Seeking Hemalatha

Sarah John

My first inclination was to turn them down. Searching for a missing woman was rather beyond my means as a local reporter. But the officials at the Sri Lankan embassy were insistent as they handed me the two photographs they had received that morning.

I stared at them with shock. The woman – in her early thirties – had pulled up her shirt sleeves and skirt to reveal severe bruises.

‘Her name is Hemalatha Mendis,’ explained one official. ‘We received these photographs this morning. We don’t know for sure where she is but we believe she is being held at the agency which brought her to the country.’

Hundreds of such agencies have sprung up in Lebanon over the past few years. They bring in women from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Ethiopia to work as maids and are notorious for abusing the women.

I didn’t really relish going in search of the missing woman.

‘She has two children waiting for her in Sri Lanka,’ said the embassy official.

I sighed and took down the name of the agency.

When I showed up at the agency, a hefty-looking woman was busy showing potential customers the ‘new import’: a 19-year-old Ethiopian girl. Dissatisfied, the middle-aged couple then asked to see another one.

So the ‘old product’ was brought in: a 22-year-old who has already been in Lebanon for a few years. Satisfied, the couple sternly told the bewildered maid that she would not be allowed any days off, phone calls or outings.

My presence was then noticed and the agency owner was summoned. ‘Do you have a Sri Lankan woman here called Hemalatha Mendis?’ I asked. Quite pleasantly, the owner replied that he had never heard of that name and added that ‘we currently only have Ethiopian girls.’

I went in search of the last person to have seen Mendis. She turned out to be another Sri Lankan housekeeper, Chandra Wanasinghe, who worked in the adjacent apartment to where Hemalatha had been employed.

Hemalatha had told Chandra that the agency owner had beaten her. Chandra had borrowed her employer’s camera and taken pictures. A few days later she sent them to the Sri Lankan embassy. By then, Hemalatha’s employers had gone abroad and Hemalatha herself had disappeared.

I went back to the agency. As I walked in, there was a woman scrubbing the floor. She looked up at me briefly and I recognized her immediately: it was Hemalatha.

But in a flash, she was whisked into a nearby room crowded with potential maids. The door was slammed shut and the hefty woman began screaming at me.

‘Get out. You have no business here,’ she yelled. ‘Get out.’

A few minutes later, the agency owner – the same one I had spoken to just a few hours earlier – made an appearance and also began to holler. ‘Who told you to come back here?’ he shrieked.

‘I saw Hemalatha Mendis,’ I said.

‘No you didn’t,’ he yelled. ‘I don’t know who that is.’

Under his angry glare, I made my retreat. The next day my story about the missing woman was published in the local paper along with her photographs.

Two days later, I received a call from the embassy: the agency owner had dropped Hemalatha off at the embassy. ‘He saw the article in the paper and got scared,’ said the embassy official.

Later that day I met with Hemalatha. Her employer had described her as ‘a problem’ and had wanted to return her to the agency. This prompted the agency owner to ‘take out a big stick and start beating my back, my arms and my legs,’ she said. ‘I tried to cover my body but I couldn’t. I was crying and my head began to throb with pain.’

Once finished, the owner turned to the employer and said: ‘If you have any more problems with her just bring her to me.’

I only saw Hemalatha one more time. A few months later she, Chandra and I were reunited in Sri Lanka where I had been invited to receive the Nur Aleem Media Award for my article about her escapade. Chandra received a bravery award for starting the search for the missing woman. A beaming Hemalatha, accompanied by her husband and children, hugged me.

I never saw her again. A year later I heard that she had accepted another assignment to work as a maid in a foreign country.

As for the agency in Lebanon – it’s still open and hundreds of women continue to pass through its doors.

Reem Haddad works for the Daily Star in Beirut.

New Internationalist issue 351 magazine cover This article is from the November 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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