How two Kerala women were lured into slavery in Kuwait in the name of a govt scheme

They were starved, abused and forced to do hard labour, besides being threatened that they would be sold to ISIS if they refused to cooperate.
How two Kerala women were lured into slavery in Kuwait in the name of a govt scheme
How two Kerala women were lured into slavery in Kuwait in the name of a govt scheme
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Rs 3,50,000. That was the price a group of people placed on two unsuspecting Kerala women, almost seamlessly sold by a Kochi-based ‘recruitment’ agency to a life of slavery in Kuwait. And if not for their grit and determination to survive, that would probably have been the life these women continued to lead.

Months after escaping their horrifying ordeal in the Gulf country, Rekha and Usha (names changed) have similar stories to share. Both of them were forced to find jobs abroad due to their helplessness because they had to feed their families and make ends meet. Their vulnerability was blatantly taken advantage of, and they were tortured to no end in an unknown land, far away from their homes.

“It was after I saw an advertisement in January 2022 calling for applicants for jobs as babysitters and home nurses in Kuwait that I decided to contact the phone number mentioned on the notice. The number belonged to a man named Anand, who asked me to visit their office at Chalikkavattom,” Rekha tells TNM. The staff at the agency, called Golden Via, made her a rather lucrative offer. If she were to work as a ‘babysitter’ (nanny), a monthly salary of Rs 60,000 and accommodation would be provided to her. She was told her only job was to babysit as the household had help for other jobs. What more, she did not even have to pay for the flight ticket or visa. “There were two women at the agency. They were very convincing,” she says.

The promises were too good to be turned down, admits Usha, who too was lured to Kuwait by the same agency with similar claims. “When I asked them why the visa and tickets were free, they said it was because the recruitment was happening under a Modi government scheme for women. We were told that we only had to pay for our medical check-ups and RT-PCR tests before leaving. They had convinced me that I was being sent to a good reputed firm,” she recalls. In fact, she was also told to collect her ticket, visa and passport from a man named Sameer, an ‘employee at the Union government’s Department of Foreign Affairs’, who was waiting for her at the Hotel Royal Wings in Nedumbassery. How can she not believe all this, she asks.

Rekha says that she was initially concerned when her visa said ‘housemaid’ on it. “When I asked them about it, they said it was just an adjustment, because I would have to pay money for the visa otherwise. It was because they promised me that their agent was sending me only for babysitting work that I let my concerns go,” she says.

Watch the trafficking victims describe their ordeal:

A nightmare in Kuwait

Both Rekha and Usha, who arrived in Kuwait on February 6 and 15 respectively, were welcomed at the airport by a man named MK Gassali, also known as Majeed, of the Zaid Zhaar Al-Dawsari Manpower Recruitment Agency. From there, it didn’t take long for things to go downhill. 

“When I asked Gassali for the details of the child I will be taking care of, he told me that I was not there for babysitting. He claimed that there was no visa that allowed workers to come for just babysitting. He said he was not answerable for my assumptions and that I should go and ask the person who told me this,” Rekha says, adding that the rest of her time in Kuwait was dominated by threats and inhumane treatment. Gassali had told her with finality that he had received Rs 3.5 lakh for her, and so she had no option but to go to the house he assigned her and take up domestic work.

MK Gassali's visiting card
MK Gassali's visiting card

Rekha was assigned to a big house of eight members. “I had to work from 7 in the morning to 11 in the night there, without proper food or rest. Now and then, they would give me one or two kuboos and black tea, just enough for me to have the energy to stand up, and stay alive. One day, when I was unable to stand up due to fatigue, the Arab’s wife came and kicked me, beat me up, poured water over my head, and made me stand under the hot sun. She was upset that my work was not done yet. I was so scared that I somehow resumed work,” she recalls.

Within about five days, Rekha’s health had worsened to the extent that her nose started to bleed. “All this time, I had constantly updated the agency regarding my situation. I had called Gassali on video and sent him pictures of my nose bleeding, but he paid no heed,” she says. “I was taken to a clinic eventually. But the clinic said I will have to be taken to a hospital. The Arabs just took me to the agency instead, probably because they did not want to go through the trouble of tending to me.”

