Living in the Middle East as a Latina woman

Heather is a-30-year-old Mexican-American and has also Amerindians backgrounds. She is currently studying International Development in Vienna. She also co-hosts a show at Radio Orange, called ZamZaman, where she and her friend introduce artists from all over the world. Heather has a lot of hobbies: reading, Vipassana meditation, feminism, traveling and more. Her travel experiences made me curious. I wanted to hear her experiences in living in the Middle East as a Latina woman. When thinking about living in the Middle East, a bunch of stereotypes could come up in our mind.

But before that, I wanted to better understand what’s like living in Gilroy as a Latina woman. She grew up in Gilroy, a small northern city in California, in an agricultural and migrant community. Being a Latina woman and coming from a working Latinx immigrant class can make upward mobility difficult.

©Aissa Sica

Surviving before surpassing oneself

Accepting her Mexican identity was challenging for Heather. In Gilroy, the Latinx community is the largest one. They make up 60% of Gilroy’s inhabitants. According to the World Population Review, 16,33% of the Latinx live below the poverty line. As a result, many are constrained by a glass ceiling and an underprivileged environment can make difficult to break through it.

At Heather’s high school, the students were mostly from the Latinx community. The staff members did not help them to surpass themselves but to avoid the worst: getting pregnant and/or joining a gang. The prospects for the future were very limited, the army was one of the few ways out. Military recruiters sometimes came to the school to encourage the high school students to join the army. For Heather, she could not bear to see how institutions can so much influence those young people’s future.

Despite her underprivileged background, she never surrendered. She was fascinated by travelling but younger, she could not afford to travel. So, she spent all her time dreaming about travelling. Then one day, she got an opportunity to live in the Middle East. Up to that time, she never went abroad, except to Mexico. She stayed in Syria during the summer of 2010.

Living in the Middle East for the first time

Heather was always interested in other cultures. She loved learning new languages, reading books in foreign languages, listening to music from different countries. Travelling is her passion. She planned first to study in Paris. She wanted to experience Parisian life, speaking French and having a French boyfriend. In the city called the city of love (as we stereotype), we hope to meet love. However, this international exchange program was beyond her financial means.

Heather still did not give up on travel. One day, she received a letter informing her she gots accepted into the University study of Damascus, in Syria. It was not common for American students to study in Damascus.  Heather was not afraid to go to Syria, even with all these clichés we hear. What she was afraid of is to lie to her ultra-protective mother.

Aerial night view of Damascus
Source : Peacock Plume – ©Shutterstock/longtaildog

Her exchange was not at all supervised like the one in Paris. No one came at the airport to pick her up, she had no host family, nothing. She had to manage on her own by knowing a few words of Arabic. But she made it. Since that experience, she has kept travelling in the Middle East. The next destination takes us to Oman.

Ordinary racism in Oman

Institutionalized racism through the Kefala system

In some Middle Eastern countries, all foreigners are required to have a local sponsor.The kafala system is a principle of sponsorship in the field of employment. It is practiced in the following Middle Eastern countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates The kafeel is a guarantor and employer, necessary for any foreigner who wants to work in Oman. The kafeel can be an organization, a company or a citizen. 

Unfortunately, many kafeel take advantage of the system to exploit their non-Western employees, who come mainly from Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. Workers from these countries are very associated with the lower class and face prejudice. These workers work in positions that none of the Omani people want as they find them humiliating. As a result, this creates a social and racial hierarchy based on nationality, class, ethnicity, and work between different nationalities and Omanis.

Living in the middle east as Latina woman can be challenging

Heather wanted to keep living in the Middle East, but this time in Egypt or Oman. She came to Oman in 2012 and lived for one year in Salalah, a southern city next to the Yemeni border.  She was a project coordinator for an American non-profit based in the Middle East and North Africa. What was hardest for her, was to face the local racism. Heather was 23 years old at this time. She came in Oman alone as a young Latina independent employed woman. She was often asked if she had a sponsor (a kafeel) for a housemaid job.

Heather is ethnically ambiguous, the Omani people and other local communities thought she was Asian. For this reason, she was treated badly until others learned her nationality and work. When Heather went to ATM to withdraw money, they were surprised that she could have so much money. How did handle these situations? Most of the time, Heather was asking them if they were working. Or she would answer them in English, and the conversation will completely switch. She didn’t feel particularly hurt because she knew that she could leave at any time, unlike her friends who were stuck living in Oman with contracts up to 5 years and the main financial supporters for their families. Oman, like other Gulf countries, is known for oil. This country had also the past few years made headlines with the modern slavery of migrant workers. 

The precarious and enslaved situation of migrant workers

Oman, like many Gulf countries, considered an “El Dorado ” from the 1970s to the 1980s live in the Middle East is for many a way to support their families. The discovery of oil has positively influenced economic growth. In response to an increase in the number of migrants, the “kafala system” was created to regulate the employment of workers. These foreigners workers are considered as migrant workers. In reality, they are often treated as disposable economic assets at the mercy of their sponsor. At the heart of the kafala system, is an imbalance in the power relations between the kafeel and the migrant worker. “The kafeel may modify the conditions of the employment contract and force the migrant worker to submit to unfair working conditions”, according to an article of the International Labour Organization.

The alarming situation of migrants workers in the Middle East

In recent years, more and more journalists and international organizations expose the slave trade exploitation of migrant workers from Asian (Indonesia, Philippines, India, Pakistan) and African (mainly Ethiopia) countries. They are completely dependent on and at the mercy of their employers. Despite more international visibility on the subject, the situation is not improving in Oman.  According to the Humans Right Watch, “Frequent abuses include employers confiscating workers’ passports despite a legal prohibition; not paying workers their salaries, in full or at all; forcing them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off; denying them adequate food and living conditions; beatings, sexual abuse, unpaid wages, and excessive working hours.”

These African and Asian migrants find themselves in a vulnerable position. They are constantly denigrating. They are victims of mistreatment and the Omani people see them as inferior due to these poor working conditions. Racism is an everyday part of life for these communities regardless of their socio-economic circumstances. For many, living in the Middle East has become a nightmare.

A migrant worker who is demonstrating in Beirut
Source :

The dominant and the dominated 

Heather’s friend was in a vulnerable situation as are many other migrant women. Her friend had come to Oman to work and got pregnant. She returned to her country of origin, but the man who got her pregnant promised her all the wonders to come back. Heather’s friend returned to Oman. The man rented her a rundown place. Heather sometimes found herself going out with this man and her friend. Heather couldn’t say anything. We cannot rely on the police and there are no women’s rights organizations who stand for migrant women workers’ rights.

One day, as Heather was coming back home, she heard screams. The man Heather’s friend was dating was married. Her wife found out about his affair and got into a fight with Heather’s friend. Her friend ended up on the street. Heather couldn’t welcome her as she could also get into trouble from the man and the police. Heather did what she could to support her by taking her mind off things. Later that year, the woman moved out and continues to live in her home country with her child.

What’s next ?

Heather considers herself one of the luckiest people in the world for having the chance to live abroad. After her time in Oman, she also had a one-year fellowship and had the opportunity to live in different countries. She spent the year traveling in India, Ethiopia, Turkey, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, and Nepal. Living in the Middle East was an enriching experience despite localized racism. What is for sure is that she will not stop traveling and living in new countries, no matter what the obstacles. Heather hopes to use her experiences to support international migrant communities.