“I have a secret to tell you, Fadma,” I whispered while walking out to run an errand together. “What is it, Assya?” she asked. “I love you more than I love mom,” I said.
“Don’t say that! Your mom will be upset, maybe with both of us,” she replied and smiled.
She smiled because she knew that while that might have upset or hurt my mother’s feelings, it still wouldn’t have made her angry with us, had she found out.
I was 8 at that point in time, and I was actually a little worried about mom, after seeing how Fadma reacted. But now that I am an adult, and I have bounced back to loving my mother more, I think it is okay to let it out.
Fadma was our live-in helper, the person I spent the most time with from age 2 to 11.
She worked to support her family. My drive as an advocate for domestic helpers since childhood is fueled by her and my kind parents.
She left a great impression on our lives, cared for us and loved us while my parents taught me about modesty, altruism and fairness.
My mother worked full-time and managed to spend time with my sister and I, bathe us and cook for us a couple times a week, but for the most part Fadma did it all.
When I was 11, Fadma got an opportunity through my uncle to go live in Germany; it was hard to part ways, but I was happy she was going to Europe for a better shot at success.
Today she is married and works as a nurse. I had visited her a few years after her departure when I was 15. My father was treating my sister and I to a European tour and we stopped in Germany to visit our dear Fadma. We are still in touch with her and I intend to visit her again the first chance I get.
The word “maid”, which sounds awfully rude in Arabic (Khaddama), was abolished from our house, my parents preferring the word “helper”. So whenever someone asked who that extra girl was, we would say she was a relative, or a girl who lived with us to help us.
She and all the helpers that followed her had been treated like family; we ate together, sometimes traveled together, shared wardrobes, and dined out at whatever restaurant we went to. My father and uncles are quite conservative so they didn’t eat together at the same table as the female helper, but when that happened I would opt for eating with her and catch up with my father later.
As I write this, I feel a smile on my face as I have this beautiful flashback of my mother translating some dishes off a French menu to one of the helper girls, Aicha, who took her sweet time picking her favorite dish while the waiter hovered about waiting to take her order.
During my first attempts last year to inspire and change some mindsets through social media, and since the geographic areas I aim to target are North African, the Middle East and the Arab Gulf, I was consequently faced with a substantial number of cynical people who believed I was pretending to be a good Samaritan.
They simply could not fathom that some people out there treat helpers like equals. But I was also delighted to have inspired a larger number of individuals who either shared my views, or expressed their intention to quit using the word “maid.”
Sadly, in the Arab world, some people with live-in helpers would not use the helper’s name when they mention her, but instead refer to her in rude denigrating names, and even shout out “hey maid” when calling her; a call which she would have to hastily respond to with a brisk walk because if she walked at a normal pace, she could risk precipitating the “master’s” anger, get criticized and possibly punished.
Most of these helpers are not given a day off; they get burnt out physically and emotionally, their nervous system crashes and allows room for dark thoughts of suicide or revenge; to name a few examples of the horrific consequences caused by the unnecessary humiliation and discomfort those people with a superiority complex induce on helpers simply for the pleasure of exercising control, impress and validate themselves in front of fellow shallow friends or relatives.
I am writing this on behalf of all the people who are appalled by those who treat helpers like an inanimate object, a punching bag, a sub-human at best, on behalf of those who realize the serious impact of the masters’ mentality and malevolence.
I sometimes wonder if these people lost their soul, or ever heard of the “put yourself in their shoes” concept, or if they simply have no emotional intelligence. The world could be a much better place, almost a perfect one, if every person paused and pondered: “What if I was born in that person’s place, how would I want to be treated?”
But the tragic reality is that a lot of people are too proud of their citizenship, family history, or inheritance, as though they had worked hard towards achieving that status in their previous life.
How would life be without house helpers, to clean, cook, and help raise the children? And how would it hurt anyone if he or she made the effortless switch of terminology from maid “Khaddama” to helper “Musaa’ida”?
Imagine the positive impact that change would have on the psyche of that helper who voluntarily estranged herself from her spouse, children or parents to provide for them.
A few months ago, as I was on Twitter, I came across a photo of a young Kuwaiti gentleman named Mohammad Al-Robaian; the photo was a collage of four photos he took in Sri Lanka, with Biso, the helper who served in his parent’s house for 20 years.
People were widely circulating the photo, probably because they were touched by the unmistakably emotional moments of Al-Robaian and Biso hugging, or the heartfelt happiness reflected in their big smiles; and perhaps other people shared the photo because they were shocked by the modesty of Al-Robaian, the family vibe and happiness in the air between these two people despite the obvious contrast in skin color and social classes.
After a small search online, I have found other examples of “astonishing” humility, such as a photo of An Arab groom happily posing with his elderly helper; who was referred to as a “maid” throughout the comments thread.
As I had already officially began planning my advocacy for helpers in writing, the moment I fortuitously saw Al-Robaian’s viral photo I decided to track him and collect a few clarifications before I featured his story in this article, which I had coincidentally intended to write.
I tweeted looking for him, and within an hour someone was kind enough to guide me to Al-Robaian, who was more than happy to share his story about Biso.
While most people believe she was a helper at his house, he clarified that she was the family cook for 20 years since he was two, and which were the best years of his life. He passionately described her as the kindest soul on earth, and as someone who made their life warmer and more humble. His parents were also very kind to her. We can’t give the full credit for the humane and caring relationship between a helper and a child to the parents, but great role models undoubtedly affect the perception a child vis-à-vis his surroundings and interpersonal relationships.
I would like to share with you these genuine words he had to say on Biso. My happiness to have talked with someone who experienced the same type of attachment and love I felt for Fadma, was beyond words; a melange of nostalgia and joy for knowing a positive influencer.
“As I am a grown man today, I look back at my past memories and say I had a phenomenal woman from Sri Lanka that cooked and cleaned for us just like any loving mother would do for her children. She may have come to Kuwait and into our home out of poverty, but she very much enriched our lives with her uplifting smile, heavenly patience and endless love. That’s why I pledged to visit her in Sri Lanka and spend a week with her as soon as I graduate from University. And that was the most meaningful trip I have ever made in my life,” said Mohammad Al-Robaian.
I hope that readers can somehow join me in raising awareness on the importance of dignifying treatment of helpers. For those who share these humane values, please share your vision with more people around you, and with whoever you believe should treat helpers better. I know they will likely get mad but you will definitely make them think.
My efforts will not stop here, but I would like to conclude by highlighting that the goodness one can reap by dignifying helpers will assuredly bring more good to him and his family than it would to these helpers he hired and decidedly cannot do without.
Also published on Saudi Gazette