Sheela's hands

(WOMENSENEWS)–For four years, she was practically invisible. No one knew her–not her neighbors, not the doorman of the posh Upper East Side apartment building where she lived and worked, not the other nannies and housekeepers who populated the stores and playgrounds she infrequently visited.

She claimed her employer, a Kuwaiti diplomat, and his wife kept a constant and watchful eye. They never allowed her out alone and intruded onany conversation she attempted with outsiders. They beat and insulted her, deprived her of her passport, paid her less than 50 cents an hour, and locked her in their 22nd floor apartment when they went out. Finally, her employer, Bader al-Awadi, a Kuwait diplomat, raped her, she recently told a judge.

Because she was sexually assaulted and because she is now an undocumented Indian national and fears deportation, she has asked to use the nickname “Sheela.”

Once four years ago, after a violent fight with her employers the day before a family vacation Sheela was to join, al-Awadi left the family’s passports and tickets on the dining room table. Sheela saw her passport, snatched it and fled.

Last year, with the assistance of a lawyer she met at the New York temple where she sought shelter, she filed a federal lawsuit suit against al-Awadi and his wife, Halal al-Shaitan, but the couple did not appear to reply to answer her allegations on Feb. 25.

The Kuwaiti mission to the United Nations, however, sent a letter on their behalf, claiming that the couple has full diplomatic immunity that protects diplomats from prosecution. Some diplomats, though, may be charged with crimes committed while they were engaged in activities outside their consular duties. In extremely rare cases, diplomats may be stripped of their immunity. Alternatively, the host country may declare them persona non grata, forcing them to leave the country.

In a letter to Sheela’s lawyer, which al-Awadi provided to Women’s eNews, al-Awadi denied any abuse and said that he had not withheld her passport. His family had a warm relationship with Sheela, helped her obtain medical care and even paid for her vacations, he said.

Pattern of Abuse by Diplomats

The scale of the exploitation and abuse of domestic staff by the international diplomatic corps in the United States remains unknown. The international missions based in New York and Washington, D.C., do not routinely oversee the conditions of diplomatic household staff or track the number of cases brought by former servants against foreign diplomats.

Diplomats may bring a servant to the United States on a G5 visa. Nearly 1,500 G5 visas were granted in 2002, the last year for which data is available, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics. Like Sheela, many G5 visa holders stay for several years, and it is not known how many servants of diplomats are currently in the United States.

The lack of statistics underscores the lack of oversight by either the U.S. government or the consulates and embassies that directly oversee the diplomats.

Andolan, a New York advocacy group helping Sheela, has handled 11 such cases over the last five years; some settled out of court. The organization has seen others in which workers felt that bringing charges was not worthwhile, feared that bringing a suit might lead to deportation or, worse, retaliation against family members in their home countries.

Suzanne Tomatore, director of the Immigrant Women and Children’s Project for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, has seen 5 to 10 such cases over the last year.

“I’ve seen this from many different countries,” Tomatore said. “Does it happen? Yes. Does it happen often? Probably. Can I say how often? No I can’t.”

These cases are not restricted to the United Nations or to New York. Cities with large consular communities, such as Geneva and Washington, D.C., also face this problem.

“I just think it is especially egregious because these people are supposed to be representing their country to the highest regard, and the clothes they are wearing were washed by a household slave and the food they ate was prepared by someone they don’t pay,” Tomatore said.

Efforts to prosecute diplomats with immunity often lead to a dead end. In Sheela’s case, her lawyer has argued that the abuse took place outside of al-Awadi’s official duties as a diplomat and is therefore not covered by his immunity. No decision has been reached in her case.

Years of Abuse

Sheela says that she traveled to Kuwait from India in 1995 to take a job with al-Awadi’s mother-in-law. After 10 months, al-Awadi and al-Shaitan visited on their vacation. In need of a maid and nanny for their infant, they asked Sheela to return with them to New York. She says they promised to pay her $500 a week.

Sheela was thrilled with the opportunity, until she arrived in New York and they took her passport. “When they going out, they lock the door,” she claimed.

Her employers, who had a second child in 1997, sent the money directly to Sheela’s husband and five children in India and gave Sheela the receipts, which she kept. She says they later raised her salary to $250 each month. It’s not clear how much she was initially paid.

While the arrangement helped support Sheela’s family and her husband, who was ill and has since died, it left Sheela with no resources of her own. The day she left the family, she had no money at all, she said, and slept for nearly a year in the basement of a temple.

Al-Awadi said he never promised her payment of $500 a week and started off paying her $300 a week.

Where al-Awadi says Sheela abandoned his family with no notice, Sheela claimed to have seized an opportunity to escape.

In 2000, after she grabbed her passport, Bible and her children’s picture, she hailed a taxi, as she had seen her employer do before. She was in luck; the driver spoke Hindi. “Please take me anywhere,” she told the driver. “Drop me anywhere.'”

The driver took her to the temple, where Sheela was sheltered for a year until she found another job. Now, she has her own apartment and is a part-time maid for several different employers. She has not seen her children since 1999 because she lost her legal right to remain in the United States when she left her employers and remains undocumented.

Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.

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