This time I was hired by a family that lived in Khaitan, a working-class neighborhood on the south edge of Kuwait City. The man had an imperious air about him and seemed not to be interested in anything beyond hiring a capable worker. By the time he arrived to hire me, the swelling around my eyes had diminished sufficiently to allow a smile to return once again to my face, but still I remained vigilant and always on guard. After completing the necessary forms with the agency and collecting my work visa, passport and few belongings, he led me to his car and drove to his house. The man’s dwelling wasn’t much of a house for a Kuwaiti. It was a small single-story house with a remote bathroom, which only included a squat toilet and a shower stall. While he showed me the house, I could not help but reflect upon the fact that there were many houses with outside bathrooms in Kommathurai that were far superior to the one that this Kuwaiti family had. There was no question that even with all its petrol reserves, there were great differences in the ways in which Kuwait’s oil wealth was distributed. While my new employer was showing me his rather humble premises, I noticed that there was a high wall surrounding his house with a locked gate. This was a clear indication that personal security ranked very high in this part of Kuwait.
Life in the new household was not much of an improvement over the one I had left. The place was not as dirty, but there was still a lot of cleaning and laundry to be done, and the family showed little interest in getting to know me. With three children, the place was crowded. And, I still had to keep my clothes and belongings stuffed in a plastic bag as there was no real space in the house that could be assigned to me. At night I slept wherever I could find a space for my mat, after everyone else had gone to bed. The worst part of my new job however, was the scrutiny and isolation under which I was constantly kept. As with the initial job I had had with the Egyptian family and the household I had just left, I was always kept under lock and key. However, this time was worse, as I was not even allowed to accompany anyone when they went to the market or had an errand to run, even if my presence might have been helpful to them. I was never slapped or otherwise abused, but I was terribly lonely and could not imagine spending three years of my life living under such conditions. Somehow, I would have to find a way out of this place too and find another job. However, this time my situation was considerably different. I could not return to the employment agency, and, even if I could find a way out of the house, I would have no identification once I was on the street. In such a position I would be extremely vulnerable and fair game for any man who might wish to abduct and mistreat me. The other danger, of course, was that were I to get picked up by the police or fail to find another job, I would certainly be deported back to Sri Lanka, and that would be the end of my dreams for helping the children. I would be forced to return to the little house that the hurricane of years before had mercifully left me, and be relegated to living in its unfinished condition—leaky roof, dirt floor, and thin little walls that lent not the least amount of privacy to anyone. However, by this time, I was more than a little inured to taking risks. In spite of all that had happened, I kept my faith and hope that things would get better. And, as long as I could breathe, I would keep on trying.
Being a fairly keen observer of the family’s routine, I noticed that the teenage son always left the house first, before the others were up. He went out the front door and left both it and the gate unlocked upon his exit, as the children’s father always locked them minutes later, when he took the younger ones to school. All in all, this could give me a window of five or ten minutes should I choose to run. It was risky, but given the way I was forced to live, I had to take the chance. I had sent off two letters (if anyone had bothered to post them), but otherwise no one knew of my well-being or whereabouts. There was no question that some of the stories that the housemaids had brought back to Kommathurai held considerable truth.
When Saturday morning arrived, I was well prepared to make my break. In the Islamic calendar, Saturday takes the place of Monday as the first day of the week. Friday represents the end of the week and is the day of prayer for the Muslim faithful. Holding my plastic bag tightly, I waited for the son to exit, and he did just as he always had. I allowed two or three minutes to elapse so he would be out of sight and on his way to the bus stop. Within seconds and with my heart pounding furiously, I grabbed the bag and slipped out the door. Outside the gate, I turned the corner and headed to another bus stop that the young Bangladeshi boy who handled the garbage duty had mentioned to me. It was some distance away, but with a few landmarks and the directions given to me, I was able to find it. I also had a handful of coins that the children, unbeknownst to their mother, had given me for doing small favors for them. They totaled less than a dinar, but were enough for bus fare. Following the boy’s directions, I reached the bus stop. In spite of being an obvious runaway, I nevertheless took a chance and asked an Egyptian man who was out washing his car which bus I should take to get to Salwa to find Mary’s house, and when it would arrive. He seemed very much aware of my circumstances and told me the bus number and when to expect it. He also told me to keep out of sight as he would tell me when it was approaching. Young women carrying garbage bags who were on the run posed a familiar scene in the city. Most were either attempting to seek asylum upon reaching their embassies or doing what I was doing—i.e., seeking out a friend who might help or hide them. In a few minutes, the man announced that the bus was arriving, and I dashed quickly out from behind the parked car where I was hiding and climbed aboard. I told the driver Mary’s street and block number, and he explained which buses would most likely get me there. Fortunately, he was an Indian man from Tamil Nadu, so he spoke my language, and thus not only gave me good directions, but passed along other important bits of information to make my trip considerably safer. I was well aware that I was in a very precarious position. The sight of men in uniform scared me as I knew they would ask me for identification, and I had none. Everyone living in Kuwait carried a bataka—a civil ID card, and the police could demand that it be presented anytime they asked for it. In addition, I was walking about without my passport, as it too, had been confiscated when I started work. I was little more than an outlaw in a strange country. What would I tell the police were I to be accosted? Should they arrest me, where would they take me? Would I be allowed to call Mary? Would the Kuwaiti man come to the police station, drag me back to his house, and beat me, making me even more of a prisoner? I tried to keep such thoughts out of my mind and concentrate wholly on finding Mary’s house. As I walked along the hot pavement, I tried to maintain an air of knowing what I was doing—e.g. taking a load of garbage to a nearby trash bin.
Totally exhausted and gasping for breath, I finally made it to Salwa and found Mary’s house. Mary was thrilled to see me.
“Pooranam, or is it Sandy?” Mary burst out. “I heard from Kanagamma that you changed your name over here. Anyway, I’m so happy that you came to see me so soon. How did you get here?”
“I’ve run away from my job. You’ll have to hide me for a while. I hope you don’t mind living with a runaway? The house where I worked was awful. I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I catch my breath.”