In Africa, children of the poor are commodities, often traded like cows or donkeys by adults who value their labor. This story on child maids is the third in an occasional series on the exploitation of African children. Each story stands on its own.
IRVINE, California — Late at night, the neighbors saw a little girl at the kitchen sink of the house next door.
They watched through their window as the child rinsed plates under the open faucet. She wasn't much taller than the counter and the soapy water swallowed her slender arms. To put the dishes away, she climbed on a chair.
But she was not the daughter of the couple next door doing chores. She was their maid.
Shyima was 10 when a wealthy Egyptian couple brought her from a poor village in northern Egypt to work in their California home. She awoke before dawn and often worked past midnight to iron their clothes, mop the marble floors and dust the family's crystal. She earned $45 a month working up to 20 hours a day. She had no breaks during the day and no days off.
Illegal but common in Africa
The trafficking of children for domestic labor in the U.S. is an extension of an illegal but common practice in Africa. Families in remote villages send their daughters to work in cities for extra money and the opportunity to escape a dead-end life. Some girls work for free on the understanding that they will at least be better fed in the home of their employer.
The custom has led to the spread of trafficking, as well-to-do Africans accustomed to employing children immigrate to the U.S. Around one-third of the estimated 10,000 forced laborers in the United States are servants trapped behind the curtains of suburban homes, according to a study by the National Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley and Free the Slaves, a nonprofit group. No one can say how many are children, especially since their work can so easily be masked as chores.
Once behind the walls of gated communities like this one, these children never go to school. Unbeknownst to their neighbors, they live as modern-day slaves, just like Shyima, whose story is pieced together through court records, police transcripts and interviews.
"I'd look down and see her at 10, 11 — even 12 — at night," said Shyima's neighbor at the time, Tina Font. "She'd be doing the dishes. We didn't put two and two together."
Going to America
Shyima cried when she found out she was going to America in 2000. Her father, a bricklayer, had fallen ill a few years earlier, so her mother found a maid recruiter, signed a contract effectively leasing her daughter to the couple for 10 years and told Shyima to be strong.
For a year, Shyima, 9, worked in the Cairo apartment owned by Amal Motelib and Nasser Ibrahim. Every month, Shyima's mother came to pick up her salary.
Tens of thousands of children in Africa, some as young as 3, are recruited every year to work as domestic servants. They are on call 24 hours a day and are often beaten if they make a mistake. Children are in demand because they earn less than adults and are less likely to complain. In just one city — Casablanca — a 2001 survey by the Moroccan government found more than 15,000 girls under 15 working as maids.
The U.S. State Department found that over the past year, children have been trafficked to work as servants in at least 33 of Africa's 53 countries. Children from at least 10 African countries were sent as maids to the U.S. and Europe. But the problem is so well hidden that authorities — including the U.N., Interpol and the State Department — have no idea how many child maids now work in the West.
"In most homes, these girls are not allowed to use so much as the same spoon as the rest of the family," said Hany Helal, the Cairo-based director of the Egyptian Organization for Child Rights.
By the time the Ibrahims decided to leave, Shyima's family had taken several loans from them for medical bills. The Ibrahims said they could only be repaid by sending Shyima to work for them in the U.S. A friend posed as her father, and the U.S. embassy in Cairo issued her a six-month tourist visa.
It had no windows and was neither heated nor air-conditioned. Soon after she arrived, the garage's only light bulb went out. The Ibrahims didn't replace it. From then on, Shyima lived in the dark.
She was told to call them Madame Amal and Hajj Nasser, terms of respect. They called her "shaghala," or servant. Their five children called her "stupid."
While the family slept, she ironed the school outfits of the Ibrahims' 5-year-old twin sons. She woke them, combed their hair, dressed them and made them breakfast. Then she ironed clothes and fixed breakfast for the three girls, including Heba, who at 10 was the same age as the family's servant.
Neither Ibrahim nor his wife worked, and they slept late. When they awoke, they yelled for her to make tea.
While they ate breakfast watching TV, she cleaned the palatial house. She vacuumed each bedroom, made the beds, dusted the shelves, wiped the windows, washed the dishes and did the laundry.
Her employers were not satisfied, she said. "Nothing was ever clean enough for her. She would come in and say, 'This is dirty,' or 'You didn't do this right,' or 'You ruined the food,"' said Shyima.
'I thought this was normal'
She started wetting her bed. Her sheets stank. So did her oversized T-shirt and the other hand-me-downs she wore.
While doing the family's laundry, she slipped her own clothes into the load. Madame slapped her. "She told me my clothes were dirtier than theirs. That I wasn't allowed to clean mine there," she said.
She washed her clothes in a bucket in the garage. She hung them to dry outside, next to the trash cans.
When the couple went out, she waited until she heard the car pull away and then she sat down. She sat with her back straight because she was afraid her clothes would dirty the upholstery.
It never occurred to her to run away.
"I thought this was normal," she said.
'Sense that children should work'
If you could fly the garage where Shyima slept 7,000 miles to the sandy alleyway where her Egyptian family now lives, it would pass for the best home in the neighborhood.
The garage's walls are made of concrete instead of hand-patted bricks. Its roof doesn't leak. Its door shuts all the way. Shyima's mother and her 10 brothers and sisters live in a two-bedroom house with uneven walls and a flaking ceiling. None of them have ever had a bed to themselves, much less a whole room. At night, bodies cover the sagging couches.
Shown a snapshot of the windowless garage, Shyima's mother in the coastal town of Agami made a clucking sound of approval.
