x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Where women can rebuild their lives

The Ewaa shelter network has given refuge to more than a dozen victims of human trafficking.

ABU DHABI // They come to the UAE lured by promises of tax-free salaries and jobs, scarce in their home countries. But after they arrive, some see those assurances disintegrate into servitude and prostitution. Ewaa Shelters for Women and Children has already helped nearly 20 of these victims of human trafficking since it launched in Abu Dhabi in January, said the executive director, Sarah Shuhail.

"We always hear the same story from these women," Mrs Shuhail said. "They were cheated into coming here and told that they would get a job as maybe a waitress or a secretary. They end up working as something very different." Referred by churches, the police, hospitals and embassies, shelter residents are given the aid they need to rebuild their lives, Mrs Shuhail said. And more facilities may be on the way.

"We plan to open other shelters, perhaps in Ras al Khaimah, or Al Ain ? anywhere where there is a need," Mrs Shuhail said, pointing out that the word "shelter" is plural in the organisation's name. "We ... are willing to open in other emirates around the country." Ewaa, which literally means "to shelter", can accommodate up to 30 women and girls. Currently there are some 15 women of various nationalities - some from eastern Europe, others from Arab states - who are starting to get back on their feet. Two women already have been voluntarily repatriated.

The idea for the shelter was announced last year and supported by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has provided the annual budget for the government-affiliated shelter, which falls under the UAE Red Crescent Authority. Sheikha Fatima has visited the shelter and donated the land and funding for a permanent facility, which Ewaa hopes to open in the next two years.

"We want it to be a model shelter," Mrs Shuhail said. Other plans include a website and a multilingual hotline, through which women can contact the shelter. The Dubai Women and Children's Foundation, which opened in 2007, is among similar organisations that aid trafficking victims. Housed in a villa in the capital, the women, some with children, are taking their first steps towards reclaiming their lives. They have use of a communal kitchen, treadmill, library, computers and a large garden. Classes in embroidery and painting are available. There also is a clinic with a doctor on call next door.

"We try to make a family-type environment. They came here to feel safe," said Maitha al Mazrui, the shelter's co-ordination and follow-up officer. The women can leave the compound when they wish, to go to church or shopping, but always are accompanied by a staff member. Care can be provided for up to six months. Even after the women return to their home countries, Ewaa remains involved with their cases.

"We try to help get them job opportunities and can also offer financial help through the other shelters and international agencies," Ms al Mazrui said. "We try to deal with the case as a human being and to solve her problem both here [in the UAE] and there." Three anti-trafficking cases have so far been launched through information gathered from the women. People found guilty of trafficking in the UAE face penalties prescribed in Law 51, introduced in 2006, including fines of up to Dh1 million (US$272,000) and possible life imprisonment.

Recently, the Government has stepped up enforcement of human trafficking laws. This week, the head of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking, Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, announced that 18 trafficking cases were handled by UAE courts in 2008, compared with 10 in 2007.
zconstantine@thenational.ae