A divorcee at age 23, Sri Lankan Beatrice Fernando answered an ad from a local agency looking to employ housemaids. Desperate to support her three-year-old son on her own, Fernando agreed to travel and work as a maid in Lebanon. Unbeknownst to her, the employment agency was running a scheme to lure and trap young Sri Lankans into domestic servitude.
In 2005, Fernando gave her testimony to the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives Sub-committee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations:
“I am at the airport in Columbo, Sri Lanka, saying good-bye to my three-year-old son. With his eyes filled with tears, he asks, ‘Can’t I come with you, Mom? When you make a lot of money will you buy me a car to play with?’ I take him in my arms, my heart breaking, and tell him, ‘If I have the money, I will buy you the world.’ My desperation to give him a better life has driven me to leave him with my parents, to go to Lebanon and be a maid.
“At the job agent’s office in Beirut, my passport is taken away. The agency staff makes me stand in line with a group of women in the same predicament as me. Lebanese men and women pace in front of us, examining our bodies as if we were vacuum cleaners. I am sold to a wealthy woman, who takes me home to her mansion up on the fourth floor of a condo building.”
My chores seem unending. I wash the windows, walls and bathrooms. I shampoo carpets, polish floors and clean furniture. After 20 hours I am still not done. There’s no food on my plate for dinner, so I scavenge through the trash. I try to call the job agency, but the woman who now owns me has locked the telephone. I try to flee the apartment, but she has locked the door.
I can feel the burning on my cheeks as she slaps me. It is night and her kids have gone to sleep. Grasping me by the hair, she bangs my head into the wall and throws me to the floor. She kicks me and hits me with a broom. If I scream or fight back, she will kill me. So I bite my lips to bare the pain and then I pass out. This is my daily routine, the life of a slave.
But now I am standing on the balcony of her condo, four floors up. I am holding onto the railing, staring down at the ground far below. I feel my heart rising. I miss my family, and I know my son is waiting for me. There is no other way to get home. I grasp the railing, close my eyes and ask God for his forgiveness if I die now. This is no suicide attempt. I am desperate for freedom, not death. With the tiny hope that I might survive, I let go of the railing. I dive backwards into the night air. And I scream.”
Fernando survived the fall and recovered at a hospital. Today, she lives in Massachusetts and continues to spread the word about modern-day slavery. She is the founder of the Nivasa Foundation, an organization that provides financial assistance for the education of trafficked women’s children.
Fernando, Beatrice. In Contempt of Fate: The Tale of a Sri Lankan Sold into Servitude Who Survived to Tell It, a Memoir. Merrimac, MA: BeaRo Pub., 2004. Print.
The latest issue of the Atlantic focuses on the story of a women enslaved in an American household written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Alex Tizon.