I went to this cafe on Weibdeh planning on working on my story, but I thought I’d write a little bit about my process first. I’m currently working on a story about domestic workers in Amman. I don’t really remember what gave me this story idea, maybe I read something online about it or something. Or maybe before I came here, I had heard from someone that there were a lot of Southeast Asians coming to Jordan to work as domestic workers, including those from Indonesia. And when I came here, I wanted to look for an Indonesian community (expats, traders, businesspeople, domestic workers, whatever). Found one or two expats, but in the back of my mind I knew that the domestic workers’ community had to be there somewhere, and I wanted to find them.
I think part of it too was that the subject is pretty close to me, but I had never really thought much of it when I was growing up. In Indonesia, most everyone, from the lower-middle class upward, deals with domestic workers in some way shape or form. We called the domestic workers “pembantu,” which translates to “helper” or “maid.” Sometimes we call them “Mbak,” which is kind of a colloquial way of saying “Ms.” in Bahasa Indonesia. I had a few workers in my house back in Bogor, which is a 30-minute drive from Jakarta, the capital city where I would eventually move in sixth grade. When I was little, my family had a cook/housecleaner, a baby-sitter/housecleaner, and two drivers: one for my parents (they work out of town), and for my sister and I (we had a carpooling thing going on with kids from my neighborhood who went to the same school). We had a specific space for them, right next to our backyard behind our kitchen. They had a room (one of them would live with us and go home on the weekends), a bathroom, and some space to hang out. I grew up with them. I remember the cook’s kid used to come to our house and play. His name is Andri. I don’t care much for him, he was kind of an obnoxious kid, and I didn’t care much for younger kids anyway, even when I was still a kid. But I grew up with them nonetheless. My babysitter eventually got married and had kids. I think her family came to my house at one point? I don’t remember. But I do I remember visiting her house once with my family, in a neighborhood not far from where we live. But then my family moved around, first from Bogor to Jakarta, and then around South Jakarta. The maids and drivers living in our house would then change.
In some ways, the workers were like an extended family, they would know my extended family. We came to their weddings, gave them souvenirs when we went on vacation. They would know my friends, I would know my friends’ maids or drivers. I would tell them stories about my grade-school crushes and we would watch Mexican Indonesian-dubbed telenovelas (soap operas) together. They would watch Cartoon Network or Disney or Nickelodeon with me. They would sit with me as I watched CSI when I was 3rd grade, which prompted me to seriously consider a career as a ballistic expert. My parents were so OK with me watching crime shows that young, although they always covered my eyes during the violent/sexual parts, and that’s why they would only let me watch CSI without them as long as the maid was there with me.
Growing up, I didn’t really think domestic workers could be mistreated. My parents always treated them respectfully, and so I thought that was the only way you would treat them. When I would visit my friends’ house, I was sometimes surprised when my friends didn’t treat domestic workers the same way I did. I remember one of my friends said to me nonchalantly about her driver, “Why are you so nice to him? You can yell at him if you want.” I just kind of raised my eyebrows at her comment, like I remember thinking “gosh you’re such a brat fuck off.” One time she was out buying something at the convenience store when we were on our way somewhere, and I didn’t really want to get out of the car so I stayed with her driver. We just started making small talk and he just vented about how he felt annoyed with my friend snapping at him all the time. I thing I said something along the lines of like, “yeah, damn, she’s really rude to you, I’m sorry.” But of course domestic workers were personal matters for families, you don’t criticize how other people treat their workers, and that’s what makes the issue really complicated sometimes.
Of course when I moved to the States, there were no more maids, and I was OK with that. During Islamic holidays, typically the maids would go home to their families anyway, and my family would just go ahead and clean and cook and do laundry and go about our business as usual, so it’s not like housekeeping was totally new to me. But whenever I went back to Jakarta, I would always think, “you could just call out to someone and have your meal delivered to you? Have your laundry done for you? And ironed? damn what a luxury.” And it was, and I think deep down I had always knew it was a luxury, but I had never really thought much of it.
Anyway, here in Jordan, you can’t really generalize the experience of domestic workers, it really depends on the employer, the workers’ awareness before coming, the agency, etc. etc. Sadly though, there’s still so many people who experienced such bad things, even things close to slavery. For my story, I went to this NGO called Tamkeen in Amman, which provides support for migrant workers and interviewed the manager there. I could go more in-depth about the background of domestic workers in Jordan, but I suggest you just either go look it up or wait for my story and read it then. Anyway, I asked the folks at Tamkeen if they knew anyone I could talk to about their experiences, and they were just like “just stick around, usually people just drop in most days.” It took three visits, but on the third, two people did drop in, and guess what, they’re actually Indonesians. Their English wasn’t super and my Arabic was nonexistent, so I interviewed them in Indonesian, which felt super new to me. And then I realized I hadn’t actually spoken to people in Bahasa Indonesia much lately, so my grammar was a little weird at first.
I felt so bad for them, like, basically they were told they were gonna be in Jordan for two years, but their employers kept them longer and withheld their passports, and when they kind of “ran away” and went to the police station to report their situation, their employers found them and said if they wanted to leave their positions, the workers would need to pay JD2,500 worth (around $3,500) so the workers could officially transfer to a different employer. Well the workers paid like JD500 I think cause they obviously can’t pay JD2,500, esp. with the little amount they get from actually working (unfair wages are also a huge problem here). They don’t get breaks, they don’t get to go out of the house. In most cases, sexual and physical violence are also a thing. It’s literally like slavery. The Jordanian government has set regulations to protect those workers, but as I mentioned, because these matters were considered private between employers and workers, it’s challenging to enforce it.
But then on the flip side of that, there are also workers who really enjoy working for their employers, like a Sri Lankan woman I interviewed today. She went here expecting to work for two years, but because she liked her employer and the family treated her well, she stayed on. She’s been here 20 years, and married a Sudanese man whom she met in Amman, and they have two kids. She’s traveling to Sudan after Eid for two weeks to see her family, and she goes home to Sri Lanka every two years to see her parents, both of whom are really ill, she told me. But for the two Indonesians, I asked whether they’re going home for the Eid holiday. One of them answered “What holiday? I haven’t been home in eight years.” They both have kids whom they left when they were little, they’re now nine and 11, I think? I have to listen to my recordings again to be sure. But they said they Skype and chat through Facebook with their families regularly.
I’m glad they’re with far better employers now, although not officially because when they paid the JD500, the old employers didn’t sign the official transfer papers, so they couldn’t get a work permit and thus considered living here illegally. They’re now trying to obtain a Jordanian ID card so they could work legally. I’m glad they found Tamkeen and I’m confident they will get the help they need. When we parted, I pecked them both on the cheeks and said I really hope things will be easier from this point on. They’re in good hands.
It’s hard not to feel guilty. When you meet someone from your own country, you always feel some sort of bond with them. Kind of like, “hey, we’re in this strange new land together, we can help each other out.” But of course in this case, and in most cases, guilt is unproductive. But then again, I can’t help them out in the way I would like to, like legally or financially. I don’t have the capacity for that. What I can do, however, is tell their stories through the platform I have. The ultimate hope is, of course, that telling their stories will make a difference. Oh, how I really hope it will.