After several months in slavery, Beatrice Fernando reached the point of no return. Standing on a fourth-floor balcony in Beirut, Lebanon, she realized there was “no other way to get home” but to “dive backwards.” In a recent interview she explained of her decision to step off the balcony: “When we take a step against slavery, the world will take another step.”
In 1980, at the age of 23, Beatrice had responded to an advertisement for work as a housemaid in Lebanon. She left her home country of Sri Lanka, intending to send money to her parents and her three-year-old son. But in Beirut she became a domestic slave. She was locked inside a home, starved, beaten, never paid, and forbidden from communicating with the outside world. Guards were instructed to shoot her if she tried to leave. After she reached a turning-point and escaped by jumping from the apartment’s fourth floor, she spent 21 days in a coma. Doctors told her that she was paralyzed. After 14 months in hospital she recovered from the paralysis and returned to Sri Lanka. In 1989 she came to live and work in the US.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you on the problem of slavery. I cannot believe that I am here, speaking to political leaders of the most powerful country in the world. If I close my eyes, the memories of pain take me back to a time when I felt all alone. It happened two decades ago, but it feels as if it were happening right now.
I am at the airport in Columbo, Sri Lanka, saying good-bye to my three-year-old son. With his eyes filed with tears, he asks: “Can’t I come with you, Mom? When you make a lot of money will you by me a car to play with?” I take him in my arms, my heart breaking, and tell him, “If I have the money, I will buy you the world.” My desperation to give him a better life has driven me to leave him with my parents, to go to Lebanon and be a maid.
At the job agent’s office in Beirut, my passport is taken away. The agency staff makes me stand in line with a group of women in the same predicament as me. Lebanese men and women pace in front of us, examining our bodies as if we were vacuum cleaners. I am sold to a wealthy woman, who takes me home to her mansion up on the fourth floor of a condo building.
My chores seem unending. I wash the windows, walls, and bathrooms. I shampoo carpets, polish floors, and clean furniture. After 20 hours I am still not done. There’s no food on my plate for dinner, so I scavenge through the trash. I try to call the job agency, but the woman who now owns me has locked the telephone. I try to flee the apartment, but she has locked the door.
I can feel the burning on my cheeks as she slaps me. It is night and her kids have gone to sleep. Grasping me by the hair, she bangs my head into the wall and throws me to the floor. She kicks me and hits me with a broom. If I scream or fight back, she will kill me. So I bite my lips to bear the pain and then I pass out. This is my daily routine, the life of a slave.
But now I am standing on the balcony of her condo, four floors up. I am holding onto the railing, staring down at the ground far below. I feel my heart rising. I miss my family, and I know my son is waiting for me. There is no other way to get home. I grasp the railing, close my eyes, and ask God for his forgiveness if I die now. This is no suicide attempt. I am desperate for freedom, not death. With the tiny hope that I might survive, I let go of the railing. I dive backwards into the night air. And I scream.
Dear leaders of Congress, how did a nice Sri Lankan girl like me end up jumping off a balcony in Lebanon? How did I end up in slavery? Could this have been prevented? And how did I survive the leap?... Let me make a few observations about the problem of human trafficking from the point of view of someone who experienced it.
1) We need more public awareness campaigns about the dangers of trafficking. I got swept up in human trafficking because I did not understand the risks. I needed to make money, and like many people from South and Southeast Asia, I pursued work in the Middle East. I didn’t know my passport would get taken away, and I didn’t know that I wouldn’t get paid.
We can reduce the power of traffickers by educating at-risk populations. People don’t know what can happen to them and can easily be tricked. So here is my suggestion: We need to make sure there are public service announcements and public education campaigns, not just in the US but around the world. For example, I am ready today to record a message for Sri Lankans, in Singhalese, telling them about what happened to me and warning them to be aware.
2) We need to monitor—and make sure other governments are monitoring—the job agencies that send so many people to work in the Middle East. In my case, there was an office in Sri Lanka and an office in Lebanon. The directors of these offices are both responsible for what happened to me. They did nothing to help me, and they never paid me. These agencies are sending thousands of people to work overseas. In fact, the population of Kuwait is two-thirds foreign workers. The percent of foreign workers in the United Arab Emirates is even higher. People like me are actually the majority, even though we have no guaranteed rights.
The waves of workers arriving in these countries come through job agencies, but the agencies are not being watched closely enough. One idea is to insist that agencies have registration programs, so relatives of workers can always track them down. My parents back in Sri Lanka were worried sick about me and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t answering their letters. But they had no way to reach me. We need accountability, and we should pressure governments around the world to monitor job agencies more closely. And job agencies should be made liable if employees’ rights are violated by the contracted employers.
3) We need to give survivors of slavery a platform to speak out and help other survivors recover. After I jumped off the balcony, I blacked out. I woke up later in the hospital, paralyzed. Eventually, I got a flight home to Sri Lanka. I didn’t speak much about what had happened to me. I was ashamed, and I quietly prayed to God for strength. Only a few years ago, I began to feel I was ready to discuss what had happened to me…
We need to remove the shame from slavery. To do that, survivors need to talk openly about their experience in order to help victims of trafficking recover. Our message is that there is no reason to be ashamed, even though you will at first feel ashamed. Our message is that you have to believe in yourself and hold on to your faith, even if people will treat you like an animal. There is a spiritual and psychological side to the recovery process that should not be neglected.
4) We need to have even tougher monitoring of foreign countries. Every year, the State Department’s annual report on trafficking should list the amount of money each country spends on anti-trafficking efforts. We need to evaluate if funding matches performance. The report should also document the repression of anti-slavery groups. For instance, in Mauritania the government still bans the abolitionist group SOS Slaves. The US should do more to support anti-slavery activists in repressive countries where the government doesn’t allow free discussion on the issue of slavery. And the US should fund a commission of government officials and NGO activists to ensure the liberation of all slaves in Sudan.
Dear congressional leaders, I speak before you on behalf of the millions of slaves who could not be here even if you invited them. Just a few weeks ago I read about an Indonesian maid enslaved in Bahrain who, like me, was so desperate that she jumped off a fourth-floor balcony. It pains me to think that two decades after I had to dive off a balcony to save my life, women are still facing the same agonizing situation.
We can be doing much more to help these women—and children and men. We need to educate them about the dangers of slavery before they get caught up. We need to monitor the job agencies that ensnare them. We need to help them overcome their shame after they escape. And we need to hold accountable the repressive governments that are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Narrative as told to the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee’s Sub-Committee on Africa, Global Human Rights, International Operations, March 9, 2005, in Washington DC, USA.