“I grew up in a beautiful village in the Atlas Mountains known as the Switzerland of Morocco. But it was isolated and socially very closed. People there have many dreams but they can’t realise them. If they find an opportunity, they leave. I always had this dream of living in Europe. We had neighbours and relatives who lived there. In the summer they would go back to Morocco and tell us what it was like. That there is more freedom, especially for women, that everyone can decide what they want. Not like here, where the family sets rules that have to be respected. In the village, many women stayed at home even if they had studied.
In my family I was the only one who continued my studies. It was difficult to convince my father to study hotel management because it’s frowned upon for a woman. But once I was there I had more freedom and I had many adventures. I worked in hotels, festivals, I even met famous people! And nobody told me: why are you doing this or that? I was less and less shy, I was starting to open my eyes. But I still had this dream of leaving Morocco. My father used to say to me: “You will change your traditions there. Stay here!” When he fell ill, I went back to the village to look after him until he died. And then I found a way to leave.
I took a job with an important family in a country of the Gulf. At first they welcomed me, gave me a good room, a small iPhone. And I started working as a housekeeper for the wife. Then one day her husband hit the cook and the cook left. They asked me to replace him. At first I refused because I was afraid. But they told me it was just to help out, so I accepted. But in reality I had to cook for almost 25 people every day. I started at 6am and had no days off. They made me wear the scarf and clothes down to the feet all the time, even when I was cooking alone at home.
The husband had special diets down to the gram. If I didn’t do as he wanted, he would start shouting very loudly, calling me bad names. Sometimes I had to prepare 50 pigeons by myself. My hands would turn black from grilling. The Filipino workers, he would grab them by the hair and hit them. There were also Indians who had their passeport taken and who had not left in 5 years. One day he brought 30 Africans to work the land. The land was very dry and these poor fellows only ate one meal a day. It was real slavery. But we couldn’t do anything because he was part of a powerful family.
Then I heard that he pulled out a gun and pointed it at one of the young Africans because he wanted to leave. And then I said to myself: that’s enough, I have to leave. I had put up with too much, I couldn’t keep going. Really, it was slavery. But it was difficult to leave because they had also taken my passport. I put my pride aside and started to cry, to beg them. But they didn’t want to. So I told them that I had told my family everything and that they were going to make a scandal and that everyone on the internet would know what was going on here. A week later I was back in Morocco.
This experience gave me a lot of courage to go to Europe. I told myself that this would never happen there. After 2-3 years I found a visa and a contract in a restaurant in France. But in fact the man was a smuggler who brought people over with false contracts. Once I arrived, he told me I had to manage on my own. I slept in a small studio with lots of other people in a really dangerous area. We were like sardines. People were smoking pot, taking drugs, prostituting themselves. I was shocked. One girl said to me: “We also came like you. Change your character, change your clothes, start drinking and forget all that.” But I couldn’t do it.
I had never imagined that it was possible. I was traumatised, I was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do, I was scared. I had given all my money to the smuggler, my mother had sold some jewellery and taken out a loan. And if I went to the police they would send me back to Morocco. After a month, I called a cousin who lived in France and told her everything. She came to get me and took me to Switzerland. All in all I stayed for 1 month, but it felt like it was 10 years. The reality was different from what I had imagined. Europe is not a paradise, it’s not just freedom and money.
When I arrived in Geneva, I was very sad, very lost. I didn’t even know what I was going to do. I spent my time crying. I thought: why is this happening to me? What kind of life is this, always moving around, without a home, without any legal documents? It’s very difficult for undocumented migrants here. There are people who take advantage of you. I’ve already worked several times without being paid. Once I worked in a restaurant that paid me just enough to keep me going, until I was exhausted. Because he knew I couldn’t go to the police to report him. But I’ve never been on welfare. I don’t ask for anything. I just want a normal life.
Fortunately, things are starting to improve. I’ve got a little official job and I’m starting to integrate well, to know the culture, the system, the things to respect. I have found what I wanted here. I feel safe, especially as a woman. My dream now is to have the documents and to work with the elderly. And that’s part of my culture. We keep our grandparents with us until the end. For me they are like angels. I have a daughter too now and she gives me a purpose. To fight for her, so she doesn’t experience bad things like I did.”
Published as part of the mini-series “Of frontiers and women”, produced in partnership with APDH. | Translated in part from Arabic