However, the horror did not end there. “The next day, after claiming they were taking me to the hospital, the people at the agency picked me up from the room, took me to their office and locked me up there. The Arab at the agency started to threaten me and almost hit me with a belt. He said that they had given me to that family after collecting money from them, so I had to go back and work there again. They threatened to send me to the custody of terrorists if I didn’t do this, reminding me that my passport was still with them. On the very same night, they took me back to that house where I was beaten up.”

Understandably scared, Rekha resigned to her fate for the time being. “I tried my best and worked there for another week,” she says. But soon enough, without the necessary medical aid, her health worsened again. At one point, her blood pressure had increased to a point that it felt like one side of her body was becoming paralysed, she says. “The same story repeated. The family’s driver took me to the hospital. They said proper treatment was required and that I had to be taken to another hospital, so I was once again taken to the agency instead. All I wanted to do was go home by then.” 

Extortion and imprisonment by the agents

But her return home was not to be, or at least not as easily as she was brought to Kuwait. “Gassali told me that I had to pay Rs 3.5 lakh if I wanted to go home, because that was the amount of money he had collected from the Arab family for me. He had also confiscated my phone by then, and would give it to me only when I had to call home and ask for money,” Rekha says. Her son had filed a police complaint, but had to withdraw it after Gassali threatened to get her arrested in Kuwait. 

Rekha had also contacted Ajumon (of the Golden Via Kochi agency) on video call to talk to him about how she was being treated by Gassali. But Ajumon allegedly responded with a threat. “He said I would be sold to the Islamic State if I did not give the money they were asking for. He said I would not be able to see India for another 20 years. Eventually, because my health was worsening, they slowly started to reduce the money they were asking for from Rs 3.5 lakh. Finally, my son ended up transferring Rs 50,000 to Ajumon’s account.” 

A screengrab taken by one of the trafficked women while on a video call with MK Gassali
A screengrab taken by one of the trafficked women while on a video call with MK Gassali

In the meantime, Rekha was locked up in a room with a few other women, including Usha. “Once in a while, they will bring us some food. One time, they did not give us anything for two days straight. Even the medicine for my blood pressure was given by another woman in the room with me. They didn’t care if we were dead,” she says.

The nightmare is fresh in Usha’s mind as well. “I was also assigned to a house with a big family. There were five women, one man, and two kids. For the first two days, even though I was told that I was brought for baby care, I had to do everything from cooking, cleaning and gardening to washing and ironing the clothes of every member of the family. I was given no time to rest, and all they gave me as food was two kuboos buns per day,” she says.

Though she escaped from the house, at the time, her own home had still seemed like a faraway dream for Usha. “Gassali had beaten me up too, and threatened that if I or my husband did not give him Rs 3.5 lakh, he would instead find a way to get the money by selling me into prostitution or giving me to the ISIS in Syria. I was not given food or water, and was warned against talking to the other women (including Rekha) who were locked up in the room with me,” she shares.

Help comes, at last

It was through Usha’s husband that aid finally came. “With the help of [Advocate Nishin George], my husband contacted several people in the hopes that someone might be able to reach out to me in Kuwait. That was how the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC) and NGO Oruma got involved. I had sent my location to my husband, who in turn sent it to them. Later, two men appeared in front of the room we were locked in. When Gassali asked them why they were there, they said they had heard that some women were being locked up here without food or water. But Gassali abused them and forced them to leave.” 

Unfortunately, the agent immediately directed his ire towards the women. “He came into the room and asked us who had sent our location to other people. He beat me and tried to grab my phone,” Usha shudders as she recalls. At last, realising that many people have been clued into the workings of the agency, Gassali was forced to let us go, she adds. Along with Rekha and Usha, another Malayali woman was also allowed to leave.

But a vengeful Gassali continued to find one way or another to torture her, Usha says. “He did not pay me my salary, and instead arranged for me to get a connecting flight to Delhi and from there to Kozhikode, far away from my home in Kochi. It was with the money given by the people of the NGO that I was at least able to buy water. I am thankful to three people specifically — Sharafudheen sir, Habeeb sir and Rafeeq sir. They were the people who helped us come back home. If the association hadn’t helped, it is likely that we would still not have been able to escape,” Rekha says. “They may have let me go due to my ill health. But in the case of others, it is only because of the association’s involvement that this rescue happened. There are many people still stuck there, unable to escape. I hope no one else ever has to experience what we went through.” Rekha now hopes for strict legal action against all of the perpetrators.

Watch the trafficking victims describe their ordeal:

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