On the second part of our Gulf of Despair series, we pull back the curtain on what really transpires to some of the African migrants in the Middle East who are not fortunate enough to gain employment. From ‘selling apps’ to phony interviews, Sylvia reveals some of the tribulations she went through and her resolve to persevere regardless.
I do not need to mention that Dubai is a very beautiful city. Our first week in Dubai was spent touring and admiring the creativity and technology. We were excited and thankful that we had made it here. The only thing I can say was uncomfortable in Dubai was having to sleep in ‘bed-space.’ Having to share a bedroom with ten people, and a kitchen and bathroom with thirty other people daily is exactly as it sounds. Intolerable.
The lack of privacy, since they were gender-neutral spaces, was just one of the challenges we faced. It is not a place where you would be assured of a good night’s rest after a long day at work. While some would want to hit the sack after a long shift, there were those who would be waking up to apply for online jobs, playing music, or just having a loud chat.
That would be followed by a scramble for the bathroom, which was the most frustrating, especially if you had a job interview that you needed to rush to. All in all, the people there lived like one big family, becoming each other’s great support system. Some took it upon themselves to brief us on the country’s job search system, the despicable men we would encounter, the scams and tricks they knew of, and all the do’s and don’ts. They really tried their best to make us feel at home.
As previously mentioned, I was to share a bed with Sylvia because our travel company was more interested in saving money, rather than our wellbeing. So they rented one bed for both of us. After we got dumped and blocked by the travel agency, all we had was each other in this foreign country. This meant that we not only shared almost everything, but we also did everything together. This made our bond stronger to the point where I started seeing her as my little sister. We applied for jobs every chance we got with the hopes of getting employed before our three-month visa ran out.
Sylvia was more fortunate when it came to getting a job. She got her first job at a new restaurant which was still attracting clients. One of her duties entailed walking around the beach and enticing people to the restaurant. She was very excited and was willing to go above and beyond to perform her duties perfectly. It’s every parent’s joy knowing that their child’s dreams are coming to pass so when she told them about it, they were very happy about it.
Her boss told her to start working as he processed the contract documents, which she did without hesitation. I was elated, at least one of us had started working. It was a sign that mine was on the way, just like the nimbus cloud that shows up when it is about to rain. I would wake up early to prepare her for work, ensuring she not only looked smart but wasn’t tardy. At times, she would come home with nice food that her boss had bought for her.
Days turned into weeks, yet neither an offer letter nor a job contract was forthcoming. This made me uncomfortable so I asked her to demand for it instead of waiting for him to bring it up. I wrote down a list of things that she needed to know from her boss — the terms of payment, whether she was to be given an employment visa, the number of working hours, and the days off. When she approached him, he assured her that he would bring it the following day.
He showed up to work three days later with the assurance that his business partner was the one who was coming with it. She waited for three weeks, hoping they were not taking advantage of her before she started getting frustrated. Having run out of money —up until that point she had been using her own money for transportation to and from work —she asked her boss for an advance.
To her utter surprise, he asked her not to come again, claiming that the restaurant was getting closed. He set her off without any compensation for the time spent working for him, and on her own visa. With no way of substantiating her exploitation, she had no choice but to walk away timidly. Afraid of breaking her family’s heart over what had transpired, she chose to stay mum about it, reassuring them that all was well whenever they asked her about work.
By then, our visas only had two months left. The one-month rent the travel company had paid had already expired so we had to pay from our own pockets. The food we had come with from Uganda had got finished, leaving us to survive on the little pocket money we still had, making sure we never touched our ‘job commission’ money.
While I was contemplating whether to study coffee making and be a barista with my commission money, Sylvia was determined to use hers for its intended purpose; paying an agent to connect her to a job. She was optimistic that she would be legitimately employed because people were shifting from the bed-space to their job accommodation on a daily basis, having paid agents
There are job seekers’ WhatsApp groups where different people, especially job agents, post jobs, and interested candidates can apply. Sylvia came across a waitress job post in one such group and immediately texted the person who had posted it. The agent promptly gave her more details about it, after which they made an appointment to meet the following morning, and he would take her for the interview.
He insisted that she should come with his commission money of 1200 dirhams, but she wouldn’t have to pay before confirming that she had passed the interview and gotten the job. Everything went smoothly. She aced everything and even signed the offer letter and contract right away. She was told to come back to the office after two days, with her belongings, after which she would be taken to company accommodations, and be oriented to work later.
This was her prayer eventually answered. She honored her promise and unquestioningly gave him the money. I came back from my Barista class to the good news of Sylvia having finally got a job, with a contract this time. Again, I was happy for her since the terms on the contract were very alluring. On the day she was told to report, she called the agent that morning but his phone was off, and he was offline. We called the manager that had interviewed her but it was all in vain.
When we went to their office since she was familiar with the place, we found an empty space. There was no one. No computers or files, the entire setup was gone, with only the furniture remaining. We tried to call them again and found we had been blocked. That’s when we realized she had been scammed. Her treasured commission money was gone. This was too much for her to bear, and she literally broke down in tears and screams. The whole situation depressed her so much, and for the next few days, she refused to eat anything.
Eventually, she picked herself up, cognizant of the fact that she was in a foreign country, and continued to inquire about any available job vacancies. One of our roommate’s friends directed us to one that luckily did not involve any commission. Her boss was looking for African girls to market an app and make as many sales as possible. All we had to do was look good and be confident whenever we approached potential clients. It sounded great and genuine since there was no money required.
Surprisingly when we met her boss, he did not have any questions for us; instead, he told us to change into better-looking outfits. Two skimpily clad ladies with too much make-up asked us to take off the trousers we had on and handed us attires similar to theirs. Our gut feeling warned us that something was amiss, so we switched to our dialect and agreed to go along with whatever they told us and see where it would lead to.
When the boss came back, he looked impressed by our transformation and reiterated that we needed to be friendly with our clients, which will convince them to buy our app. The more sales we make, the more money we earn. Unexpectedly, he started touching us inappropriately as he was talking to us, which really infuriated me. As I was about to push his hand away, I noticed Sylvia was fighting back tears and when our eyes met, she started weeping uncontrollably.
At the realization that we had no clue what was afoot, he immediately stepped back startled. He then asked the lady who had brought us if she had briefed us on what was really expected of us. Apparently, the ‘app’ that they were referring to was prostitution. He thoroughly scolded her for bringing in amateurs and sent us on our way for ‘failing the interview.’ Thank goodness for that.
It was back to the drawing board for us, but now a bit wiser and more careful. It is either we make it, or we make it. There is no other alternative because this is the reason why we left our homes and families, to spread our wings and conquer this new world. No one ever said it was going to be easy, and we are not about to give up without a fight. This world is tough, but we are going to be tougher. At this juncture, we only had one month left on our visas and were in desperate need of real, legitimate jobs. Time was simply not on our side.
Tears roll as I read this article ,very good touches there , it’s from the bottom..