Backstory: Madame's 'Lady Driver'

The text messages Karina sends her mom back home all say the same thing: "all good! luv u!" Sometimes she adds more detail: "i am Gr8!" for example, or "miss u!" although the extra letters mean precious extra money, which she can't afford.

Karina only wants to keep up the cheerful facade, she explains, so her mom, far away on the other side of the globe, can be at peace.

But the truth, she winces, is not "Gr8" at all.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Growing up in Manila, Karina and her mother survived on remittance money sent home by her father, a construction worker who spent 22 years in Abu Dhabi. When he visited every other year, there would be tales of riches and presents of jewelry boxes decorated with tinny gold. Karina grew up with the names of these far-away Arab lands slipping around her tongue. When she was old enough, she told her classmates, she'd follow her dad to the Persian Gulf and make money. Maybe she'd help send her cousin to college, or buy her grandmother a washing machine. The luxuries Karina wanted – a CD player, perfumes, and fancy shoes – all winked at her fromacross the sands.

Every year, tens of thousands of men and women from the Philippines head to the oil-rich gulf to find work. Increasingly, those migrants are women, who now make up approximately half of the estimated 200 million migrants worldwide, according to Human Rights Watch. The feminization of labor migration is particularly pronounced in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, where women make up as much as 75 percent of legal migrants, many of whom are employed as domestics in the Middle East and Asia.

Qatar estimates that foreign migrants make up 52 percent of the nation's population and about 90 percent of its labor force. The majority of maids here are Filipinas.

Horror stories of abuse – unpaid wages, mistreatment, broken bones, sexual harassment, and rape – do exist. Last year, Human Rights Watch charged that Asian workers in nearby Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates faced systematic abuse, with some in conditions the organization said were close to slavery. But such stories aren't the norm here and are becoming rarer. Embassies are becoming more proactive (setting minimum-wage requirements for their nationals, for example), and local awareness of the problem is growing (Qatar is the first Gulf country to establish a shelter for abused maids).

What's more common are stories like Karina's, simple tales of people leaving poor countries for wealthier ones where work is plentiful. Most find what they come for, earning salaries up to four times those at home, supporting families far away, and saving up for some old-age comforts of their own. But this success comes, frequently, with a price: Years of miserable living conditions; hard work; humiliating treatment; and lonely, work-filled days and nights.

Karina arrived, at age 26, with a roll-on bag, stuffed – per her father's advice about loose clothing befitting Muslim lands – with her old baggy high school gym clothes. She brought a bar of soap, too, and the rosary her mother had squeezed into her hand on departure. She was proud of the carefully laminated documents she clasped: Certificates for 12 hours of on-the-job-training in elder-care, first aid, CPR, and hospitality services. And, of course, her driver's license. She hadn't come, she explains, as any simple maid, but rather as a "lady driver" – a job near the top of the domestic worker hierarchy. But it didn't take long for Karina to realize that none of her certificates impressed anyone.

"At the end of the day, we are all the same nobodies," she says now, two years later.

***

Her first job –for a wealthy Yemeni family – lasted three months. "Madame" (as maids here refer to their boss) was a private make-up artist, plucking eyebrows, smoothing on rouge, and painting on lip color behind the walls of her clients' compounds. While Qatari women, traditional abaya-clad Arabs, typically don't reveal their beauty to men, explains Karina, "they still love glamour among themselves."

Her job was to drive the Toyota Land Cruiser from home to home, serve as Madame's maid, carry cosmetic boxes, pass blush brushes, and clean up. At home, she helped two other maids with cleaning, washing, and cooking. She slept in a storage shed among bicycles, Barbie dollhouses, and discarded LEGO sets. Her first month's salary, as agreed, went to the agency. For her second and third month, she went unpaid. She had screaming matches with the other maids and Madame. Once she took out her laminated documents and threw them in their faces: " Shufi – see – it says lady driver, not a kadama – a maid!" she screeched in the broken Arabic she'd picked up.

Finally, Madame's husband put the young woman in the car and unceremoniously dropped her at the agency, withdrawing his sponsorship and effectively making her an illegal alien. There, with other dismissed domestics, Karina waited – for deportation or for new bosses to sponsor her.

The agency's one-room safe house was abysmal, she says: No one was allowed to leave, except to use the washroom across the road, and this, only with an escort. The only food served was rice. Having made no money, Karina fished out the $50 note her mother had sewn into her nightgown and used it to pay the guards to buy her cigarettes, sardines, noodles, and shampoo. The sick went untreated, and almost everyone, eventually, in the stifling summer heat, became ill.

Karina laughs when asked if it was like a prison. "No, it was a prison," she says. Despite it all, she prayed for a new sponsor: "I did not want to go home ashamed and empty-handed."

When a Qatari businessman needed a lady driver for his wife and five kids, Karina's passport was passed along to them, and she belonged to someone new. "I was relieved," she says, entering the shoebox-size room she has shared for a year now with the new family's maid, an elderly Indonesian woman. "It's not great, either. Not what I had dreamed about. But OK." The two domestics are friends. They give each other backrubs at the end of long days, and they share secrets.

The women begin their days together at 5:45 a.m. Her roommate prays and Karina washes and starts the family cars. Her job begins with driving the children to school – Madame, who does not work, comes along and the group spends the morning and early afternoon shuttling from one school to the next, listening to tapes of the Koran, picking up and dropping off children. The afternoons are devoted to taking the Madame and kids back and forth to malls and shopping centers. "We go to the City Center and then to Lulu hypermarket and then over to Landmark Mall. Sometimes she is just roaming," says Karina. "Once we spent a whole day looking for Hello Kitty stickers."

In the evenings, after she's washed the car again, Karina sits in the laundry room as her roommate does the last of the day's ironing. They then clear and wash the dinner dishes, or sit together polishing silver. They used to talk about her roommate's four children and two grandchildren back in Indonesia. But lately they talk about Karina's boyfriend, George, an errand boy at Hardee's whom she met at the mall one day.

She loves him, she says, speaking in a whisper even though she is in the garage. They exchanged numbers and spend hours a week sending love text messages. "luv u!" she will tap out, late at night, hidden under her covers. "Miss u!" he will respond. He bought her a shirt recently and asked her to go steady.

She makes 850 riyals a month ($233), more than her roommate, and far more than she could have hoped to ever earn at home. She sends a portion to her mother and has begun using the rest to start fulfilling her dreams. "I love collecting things, and now I can," she says, proudly showing her three watches, two baseball caps, and a shoebox filled with Sponge Bob stickers. "You need patience to get where you want in life. And I have that patience."

***

Karina gets four hours off on Fridays, and she heads downtown. She wears high heels and lip-gloss and hangs out at Christie's restaurant and eats chop suey. Sometimes she joins friends loitering at the Manila supermarket, exchanging phone numbers with members of the opposite sex. But Karina doesn't give out her number anymore, because she has George. His hours off are on Tuesdays – so they never see each other.

"This is not where I want to be," she admits, sitting on the steps to McDonald's counting coins to see if there are enough for more phone credit and a milkshake. "This is no golden land."

She then sends a text message to her mom. "alls good," she taps. "To keep up the dream," she explains. "It's pretend."

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