x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

The UAE shelters where broken lives are healed

Behind the walls of an unobtrusive villa, inspired by an Emirati woman's quiet determination, young women and children who have suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of human traffickers are having their lives rebuilt.

There are three shelters in the UAE, one each in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah. In the three and a half years since their opening, they have housed and helped about 170 women and children, victims of human trafficking.
There are three shelters in the UAE, one each in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah. In the three and a half years since their opening, they have housed and helped about 170 women and children, victims of human trafficking.

A television set blares from the far side of the vast, bright kitchen in which two young girls sit, though neither pays it much heed. Instead they flick amiably through magazines, their chatter giving way to laughter as each playfully tries to avoid having to prepare lunch for the household.

As a scene of quiet midweek domesticity it is so entirely unremarkable that it makes the truth almost impossible to believe.

The truth is that both these girls are victims of human trafficking. They have been tortured, beaten and exploited. They came to the UAE from North Africa - sold a lie, held against their will and forced to work as prostitutes.

And this villa in Abu Dhabi is not their home, it is their sanctuary. They arrived at its door in the small hours of one morning last week desperate and afraid, barely able to speak of what they had endured.

"The stories are always different," says Sara Shuhail, "and they are always the same."

It is just over three years since Sara opened this, the first Ewa'a Shelter for Women and Children. During that time the non-profit organisation has opened a further two shelters - one in Ras Al Khaimah and one in Sharjah - and provided temporary refuge to nearly 170 women and children.

They come from Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Thailand … they come from all over the world in the hope of finding something better, only to find themselves exploited.

Last month Sara's contribution as the organisation's chief executive and founder was recognised when she was named Most Inspirational Arab Woman at L'Officiel Abu Dhabi Arab Women Awards.

Meanwhile the front-line experiences gained through Ewa'a have been instrumental over the past year in guiding the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking as it works to amend the federal law on the issue. The final draft has just been completed and, Sara and her team hope, it will be passed soon.

Smiling, Sara says: "We started talking to the National Committee last year and I am happy that our experiences can help focus on the rights of the victims and contribute to the legal process.

"As for the award, I was very pleased of course, but I didn't expect it. All we are thinking about here, every day, are the victims and how we can help these women and children. How can we give them back their lives, their families, their homes?"

Ewa'a - "shelter" in Arabic - was established in 2008 by federal law, part of the nation's effort to combat human trafficking and provide for its victims.

After 31 years working in education, first as a teacher and more recently at the ministry, Sara admits that, though flattered when asked to lead the project, she had no notion of the true scale and nature of the problem.

She explains: "This was something so new to me that I was a little afraid. But I knew I had to do it and so we started, just four of us, from the very beginning.'

There is still a tight core team around which an increasingly sprawling organisation has grown. The coordinator and follow-up officer, Maitha Ghanim Al Mazrui, was one of that small start-up team. Today she remains key to the running and development of the shelters, along with the operations manager, Meera Hayai Al Mansoori.

In both practical and theoretical terms the women started from scratch. They read every textbook and article they could, and sought out international experts and guidelines.

"The first thing we faced was denial from many people," Sara reflects. "The denial, I think, is something normal in Islamic and Arabic society. Nobody wants to believe it happens but people are beginning to realise the truth."

Sara searched Abu Dhabi for a suitable villa. It had to be large enough to give the women and children space to feel at home after weeks, months, in some cases even years, of bondage. There had to be a swimming pool for relaxation, a garden for them to walk around and rooms that could be converted into craft rooms, classrooms and a small clinic. Most of all it had to be private and secure.

"Finally I found the villa," she says, "and we started to prepare from A to Z."

In the beginning Sara and her team practically lived with the women they cared for, sharing their office space with the victims' living space. It helped them to understand the women's needs, she says. "It is one thing to hear the stories but it is another to live with them, to eat with them and cook with them and see the trauma and stress and the heartbreak."

