Thirty-year-old Pema (name changed) worked in a local drayang in Thimphu for five years before leaving for Iraq to work in a beauty parlor last year. She left behind her two young daughters in hopes to earn good money and pay off her debts.
Pema is a single mother and she hoped for a better future for her daughters. She was informed by one of her friends that a work recruitment agency run by a Bhutanese couple was looking for women to work in Iraq.
Pema and her friend were convinced by the agent she will be working in a safer and peaceful part of Iraq than the violent and unstable parts usually seen in the media. She was given an assurance that she will earn good money working in a beauty parlor.
A Bhutanese female agent charged them Nu 300,000 and she was asked to pay the amount when they start working in Iraq. The agent then bought them air tickets and processed all the other travel documents.
The two decided to grab the opportunity and were also joined by three other Bhutanese girls on their journey from Phuentsholing to Siliguri in November last year. When they reached Siliguri, the Bhutanese agent informed them that they have missed their flight to Delhi, and so they had to travel to Guwahati and on to Delhi. The agent escorted them till Delhi.
She said they stayed in Delhi for a week as they were told there were no flight tickets available. After that, out of the five girls, Pema and her friend were sent ahead to Dubai and the rest three followed later.
When the two of them reached Dubai, a Nepalese agent came to pick them up from the airport and they were kept in his house for five days.
Pema said she heard horrific stories about life in Iraq while waiting in Dubai. The two girls informed the Bhutanese agent that they wished to either stay and work in Dubai or return home to Bhutan.
“The agent told us, we will have to spend on our own for our return journey, and so we had no option but to leave for Iraq,” she said.
The two girls also requested the Nepalese agent in Dubai, but he responded that it was his job to just pick and drop them. So after five days, they were dropped to the airport for their journey to Iraq.
The girls reached Iraq in the morning and waited inside the airport the whole day until a man came to pick them up.
“We were scared, lonely while everything seemed so alien. We waited for more than ten hours, and there was no water to drink. I managed to call our agents but they said someone will come to pick us up,” said Pema.
A man who came to pick them up is another agent in Arbin, Iraq. The two girls lived with him for about a month. Whenever she asked when they would be sent for their jobs that they came for, the man simply made them work for him in his house.
After almost a month in the house, the girls asked the man to send them back to Bhutan, to which the man asked them to pay USD 6,000. When they said they did not have the money, the agent then asked them to get the money from the Bhutanese agent since he paid USD 1,500 for each girl to the Bhutanese agent.
There are a number of agents where girls are being ‘sold’ from one place to another, said Pema.
After a month in Arbin, they were sent to Baghdad one evening. Pema and her friend boarded several vehicles during their journey and ended up in a truck where they met another Bhutanese woman who came through another agent.
The three girls stayed in another agent’s house in Baghdad. There were already three other Bhutanese girls including a 17-year-old in the house. Most of the girls who had come to Iraq were promised jobs in beauty parlors and hotels. One of the girls who was supposed to go to Oman was sent to Iraq instead.
According to Pema, the girls who had lived in the agent’s house for more than three months shared that the owner is scary and does not even let them use their mobile phones. In a few instances, he snatched and broke their phones. Pema said she did not get back her phone snatched by the man.
Pema said, “I feel like we are living in hell. Everyday we live with the fear that the owner and the family might beat us. Everyday they scold us and make us do all the house works including washing their underwear. The man lives with his wife, mother and three children.”
“We are asked to always work, and most of the time we don’t eat well. They are very harsh and often threaten to beat us,” said Pema.
She said they are not fed on time and not allowed to eat in peace when food is finally given. They said they are scolded all the time. And the worse part is that they were told by the agent that there were no such jobs as working in a beauty parlor. And when asked if they can return home, the girls were told to pay USD 17,000 for each girl as the price of freedom.
They are not paid any money for the work they do and are not provided with proper three meals. “Since the day we reached Baghdad, we have been hungry and thirsty all the time,” cried Pema. “It is so hard to live and I cry all the time,” she added.
There are girls who are doing well in Baghdad because some of their owners treat them well, she said.
“Out of the six girls, only three are left in his house. The rest have gone to different houses to work, and I don’t have any contact with them. One of the girls who went to work in other place, was pushed from the staircase by the owner. Since then there has been no contact with her,” said Pema.
Pema alleged that she heard that Baghdad agent ‘sold’ the girls for USD 90,000 for each girl to another agent in Baghdad.
The girls in Iraq are in touch with the government and Bhutanese Embassy in Kuwait. They requested the government to rescue them as soon as possible.
“The three months were extremely difficult no matter how much we tried to be strong,” said Pema.
“I request our government to please rescue us from here by end of this month so that we can return home and re-unite with our family,” pleaded Pema.
The paper has not reveled the names and pictures of the girls and the Bhutanese and Iraqi agents as Pema and her friends are still in Iraq and so are still in possible danger.