"It's much cleaner than where many people here sleep," said Helal, the child rights advocate. He explains that Shyima's treatment in the Ibrahim home is considered normal — even good — by Egyptian standards.
Even though many child maids are physically abused, child labor is rarely prosecuted because the work isn't considered strenuous. Many employers even see themselves as benefactors.
"There is a sense that children should work to help their family, but also that they are being given an opportunity," said Mark Lagon, the director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
That's especially the case for well-off families who transport their child servants to Western countries.
In 2006, a U.S. district court in Michigan sentenced a Cameroonian man to 17 years in prison for bringing a 14-year-old girl from his country to work as his unpaid maid. That same year, a Moroccan couple was sentenced to home confinement for forcing their 12-year-old Moroccan niece to work grueling hours caring for their baby.
Taken with parents' permission?
In Germantown, Md., a Nigerian couple used their daughter's passport to bring in a 14-year-old Nigerian girl as their maid. She worked for them for five years before escaping in 2001. In Germany, France, the Netherlands and England, African immigrants have been arrested for forcing children from their home countries to work as their servants.
Shyima's mother, Salwa Mahmoud, said her father believed she would have better opportunities in America.
"I didn't want her to travel but our family's condition dictated that she had to go," explained Mahmoud, a squat, round-faced woman with calloused hands and feet. She is missing two front teeth because she couldn't afford a dentist.
"If she had stayed here in Egypt, she would have been ordinary," said Awatef, Shyima's older sister. "Just like us."
Living in a garage
On April 3, 2002, an anonymous caller phoned the California Department of Social Services to report that a young girl was living inside the garage of 28 Pacific Grove.
A few days later, Nasser Ibrahim opened the door to a detective from the Irvine Police Department. Asked if any children lived there beside his own, he first said no, then yes — "a distant relative." He said he had "not yet" enrolled her in school. She did "chores — just like the other kids," according to the police transcript.
Shyima was upstairs cleaning when Ibrahim came to get her. "He told me that I was not allowed to say anything," said Shyima. "That if I said anything I would never see my parents again."
When police searched the house, they turned up several home videos showing Shyima at work. They seized the contract signed by Shyima's illiterate parents.
Asked by police if anyone other than his immediate family lived in the house, Eid, one of the twins, said: "Hummm ... Yeah ... Her name is Shyima," according to the transcript. "She uh ... She works — she works for us at the house, like, she cleans up the dishes and stuff like that."
Twelve-year-old Heba got flustered: "Yeah. She's uh — my — uh — How do I say this? Uh ... My dad's ... Oh, wait, like ... She's like my cousin, but — She's my dad's daughter's friend. Oops! The other way. Okay, I'm confused."
Heba eventually admitted that Shyima had lived with the family for three years in Egypt and in California.
The police put Shyima in a squad car. They noted her hands were red and caked with dead, hard-looking skin.
Shyima lied for months
For months Shyima lied to investigators, saying what the Ibrahims had told her to say.
She went without sleep for days at a stretch. She was put on four different types of medication. She moved from foster home to foster home. Her mood swings alarmed her guardians. In school for the first time, she struggled to learn to read.
Investigators arranged for her to speak to her parents. She told them she felt like a "nobody" working for the Ibrahims and wanted to come home. Her father yelled at her.
"They kept telling me that they're good people," Shyima recounted in a recent interview. "That it's my fault. That because of what I did my mom was going to have a heart attack."
Three years ago, she broke off contact with her family. Since then she has refused to speak Arabic. She can no longer communicate in her mother tongue.
During the 2006 trial, the Ibrahims described Shyima as part of their family. They included proof of a trip she took with the family to Disneyland. Shyima's lawyer pointed out that the 10-year-old wasn't allowed on the rides — she was there to carry the bags.
The couple's lawyers collected photographs of the home where Shyima grew up, including close-ups of the feces-stained squat toilet and of Shyima's sisters washing clothes in a bucket.
In her final plea, Madame Amal told the judge it would be unfair to separate her from her children. Enraged, Shyima, then 17, told the court she hadn't seen her family in years.
"Where was their loving when it came to me? Wasn't I a human being too? I felt like I was nothing when I was with them," she sobbed.
The couple pleaded guilty to all charges, including forced labor and slavery. They were ordered to pay $76,000, the amount Shyima would have earned at the minimum wage. The sentence: Three years in federal prison for Ibrahim, 22 months for his wife, and then deportation for both. Their lawyers declined to comment for this story.
"I don't think that there is any other term you could use than modern-day slavery," said Bob Schoch, the special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles, in describing Shyima's situation.
Shyima, now 19, has a list of assigned chores. She wears purple eyeshadow, has a boyfriend and frequently updates her profile on MySpace. Her hands are neatly manicured.
But in her closet, she keeps a box of pictures of her parents and her brothers and sisters. "I don't look at them because it makes me cry," she said. "How could they? They're my parents."
When her father died last year, her family had no way of reaching her.
On a recent afternoon in Cairo, Madame Amal walked into the lobby of her apartment complex wearing designer sunglasses and a chic scarf.
After nearly two years in a U.S. prison cell, she's living once more in the spacious apartment where Shyima first worked as her maid. The apartment is adorned in the style of a Louis XIV palace, with ornately carved settees, gold-leaf vases and life-sized portraits of her and her husband.
She did not agree to be interviewed for this story.
Before the door closed behind her, a little girl slipped in carrying grocery bags. She wore a shabby T-shirt. Her small feet slapped the floor in loose flip-flops. Her eyes were trained on the ground.
She looked to be around 9 years old.
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