« Mama Sara », a heart beat away from her victims
Sara Shuhail is in charge of EWA’A, a public initiative to protect and shelter women victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking. A former Headmistress, she hold back her tears and put all her energy into rescuing the victims, chasing the traffickers and raising awareness in the UAE. INTERVIEW followed by the testimony of a victim and a visit in the Abu Dhabi shelter.
What does EWA’A means ?
In Arabic it is a container to protect something ; like the uterus protects the fœtus. It’s a safe place. A place of value.
How did EWA’A started ?
It was a decision of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008 to create it under the umbrella of the Red Crescent. The UAE government voted the first law –UAE Federal Law No. 51- fighting against human trafficking or modern-day slavery in the region in 2006.Our country signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN and we established the National Committee compacting human trafficking in 2007 and the EWA’A initiative to protect women and children against traffickers one year later.
How do you help the victims ?
We protect them by providing them with a safe place giving them assistance and rehabilitation, psychological support and activities. They stay between one to six months in our temporary shelters. We have 190 victims dispatched in three shelters : Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Ras Al Khaima.
Where do they come from ?
There are different stories and different regions but of course they all come from poor countries ravaged by war, natural disasters and poverty. They are sent to us by the police, embassies, hospitals, mosques, churches and since 2011 we also receive calls through our helpline.
How do you rescue them ?
If they are trapped into places, the human rights department of the police helps us. Most of the time they have no idea where they are but with clues on their environment, we manage to locate them. Small details can be helpful.
What are their stories ?
In 99% of the cases, it is the same story. The traffickers promise them that they will get a good job coming here in a hotel, as secretary, waitresses, in a beauty saloon… But when they arrive in the UAE they find themselves trapped. Traffickers take all their official papers and make them sign a disclaimer. They threaten them : « We know your children, baby, family. If you don’t cooperate, there will be retaliation against you. This is how it works. » Some are even trafficked by their own parents who’ve lived here a long time. They sell them or force them to do nasty jobs, mostly prostitution.
How old are they ?
From 5 to 45. To teach them to become professional sex slaves, children are trained from a young age, even by their own parents sometimes. Half of them are adopted by people they then call mama and baba. Sometimes it is clients who end up calling anonymously because they feel guilty.
Why did you get involved in this ?
I am a mother of 6 (4 girls and 2 boys) and I worked as a High School Headmistress for the Minsitry of Education for 31 years. I had a lot of education with my students as an educator and being strict with them. The government thought I would be the right person.
I saw Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak’s message on your website. Is she involved ?
She is the head here. She came to the shelters. She sits with the victims and talks to them like a mother. « Don’t worry this is your second country. We will do whatever you need ». She is so kind and generous to them. She did so much for EWA’A, for the humanitarian victims in general. Without her it would not be the same. She really is the « mother of the nation ».
Who are the traffickers ?
It’s mafia. They come from the same country as the victim. They have their partners here from the same nationality. They come from Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and recently Arab countries. They traffick women and children fleeing the war, natural hazard, people who have no more families and are easily kidnapped. They change their plan and are professionals. We arrest most of them but the difficult part is to nail the head in the country of origin.
How many did you arrest ?
In 2012, we arrested 50. They face three to 22 years prison. We are currently amending the law to enhance the victims’ rights.
How do you gain victims’ trust ?
We take them to the shelter where they take a rest for a few days, sleep and medical assistance, clothes. At first it’s survival. When they are ready to talk, we start step by step. If they have informations about the traffickers, we call the police who come to the shelters in civil clothes and talk to them in a private room. These men are human rights trained. They start to investigate with the victim.
Are you the only organization dealing with these abuses in the UAE ?
There is one in Dubai dealing with domestic violence, labor and human trafficking but EWA’A is the only organisation specialized in human trafficking.
I read on your website that some victims were trafficked for camel races ?
This is not happening anymore. Camel riding has been a traditional sport in the UAE for 200, 300 years. Every year there was a race. It was jockeys… When they realized it was against human rights, they stopped it. There was a very good handling of the issue.