Meera still all but lives at the shelter - closed-circuit cameras cover every angle of the villa and Ewa'a facilities in the other emirates. All are monitored by Meera from her office and when she goes home she can continue to observe them on her laptop.

Pausing, Sara reflects: "Really the only way we can do anything is that we learn as we go along. You can't know until you start dealing with the reality what they really need and how we can really help."

There are five women in the shelter at the moment, though it can house up to 60 and recently had 40 in its care. The process through which they all move is now perfected to the point of routine. For the first two to three days of her stay at the shelter a victim is simply cooked for and cared for, made to feel safe. She is given a medical check and offered any treatment needed but there is no attempt to investigate her experiences in detail unless she volunteers it.

Only after she has settled is she spoken to by a psychologist or questioned by police, who visit the shelter in civilian clothing so as not to frighten the victims or draw attention to the otherwise anonymous villa. The team liaise with embassies to provide pass papers, usually in the absence of any identifying documents, and maintain contact with agencies looking after victims' welfare even after they have returned home.

In the beginning, Sara says, she was shocked by what she witnessed and heard. She struggled to believe that human beings were capable of inflicting such cruelty. She recalls the educated businesswoman, told that there was a job for her in the UAE, who instead fell into the hands of traffickers.

Her papers were taken from her at the airport, she was taken to a high-rise flat, abused and held prisoner for three days. She broke everything she could in a desperate bid to escape, ultimately doing so through a window. She arrived at the shelter's doors - brought there by police, with whom Ewa'a works closely - with her hands, arms and feet covered in cuts.

The victims are encouraged to express themselves through art and craft. Brightly coloured tapestries in the craft room carry poignant messages and fragile hopes. One reads simply: "My Baby I Miss You," and was stitched by a young Indian woman longing to be reunited with her child. For some of the victims it is the first time they have ever been offered the chance to express themselves through art.

Some of their works were recently exhibited in conjunction with Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation at the Ghaf Gallery in Khalidiya under the title Silent Voices.

Sara says: "That was so important for us and for them. We gave them the colours and they just put all of themselves into the painting. Some of them painted a picture that was their family. Some of them painted a picture and said: 'This is the face of the man who made me suffer.' For all of them it meant so much that people wanted to know and to share that."

The explanatory notes that accompany the works make for heart-tugging reading: the 14-year-old expressing love for her family although they sold her, the 26-year-old asking not to be judged, the 30-year-old knowing that everything around her is dark but sensing, somewhere, a ray of hope.

Sara says: "These women have escaped things you cannot dream of. They come here destroyed - by the traffickers, by the customers. Sometimes they are pregnant.

"Sometimes we find their trafficker's name tattooed on them," Sara thumps her fist on her desk in a brief flash of anger. "Like a stamp. What we face is more than you can imagine."

One suspects that all the victims who pass through the shelters remain with Sara on some level. But as a mother of six - her eldest is 32, her youngest 21 - she admits that it is the younger victims who affect her most profoundly.

"We have to be stronger than they are or we cannot help. But sometimes it is very hard. One little girl remains with me. She was 5 years old. She had been trafficked by her parents. She was found dancing in the clubs.

"What was so hard was that she thought what was happening was right. She kept asking, 'Why did my mum say this is right? Why did my dad say this is normal?'

"With adults they can talk to psychologists and it is easier. But she was just a little child. They have stolen her life from the beginning."

That little girl has since been returned to her home country - into the care of relatives, but not her parents, who are serving prison sentences for their crime.

Sara is modest in her acknowledgement of the part she plays in all of this. She is quick to cite as her own inspiration Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the widow of Sheikh Zayed, who is a regular visitor to the shelter offering practical and moral support. But there is a determination about Sara that is, for all her attempts to deflect praise, quietly and undeniably impressive.

"These victims need hope as much as they need help. To give them that is an accomplishment in itself, but it is not enough.

"There will always be critics who say you cannot solve this problem. Yes, it is a battle, but we must fight it. We must fight it every day."

lcollins@thenational.ae