Natsnet’s story in Saudi Arabia is typical of the life of most domestic workers in the Gulf, where they are kept as prisoners working long hours and subjected to humiliation and harassment by the families they serve. The unfortunate fate Natsnet and other victims of the modern-day slavery of domestic labor in Gulf countries is attributable to the stifling atmosphere of control and repression in Eritrea that renders the possibility of leading a normal life into unbearable and forces the youth to flee anywhere out of the country.

 

Woldu, Dawit O. and Irvin Bromall. Faces of Oppression and the Price of Justice: A Women's Journey from Eritrea to Saudi Arabia and then the United States. Trenton: Red Sea P., 2017, 202 pp.

Dawit Woldu and Irvin Bromall’s Faces of Oppression and the Price of Justice (2017) gives an up-close account of the suffering and misunderstandings Eritrean refugees continue to face through the story of a woman named “Natsenet.” The book shows three stages Natsent went through: the difficult political and socio-cultural realities that pushed her to leave the comfort of her family and home; the semi-slavery domestic labor in Saudi Arabia; and the socio-cultural, economic and psychological challenges she faced in her pursuit of asylum in the United States.

The book starts by exploring the historical and political realities in Eritrea during Natsnet’s coming of age, which shaped her life and that of her family. The pain and suffering of the long war of independence; the subsequent euphoria and optimism in the new nation is sketched followed by the proclamation of the “national service” and Eritrea’s subsequent descending into dictatorship.

Following Natsnet’s journey, the authors enrich the narration through an anthropological analysis to provide an accurate picture of the bigger political and ideological structures that forms the skeleton of the crisis. The use of the personalized reflection in this complex story enables readers, especially those unfamiliar with Eritrea or the landscape of the asylum and immigration in the US, to have a closer touch of the difficulty many Eritreans face.

The book candidly provides a thorough picture of the fear caused by the physical and sexual abuses inflicted on young women in the national service, pushing young women like Natsnet to choose to leave their home country without knowing their destinations. Natsnet recounts of stories of young women she knew including that of a neighbor, who came from the military training camp, Sawa, pregnant with the child of an officer. Such stories, are of course not uncommon in Eritrea where, where the families of pregnant women soldiers had to endure the burden of shame, never even entertaining the idea of holding the abusers of their children accountable due to fear of retribution.

Amidst such climate of fear and helplessness, Natsnet’s faith in the Eritrean state diminishes with the overarching possibility of being drafted in the national service; strikingly described by the authors as “part of an oppressive ideology, a social engineering of creating a submissive society” (47). The decision to migrate to Saudi Arabia as a maid thought in desperation along with her family who were afraid for her well-being is bolded in the book as a demonstration of how state repression has forced individuals to migrate even to undesirable destinations like Saudi Arabia. More importantly, the book highlights the involvement of the Eritrean government in arranging the domestic work contracts with Gulf companies to generate capital without regard for the fate the women who were sent to the homes of upper class families to serve as maids.

Natsnet’s story in Saudi Arabia is typical of the life of most domestic workers in the Gulf, where they are kept as prisoners working long hours and subjected to humiliation and harassment by the families they serve. The unfortunate fate Natsnet and other victims of the modern-day slavery of domestic labor in Gulf countries is attributable to the stifling atmosphere of control and repression in Eritrea that renders the possibility of leading a normal life into unbearable and forces the youth to flee anywhere out of the country.

The third part of the book narrates Natsnet’s ordeal to secure asylum in the United States after she ran away from the abusive Saudi family that brought her along to serve them in their vacation in America. The latter part of the book follows a series of cultural, personal and legal upheavals Natsnet faced while navigating her way trying to make sense of the new reality and the burden of raising her two children she bore in the US.


The authors are able to demonstrate in detail the underestimated cultural, economic and emotional challenges that the legal systems in the US and Europe cause on refugees. These range from the affordability of immigration lawyers, to challenges of communicating that make establishing the cases for asylum a challenge. For example, in Natsnet’s first asylum application was rejected because her lawyers had erroneously reported her as a member of “Irob” community as her reason for fear of persecution, something she wasn’t aware off and never prepared to provide support as result of language miscommunication with the lawyers.

The authors bring forward other cases where cross cultural misunderstandings commonly presented challenges in terms of reasoning and thought patterns, absence of anthropological considerations and the linearity of case building expected in Western legal systems that do not necessarily fit in the thought patterns and perspectives of the applicants. More importantly, the book raises a thoughtful point that the legal paradigm and rhetoric fails to overlap with the socio-cultural and psychological orientations of asylum seekers.

Little factual inaccuracies here and there, however, might cause some stirs to a familiar Eritrean reader. For example, it is stated that on the eve of May 24, 1993 the presidents of Eritrea and Ethiopia, gave a speech announcing the freedom of the new country that set the entire city of Asmara into a blast of celebration, where “Eritrean liberation fighters were embraced, kissed on their cheeks…. lifted on shoulders of the crowd, and lauded as saviors of the nation” (36). However, that euphoric scene of celebration happened two years earlier in 1991 when the EPLF liberated the country. The celebration on the night of 1993 was only the second anniversary of independence, and the official celebration of the referendum for independence from Ethiopia. As diplomatically and historically significant as the speeches of the Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders were, they did not trigger any more jubilation than the other Independence Day anniversaries, because for Eritreans, independence came through two years earlier in 1991.

A similar error in the book is noted in the account that the Sawa military training replaced the last year of high school from its inception in 1994 (42). However, at the time, high school studies ended in grade 11, and students only went to Sawa after finishing their high school. The change only came about a decade later (in 2003) after a major amendment of the school system was implemented extending school years from 11 years to 12, where students had to study their final high school year in the military training camp while doing their military training,thereby being drafted into the national army.

Yet, the authors have contributed a substantial work that hopefully will help to provide a better understanding of the traumatic contexts many Eritrean refugees face in their homeland and the legal challenges they face in their destinations after fleeing persecution. While narrating the abuses and injustices inflicted by state, officials and house masters, the book also illustrates the love and kindness bestowed to Natsnet, not just from her family, but also from strangers who opened their homes, dedicated their time and resources and stood by her side, testifying to the goodness that still thrives in people, bearing a glimpse of light for those ever-seeking justice and safety.


*Yonatan Tewelde is webmaster and graphic designer of PEN Eritrea and can be reached at yenetam@gmail.com

 


 

 



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