Have you ever been threatened ? Do have a security system ?
We need to protect the victims from the traffickers. The shelters are equipped with cameras and security guards. Plus they don’t know where we are, the employees, the shelters… It is dangerous for everybody. Our office has an alarmed connected directly to the police department.
Is the subject of sexual trafficking and abuse taboo in the UAE ?
After five years there is a lot of progress. We jumped from one person aware of it to 70. In the past, people did not even want to speak about this issue. Even people in the education field. There was denial that we also have this problem in this country. The problem is not more developped than elsewhere but it exists. This is a problem rich countries encounters. It’s the price for wealth. But slowly people are talking about it. We needed a law even for one person.
So there is increased awareness ?
People understand the issue now. They know how to deal with us. They give help, donations. Step by step. With my team we make this difference in society.
How was it for you to be a pioneer ?
I felt they put me in a big and difficult responsibility. It was hard to believe that human beings were capable of such things. When I met the victims in the beginning I could not believe what I saw and heard. Traffickers sand clients tatoo their victims’ body with their names… How can human beings behave like that ? I was working in schools in a different environment. I was so shocked. My first reaction was to cry but I hold myself. I thought I would be of no use if I wasn’t strong. It changed my life. In the bright and in the dark side.
Are there only women working at EWA’A ?
Yes. About 30 staff. Because victims are suffering from men. That’s why I asked the police to come without their uniforms.
What happens to the victims after several months ?
If they want we help them fin a job here. We train them in bouquet making, wrapping, waitressing… We give them money to start a new life. But most of them want to go home. It’s such a bad experience to remain in the place where they’ve been traumatized.
Where do you get the budget ?
From Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikha Fatima and different organizations and private donations. Through campaigns and exhibitions like Silent Voices.
Why are women still more vulnerable in this world ?
They have more feelings. In this region, men are more in control. But it is changing step by step. The law is more and more in favor of women. When I see what can happen to them every day in my work, I truely thnk it’s a good thing. When I see women traffickers, it shocks me. To see how women can also become strong in the dark side…
They are as dangerous as men ?
Women can be especially dangerous. When they get aggressive you can’t stop them. Education, life, environment does it probably… But Inch Allah one day we can close EWA’A. It will mean that our country is free from this crime.
For more information
TESTIMONY : Tolin, a voice from the dark
Tolin came from Alep to Beiruth thinking she would get a tourist visa to enter the UAE and work in a hair saloon. Tolin had known the woman for a long time and when she told her that her husband would help get the papers, Tolin believed her. In Syria all the stores were closed, there was no work, Tolin, 28, was divorced with no kids. She thought this would be a good way out. It’s only when she entered the couple’s flat in Abu Dhabi that she started suspecting something was wrong. « All these girls –all from Syria except one from Irak- were dressed up to go out. There were seven in a two bedroom appartment. He was even using his wife, » she says. Tolin, « white flower » in Turkish, was sent to work as a prostitute like the others. « There was nothing I could do. We met clients in five stars hotels but they were escorting us all the time. And I was afraid that the staff and even the police were corrupted.» Traffickers play on the fact that prostitution is forbidden and the girls are afraid to end up in jail if they go out. Ten days. Ten long nightmare days when Tolin had to undergo what she never imagined she would : forced to work as a sex slave earning 800 dhs for 2 hours or 1500 dhs the night. The young women, daughter of a reknown doctor in Syria, had no idea she would end up be trafficked and sexually abused. « Two days later, after the first shock, I tried to find ways to escape. I started texting my friends in Sharjah and managed to give them the adress of the flat. They called the police who busted the place, » recalls Tolin. Low at the beginning, her voice is now higher as if the danger was finally a little further away. But Tolin still looks frightened, twisting her fingers nervoulsy and looking everywhere as she bravely tells her story. « He was very violent. He burst into rages, knocking down the table, shouting… When the police came, his wife begged me to remain silent but I just took my bag and left», she sighs. Today is the last day of investigation and the trial will start next week. She will be aloud to leave the country if she wishes to. This is something Sara Shuhail managed to negociate with the judicial system. The founder of EWA’A also obtained from the police that they question the victims after a few days wearing civil clothes. Tolin is not aware of that. She is more concerned with her shame wondering how she will hide all this from her father. He kept on calling her once a week naively asking « How’s work ? ». « I might approach UNHCR to go to a host country and study to become an English translator… ». Try to rebuild her self-esteem and a life for herself knowing that, at least, she managed to send a trafficker to jail.
