The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 32

dusty desert of Doha. Lola eased the small frustrations of my life.
My very young children came to love her, which I also grew to see
as an inevitable, if strangely cosmopolitan good.
During that year Lola and I talked a great deal, sharing stories
about our lives. I learned more about the dynamics that actually
brought her to the Middle East, besides grinding poverty.
Her family situation was incredibly complicated, and
while she was in Qatar to earn money for her children,
her being there also relieved some personal burdens. We
talked about her children, but she also shared stories of
friends and acquaintances caught in tragic employment
situations—disgusting stories of frequent sexual moles-
tation, and verbal and physical abuse. (These narratives
are depressingly common among domestic workers, as
are stories of female domestic employees “falling” from
upper story windows.)
“There are only two kinds of people I’ll work for,”
Lola once told me thoughtfully, “the Americans and the
Danes. They are the only ones who treat their nannies
well.” I was glad that she felt happy in our family, and
I loved that she felt I was doing right by her. But was
I? While it benefited her that I was a firm believer in
inalienable human rights, I cannot claim to have materi-
ally advanced her situation toward greater acquisition of
those rights.
The horrific stories we hear from nannies about their
compatriots living in difficult households or that are
written up in the newspaper enrage us. But I think they
also assuage our moral burdens by making the other
dehumanizing aspects of kafala pale by comparison.
Lola and her distant children were dependent on our
family’s good graces to pay her regularly, treat her fairly
and honor our commitments in her contract with us. Yet
we could have just as easily denied her basic human and
labor rights—and no one would have known, or acted to
stop us if they had. In fact, kafala culture looks down on
those who are too “soft” toward their employees.
In Jordan, we sponsored two domestic workers
at different times. The first, Jennie, was also from the
Philippines, and dutifully sent money back to support
her mother, brothers and sisters, and their families. She
started working full-time at age 12 in a clothing factory—“nice
clothes; Gap, that kind of stuff, Madam”—where she earned pen-
nies for her labor. Her widowed mother could not support her six
children with her own meager earnings. Already accustomed to
The same arguments were once used to justify the
American enslavement of Africans: “They’re somuch
better off than where they came from.”
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