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In search of opportunity in wealthy Saudi Arabia, woman faces devastating abuse

When they discovered what I had done, my employer descended on me with severe beatings and made me go without food for days. I became a shadow of myself, unable to work.

  • 1 year ago
  • December 13, 2022
Saudi Arabia boasts many areas of great wealth and families often pay for cheap migrant workers to live and work in their homes Saudi Arabia boasts many areas of great wealth and families often pay for cheap migrant workers to live and work in their homes | Photo courtesy of by Mubin Ferdous on Unsplash
Interview Subject
Diana Chepkemoi is a student at Meru university, Central Kenya. Born and raised in the Rift Valley province, she left in 2017 to pursue her education at the university. She dropped out of school after one year due to financial constraints and because her mother became ill. When she could not find adequate employment, she took work in Saudi Arabia. Her story made headlines after news of her torture and illness became public. The Kenyan government was able to get her out Saudia Arabia and back home. She has since returned to college.
Background Information
A rise in abuse – or at least awareness of abuse – on Kenyan workers in Saudi Arabia has made headlines recently. Workers, especially women, have mysteriously died, fell ill, or have been injured while in the care of their employers. Families of the affected often seek to bring them home and many are petitioning the Kenyan government to stop this migration of workers to Saudi Arabia.

The Council on Foreign Relations explains, “The kafala system is a legal framework that has for decades defined the relationship between migrant workers and their employers in Jordan, Lebanon, and all Arab Gulf states but Iraq. It was created to supply cheap, plentiful labor in an era of booming economic growth, and its defenders argue that it benefits local businesses and helps drive development. But the system has become increasingly controversial, and there is growing recognition that it is rife with exploitation.”

As recently as May of this year, news reports indicated Saudi Arabia continued to attempt to hide the abuses from the world by raiding centers where they held migrant workers and removing phones so photos of the detestable conditions would not become public.

Many of the victims, like the one in this story, report that Kenyan contractors facilitate the contracts with Saudi employers but offer no support or protection of the workers they send abroad when problems arise.

MERU TOWN, Kenya ꟷ After dropping out of the university due to lack of finances, I needed to secure a job to continue my studies. The urgency became exasperated by mother’s illness and the financial stress of paying for my siblings’ education as well. After completing a year at Meru University toward a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Management, I tried unsuccessfully to find a job as a teacher at a private school. The university approved my transfer to another field of study in education, but my situation did not improve.

The jobs I found did little to cover my family’s needs. Watching my classmates progress through college devastated me. Back at my rural home, I would log into WhatsApp and feel so burdened seeing them move forward in their lives. When they talked about classwork, I cried. As my mother’s health worsened, it crippled our family. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to try my luck in Saudi Arabia.

Agent sends Kenyan woman to Saudi Arabia to work despite news of abuse

Despite previous news reports about Kenyans subjected to torture and even death in Saudi Arabia, I moved forward anyway, desperate to help my family. I connected with Susan Makhungu’s company, which offered jobs to Kenyans in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Her company would act as an agent, negotiate my contract abroad, and facilitate my travel expenses. I earned a job as a housekeeper or simply a maid.

Read about another Kenyan woman abused by employers in Saudi Arabia.

In July 2021, excited and full of hope, I travelled to Saudi Arabia to start my new job. After a few days, I began to realize my situation was not what I expected. My employers expected me to work from as early as 4:00 a.m. until as late as 11:00 p.m. I had to prepare the children for school, cook for and feed the pets, clean the dishes and the entire mansion, and maintain the compound. I had to do this daily.

One day, I cleaned the dishes later than usual and it turned into a horrific experience. The boss whipped me and threatened to repeat my punishment, but worse. Many Kenyans who have worked in these conditions will tell you of a special whip used by the bosses in Saudi Arabia. The boss made sure I knew I had to stay until the expiration of my contract. According to him, they could put me in jail if I continued to violate the terms.

After brutal beatings and starvation, social media outcry helps Kenyan woman return home

I often thought of my ailing mother back home and broke out in tears. When the mistreatment continued, I felt forced to reach out to my agent. It proved to be my undoing.

When they discovered what I had done, my employer descended on me with severe beatings and made me go without food for days. I became a shadow of myself, unable to work. Desperate, one day when the family left the house, I snuck away to find treatment.

The victim back home in Kenya | Photo courtesy of Diana Chepkemoi

In a total rush, I left my personal belongings and my mobile phone behind. At the hospital, they offered first aid but no actual treatment. Feeling completely neglected by the hospital, I thought I might succumb.

Before going to the hospital, however, I had narrated the whole ordeal in a Facebook and WhatsApp group of Kenyans working in Saudi Arabia. Little did I know many people back home began questioning my whereabouts. A Kenyan Twitter user made a public post about me, saying a Kenyan woman was suffering deeply in Saudi Arabia and needed urgent help. Kenyans all over social media petitioned the government to bring me home, and it worked! My country rescued me.

When I boarded the plane from Riyadh airport to fly home to Kenya on September 6, 2022, I remained in shock. It felt difficult to say what actually happened to me at that point but seeing my mother at the airport in Nairobi proved the most emotional moment of my entire life.

She burst into tears and hugged me warmly. Since then, I have been fortunate to receive funding from many well-wishers so I can finish my college education.

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