VISIT : A day in Abu Dhabi’s shelter
Maitha Al Mazrui has been working for EWA’A for almost four years now as a Coordinator Officer. She has been offered two times her salary elsewhere but can’t do anything else. « It would feel like a betrayal to these girls, » she says. And I feel it is starting to pay. » It used to take one or two years before traffickers got busted but with the laws implemented, the tight collaboration with the police and the awareness among girls and people in general « they don’t feel they can do it so easily ». Maitha goes around the shelter situated in a secret secured residential area of Abu Dhabi, checking on the girls despite being just about to deliver. « It’s not like any other job, » she explains opening the arts and crafts room where the women and children work on creative projects. EWA’A organized for the second time an exhibition in Abu Dhabi showing expressive paintings, drawings or tapestries helping them to cope with their trauma. Silent Voices II was shown at the Ghaf Gallery in Abu Dhabi last May. Pieces that are sometimes stronger and more revealing then any word. « These girls have been lied to. Because they trusted a friend or a relative, they came here to work as sex slaves. It is even hard to start a therapy. Why would they trust someone they don’t know ?» This room seems to be the container of all their sorrows and hopes. On the wall, a picture of some of them bears the face a 5 year old little girl. « Unfortunately, she was only a child, trafficked by her own parents, explains Maitha. They brought her here to be trained so she would be a perfect sex worker later. » The little girl attended adulthood parties, wearing unsuitable clothes and got beaten when she refused to cooperate. « It was not easy, recalled Maitha. We had to start from the base : hygiene, manners, education and the poor child had no role models. If her parents are not, who is ? » The child asked to go back to her jailed mother before Sara Shuhail gained her confidence. « She was so attached to her. She used to call her Mama Sara. The victims can feel when you are dealing with them with your heart. If they see in your eyes that you believe in them, it makes them safe. You cannot lie to them. » She finally went back home to her grand mother who lives in an Arab country. In most cases, the victims want to go back to their environment. Fortunately this five year old girl was an isolated case. Usually minor victims are between 14 and 18 years old. It is more or less always the same story : they come from a poor country ravaged by war or natural disaster, they are promised a job, they trust people they usually know, and arrive in the UAE to find themselves locked to work as sex workers. « It is organized rape. In most cases, clients come to the places where they are locked in. But some send them out to get clients. They don’t care how the girls get the money. They know they will come back because they threaten to hurt their families and kids if they don’t. » As of the clients they come from everywhere. « This is a multinational country. Poors, tourists… » And a lot of five stars hotels… The empty and silent shelter stresses the scope of the trauma the victims go through. The victims were recently sent to Ras al Khaima and Sharjah to be close to court. But when they return, they will all once again share this luxurious and spacious house dedicated to their rehabilitation. « We keep them as long as they want. Yes, it is nice here. We want to make up to them. But there’s no place like home, » says Maitha. In the meantime, until they gain a little confidence, they spend their time between the kitchen –cooking, watching TV and chatting together-, their rooms or the private caravans for the ones who have chidren. Because some of them got pregnant from their miserable experience. « But you should see them with their child. You can’t take it from them. No way ! » They all react differently : some stay mute, some become so hard, and some are « so broken ». « It is not easy to deal with young girls who went through such an experience. Some get very aggressive», explains Maitha. But at least, EWA’A shows them some people care and teach them the tough lesson of life : « what does not kill you, makes you stronger ».
"My first reaction was to cry but I hold myself. I thought I would be of no use if I wasn’t strong." Sara Shuhail