Torture, lack of food, mistreatment, congestion and no medical care. That is how Kenyans formerly detained in Saudi Arabia’s Tarhil jail describe their lives.
Ismail Kelvin Githinji travelled to Saudi Arabia in March last year to work at Kako Gulf Catering, where he was supposed to sign a contract.
But that never happened.
“When I reached Saudi Arabia, I was told to sign a different contract under Mueen agency, which was not the agreement, so I refused. I had travelled with four others, who were taken to their workstations but I was taken to a house.”
He had no idea a minor decision would turn his whole life upside down.
“I was under detention for 10 months inside the house. I could not go anywhere, even to the shop without being escorted. One day, I managed to excuse myself, saying I was heading to the mosque, but I made my way to the police station instead.”
The 35-year-old says all he wanted was the job he had travelled for.
“I was receiving money from home all along, instead of me sending money to them.”
Things took a different turn when police advised him to visit the labour courts.
“The company that was hosting me received information that I was at the police station. When I came back, I was thrown out with all my belongings. With no fare at all, I headed to the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia to seek assistance.”
File a complaint
Embassy officials asked him to file a complaint at the labour courts, promising to support him.
But he says it was just an empty promise.
After a year of battling court cases and no payments, the company offered him two options.
“I was told to either write a letter noting that the company did not owe me money or they pay me a one-month salary and a ticket back home. I refused and requested that we settle the matter in court. I was shocked when I was arrested and sent to jail.”
Mr Githinji reached out to the Kenyan Embassy. Officials only showed up once when he was detained and never went back.
“Kenyans are suffering in those jails. There are other nationalities, but their embassy representatives follow up on their cases and they end up being released, unlike Kenyans who end up languishing in there.”
Mr Githinji managed to get the help he needed and came back home three weeks ago.
“I am at home with no source of income. The company did not pay me my salary.”
A similar case is that of Sagaff Swaleh, who is still detained in Saudi Arabia.
His wife, Mwanaasha Omar, who lives in Ukunda, Kwale County, says she has been left with no source of income to take care of their three-year-old daughter.
“My husband travelled to Saudi Arabia in September 2019 after failing several times to secure a job in Kenya. He did his job well until his decision to help a fellow Kenyan sent him behind bars,” Ms Omar says.
“There was a girl who was being mistreated by her employer. She escaped to seek his help. He received a call to go help the woman, only for him to be sent to jail. When the girl escaped, the employer reported her and a search for her started.”
Her husband knew the girl through his workmates, who urged him to help her.
“My husband informed me that he went ahead and helped the girl. On their way to the Kenyan Embassy, the girl’s employer showed up and got into an accident. Sadly, the Kenyan girl died. Police were called and my husband was taken to jail.”
For the couple, who have been married for five years, communication has become a bigger issue, with the man surviving by borrowing a phone and calling her back home.
Human rights group Haki Africa’s rapid response officer Mathias Shipeta has raised concerns about cases of Kenyan migrant workers now being detained in Saudi Arabia.
Most of them, he said, reported being arrested because they lacked identification documents, which were withheld by their employers.
“There are hundreds of Kenyans facing hard times in Saudi prisons. We are urging the embassy to look into the matter, since they do not have any lawyers to assist them,” he says.
In a letter to the Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Haki Africa sought assistance to rescue and bring back the migrant workers.
“We have received and documented several cases of Kenyan migrant workers being held in Saudi Arabian jails … due to unsubstantiated charges against them. This letter is written to your esteemed office requesting for your assistance in their repatriation,” the letter said.
Dorris Njagi, 28, did not know her dream of a better life would end in a Saudi Arabian jail.
Her mother, Rosemary Gaiti, who regrets sending her daughter overseas, is left battling worries about who will rescue her daughter and bring her back to Kenya.
“My daughter travelled after completing her secondary school studies to go search for a better life in Saudi Arabia. But things did not work out for her,” she says.
Reducing her pay
Her daughter has been behind bars for the past two months, she says.
“She travelled in 2014 via an agency. When she got there, all was well until her employer started reducing her pay. That is what she had informed us.”
Ms Njagi escaped from her employer, leaving behind her important identification documents.
“She had to escape and go look for work elsewhere. The former employer reported her to the authorities, which led to her arrest.”
Unfortunately for her daughter, she is not the only Kenyan behind bars in Saudi Arabia.
“She told us she fell in love with a Kenyan man while working in Saudi Arabia, and they had two children. Her boyfriend was also in prison.”
Her daughter’s two children are with their mother.
The boyfriend had a case involving an accident and was detained for three months. After serving his term, he was released and sent to a deportation centre.
But Saudi authorities have reopened the case.
“I am confused about what to do. The last time we spoke they said the Kenyan Embassy in Saudi Arabia had promised to help them, but I am not sure how far that help has gone,” Ms Gaiti says.
“Because they use landlines from the jail to call us, I cannot call them.”