Domestic helper’s dreams shattered by years of enslavement

July 15, 2010

Two decades ago, she had a dream. A simple, perfectly plausible and achievable dream: To buy a house for her mother back home in Sri Lanka so that she could live the rest of her life in peace and dignity.

Kamalawathie Katawala was so passionate about her dream that she steeled herself to confront all challenges and make all the sacrifices to make it come true, including going away from the mother she loved dearly.

Deep in her mind, Kamalawathie thought that the separation would be short and that it would be a matter of fleeting months before she could earn enough money to change her mother’s living conditions forever.

However, years after she started nurturing her dream, Kamalawathie now wants only one thing: To go home and endeavour to overcome the years of pain and suffering she had to endure by merciless employers in a land known for the generosity of its people and the compassion of its residents.

The dream has bitterly faded and instead of the good salary and savings she dreamt of making, she had to go through an ordeal caused by a cruel and merciless employer who deprived her of peace and money for over 13 years.

Long painful years in prison-like conditions during which her mother, the core of her existence and the focus of dreams, has died.

Kamalawathie does not know that the mother for whose sake and love she left her native village and her family has passed away.

Kuwaiti daily Kuwait Times on Thursday reported the tragedy of the Sri Lankan domestic helper after it reconstructed her painful years through a highly emotional interview with her.

Kamalawathie, 57, has been working for her latest sponsor since 1997. She landed a job in Kuwait before the Gulf War in 1990, at first working for an Egyptian family. During the war to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait, she ran away with her Egyptian sponsor to Jordan. At the peak of the war, she was told to go back with her family to Sri Lanka and wait there until the end of the armed hostilities.

She dutifully went home and waited for the call to go back to Kuwait. However, the promise of the Egyptian sponsor to take her back to Kuwait never materialized.

Struggling to fulfill her dream of buying a house, she embarked on another overseas challenge and eventually obtained a new visa for a job in Kuwait. This time, she ended up working for people whom she calls ‘merciless employers’ in Jahra.

“Three days after arriving from Sri Lanka, I almost gave up. They beat me up and I sustained bruises; my head was also hit. They told me to continue working with them. I cried hard every day, but nobody listened. I stopped crying and accepted my fate,” Kamalawathie said.

One month after her arrival, she requested for her salary. “They asked me why I needed money. I told them because I was working to earn money. But they mocked me,” she said. “From then on, the same story was repeated every month. I would ask for my salary but I would never get any. They said they had no money. I really believed that since they did not have any air-conditioning facilities installed at home. I would sleep on the floor at night. I would place wet towels on their beds for cooling. I did the same to the place where I would sleep,” she said. Living conditions changed after a few years, she recalled, but not for her.

“After two years, I tried to escape. I went out, hid in the car with my bag. But when I tried to cross the street, they saw me. They quickly grabbed me, beat me up again and locked me inside the room for one day. They warned me against trying to escape again. They said they would kill me. So from then on, I did not make any attempt to escape. Not once,” she said, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Kamalawathie said that she was forced to obey orders. “I also stopped asking for money because I was really afraid,” she said.

Kamala, as she is called by friends, is not aware of the number of years that have elapsed since being ‘employed’ with her sponsor. She has lost count of days and months and remembers having tried to place an unsuccessful phone call to an acquaintance in her home town of Avissawela. Kamala is partially literate, she can count and read numbers.

Her fate was to change a few months ago, when Guita, a compatriot, arrived at her sponsor’s home to work as a domestic helper.

Guita soon suffered the same appalling conditions.

When Guita wondered why Kamala was not allowed to leave on vacation, the sponsor resorted to lies.

“They told Guita that I did not want to leave their home. They told her that I was sent to the airport many times but I refused to board the plane. But those are lies. I was never allowed to go to the airport, not even once,” she told Kuwait Times.

“When Guita planned to escape, I asked her not to leave me alone,” she said.

The two domestic helpers eventually snatched a life-changing opportunity on June 26. “We walked out and hid between passing cars so as to avoid being caught by our sponsor. When we reached a co-operative society, Guita asked me to hide behind bushes. The plan was to hire a taxi that would take us to the embassy. I waited for a long time and then decided to leave the hideout. I thought that our employer had caught Guita, so I took a taxi to the embassy,” she said.

However, one hour later, Guita arrived at the Sri Lankan embassy, and started pleading with officials there to help Kamala, obviously unaware that her friend was already there.

The reunion under the safe ceiling of their embassy was wonderful for them and the people who would offer them full care.

However, Kamala is still unaware of the fact that her mother whom she loved dearly had passed away almost a year ago, a Sri Lankan embassy official who had contacted Kamala’s family told Kuwait Times.

For the time being, Kamala looks forward to returning to her family, to be with her mother, two brothers and two sisters. She acknowledged that her dream to build a home for her mother was never fulfilled.

Sarath Dissanayake, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to Kuwait, has pledged to use all proper legal channels to resolve Kamala’s issue.



About the author

Born August 3, 1960 in Monastir, Tunisia
Media career:
  • ABC News (Tunisia)
  • Bahrain Tribune
  • Gulf News
  • Bahrain Television News
Teaching career:
  • Monastir (Tunisia)
  • University of Bahrain
  • MA  Mass Communications, University of Leicester
  • BA  in English & US literature and studies, University of Tunis

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