account, Coco was desperate to be dismissed. She went to the bathroom and, using a razor blade, shaved off both her eyebrows. She undid her ponytail and let her long black hair cover her face and upper body. She returned to the kitchen so that her matron could see her this way. Her matron screamed and retreated to her room. The episode did not lead to her dismissal, as Coco had hoped. Instead she was merely instructed never to repeat such acts again.

When Coco's father was hospitalized in the Philippines, she requested, as the only substantial breadwinner in her family, to receive part of her salary in advance in order to pay for the medicine he needed. Her employer refused. Though her father was on his deathbed, Coco was not allowed leave to see him before he died, nor to attend his funeral. It was then that she realized that despite being able to send her family nearly her entire salary, keeping her job was not worth the pain of being completely severed from them. Yet, her passport had been taken away and she was carefully guarded day and night.

A glimmer of hope appeared when one day, the family's cook, a woman from Indonesia, whispered in private that she had the phone number of a free Filipina woman. "This woman lives in Cairo," she said. "Maybe she can help you." Wary of writing the number down, Coco memorized it. Weeks passed before she found a moment safe enough to call Sandra and make plans to escape.

Sandra came to Coco's rescue while the two were still practically strangers. Coco has not forgotten Sandra's generosity and the two maintain a close friendship to this day. During her brief stay with Sandra following the incident at the Marriott, Coco was introduced to a network of Filipina women that work in households around Cairo. Many worked without a contract and as a result, enjoyed their personal freedom but were in the country illegally. Others obtained a legal status through marriage or contracted work in order to live without constant fear of deportation.

Her passport had been taken away.

Through Sandra's network, Coco found a live-in job working for an Egyptian family in Obour City on the outskirts of Cairo. Though she experienced some mistreatment on the part of her employer, she was happy to earn money to send to her children while not forcibly held against her will. After some months in Obour City, Coco accumulated enough savings to quit her live-in job and rent a room for herself in Mohandiseen while working for multiple employers on a freelance basis. By now, Coco had a good hold of Arabic and had learned to navigate the city in order to network and find opportunities.

Still, she was in Egypt without any legal status and no longer had possession of her passport. So as to not be identified as a runaway and forcefully repatriated, Coco obtained a replacement travel document from her embassy by simply stating hers was lost. Yet even with the replacement document, she felt barred from seeing her family for fear that if she left Egypt, she would not be allowed back in.

Coco's husband, who had been imprisoned in the Philippines, has since died. She continued to work tirelessly, both as a cleaner and a nanny, to support her family in the Philippines and put her children through school. Coco's children were growing and her son, who she had last seen when he was just two, was now a student in elementary school.

Prior to 2017, it was rare for citizens of Southeast Asia to be stopped by the authorities in a public space and asked to procure proof of their legal status in Egypt. However, since early 2017, in a drastic breach of convention, there have been several such incidents, resulting in the illegal detainment of these citizens without any notification of their whereabouts sent to their home consulates. If unable to show valid papers, students typically face lighter consequences than domestic workers. Several domestic workers have reported facing physical and sexual violence while in detention.

A Filipina friend of Coco's put forth the idea of "buying" a marriage as a way to obtain a residency status. To Coco, this option seemed more viable than signing an employment contract due to her previous experience of abuse and having her travel documents locked up. Desperate to be able to visit her family, Coco pursued the possibility. She was put in touch with a man who had previously wed three Filipina women.

Coco went through with her plan and paid a substantial sum of money to be married. With her newly obtained legal status she was relieved of the anxiety of deportation, and it meant that she could finally travel in and out of Egypt, a freedom of which she was deprived since her arrival years earlier. Combining gifts from her employers with her own savings, she scraped together enough to purchase a roundtrip air ticket to Manila in 2016.

She described the irony of having to learn about her own son's life and tastes while intimately knowing those of the three-year-old boy of Indian descent for whom she served as a nanny in Cairo. "Rohan always asks for yogurt because he cries when the food is too spicy. When I went back to the Philippines, I had to ask my son what to make. I did not even know what he likes to eat."

Coco's daughters complained of their younger brother's rebellious behavior and poor school attendance. During her visit home, however, her son, who was now 12, made a show of attending school every single day — his immaculate behavior a plea for his mother to return for good.

Mommy, now we understand why you did what you did.

Coco could not afford to take much time off work and so her visit home lasted just over two weeks. Upon returning to Egypt, the paid marriage proved to be unviable. The man she was wed to on paper began to extort her for large sums of money if she wished to remain his wife. When she could not provide such sums, he threatened sexual advances. Coco moved residences and took pains to conceal her address from him. She sought advice from a set of employers who worked as foreign diplomats. They promised to help Coco procure a visa and the next time her legal husband threatened to divorce her, Coco surprised him by jumping at the offer, and then cut off all contact once the divorce had been legalized.

Once again, Coco found herself in Egypt without a legal status. By now, however, the once strange city had come to feel like home. Coco had developed a circle of loyal employers who'd grown attached to her, she had close friends, a good grasp of Arabic and had even found an outlet for her lifelong passion of singing. Coco sang in the church choir where she regularly attended services and had formed a band with two other Filipina women working in Cairo.

One of Coco's Swedish employers had previously applied for a visa for Coco in the hopes that she would relocate to work for their family in Stockholm. Coco was fond of this employer but did not have big expectations that a Swedish residency visa would be approved. Nor did she look forward to leaving a city that now felt like home. To her surprise, the Swedish authorities approved the request nearly a year after it was filed. Short of options and tempted by the healthcare and retirement benefits that came with a Swedish residency, Coco accepted the offer to relocate to Scandinavia with a heavy heart and past her 40th birthday. Her eyes light up when she mentions that a Swedish residency comes with the possibility of bringing one's family into the country.

Today, she and her four children have a chat group. "I am always online," Coco says. "They can always text me." Despite her own choices and the difficulties her daughters face in trying to make ends meet, she pushes her children to resist the economic pressure to work abroad. Coco's two eldest daughters, now mothers themselves, have both obtained bachelor's degrees. One works as a pharmacist in Manila, and the other as a teacher in a private college. One evening, sitting at Simond's Cafe in Cairo, Coco confides with her usual lightheartedness that it was only once her two elder daughters were grown up, married and the sole breadwinners of their household that they showed understanding of their mother's choice to leave the Philippines. "They told me, ‘Mommy, now we understand why you did what you did.""

When she contemplates the future, Coco does not know what it may feel like to live without the responsibility of working to support her family. Nor does she have a picture of what her life will look like once she can afford to permanently return to General Santos City. "Are my children going to abandon me when I'm old because they think I abandoned them as children? But in fact I didn't. Everything I did, I was doing for them."

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Photograph of police apprehending a 14 year old boy wearing a cap which obscures his face. The boy was arrested during this morning's Bangkok mall shooting which saw three killed and four injured.

A 14-year-old boy is apprehended by police during Bangkok mall shooting which saw three killed and four injured.

Valeria Berghinz, Michelle Courtois and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Zdravo!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Turkish authorities arrest nearly 1,000 suspects after the suicide bomb attack in Ankara, a shooting at a Bangkok mall kills three, and the Nobel Prize in Physics goes to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it science. Meanwhile, Frédéric Schaeffer for French daily Les Echos goes to a Buddhist temple in China where disillusioned young graduates flock to find “another school of life.”


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