Human trafficking victims raise awareness for shelters in the UAE through art

Silent Voices 3, an art exhibtion at The Space in Abu Dhabi, will show works from women staying at the Ewa'a Shelters for Victims of Human Trafficking, aiming to serve as both fund and awareness-raiser.
These women, victims of human trafficking, are creating artwork to exhibit in an exhibition show called Silent Voices. Delores Johnson / The National
These women, victims of human trafficking, are creating artwork to exhibit in an exhibition show called Silent Voices. Delores Johnson / The National

There are so many horrific ways that women come to be at the Ewa’a Shelters for Victims of Human Trafficking in the UAE.

They are persuaded by strangers, acquaintances, friends and even family members in their home countries all over the world to leave for a better life in the UAE; or they are snatched or sold. They all end up being forced into some form of prostitution or labour. When they see what their horrific new reality is, they manage to escape, with many running into the street and simply telling strangers, “police”.

Since the first Ewa’a centre in Abu Dhabi opened in 2009, helmed by Sarah Shuhail, the general director, it has added locations in Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, as well as a space for men in Abu Dhabi. So far, 209 women have passed through the shelters, each of them spending varying lengths of time while their court cases are resolved, before they are sent home or to a new country.

The group gathered at the centre now is part of an unusual, complicated case. They lived as a family with people they believed to be their parents. The UN Refugee Agency, which helps with advocacy, asylum and migration, is involved. The story, like all the snippets heard in this activity room, is sad and terrible. But, at least on this day, there is a lot of laughter, too.

On a recent Friday morning, the mood is cheerful in the activity room, which is tucked away behind high gates in an unassuming villa in Abu Dhabi. A Tina Turner song is playing on the radio as four women in their 20s and an 11-year-old girl gather around a table that is heaped with paint jars, brushes, bowls of yarn and thread.

The women – there have been others who have come and gone, 17 in total this year – are producing pieces for Silent Voices 3, Ewa’a’s art exhibition that opens on Sunday night. The five-day show aims to raise awareness about human trafficking in the UAE so people can recognise it and more women can escape safely.

Due to the danger and sensitivity surrounding their cases, they cannot be identified. Their countries of origin are shielded and their faces can’t be shown.

The popular Dubai-based artist Jen Simon, pregnant with her third child due next month, is gently guiding the group – all of whom seem more like girls – to put some all-important finishing touches on their best paintings.

“Just light green you can add to that,” Simon says to one of the women, a tall, willowy 22-year-old from the Middle East who wears stylish glasses. Simon points to a tiny, bubbly 23-year-old, also from the region, who is wearing neon green tights. Simon draws her little finger across the top of some palm trees on the canvas. “Like a much lighter green, like, see her pants? Some lines coming in.”

The palm trees on the painting are portrayed against a bright blue sky. In the bottom right corner, awkward and inquisitive, is a single black-and-white eye, opened wide.

Could the trees and the sky be from her childhood home? It all happened too long ago for her to be sure of anything, even who her parents are or where she was born, and there is no one who can tell her.

Yosra Kaddoura, a supervisor at the shelter who the ladies call Mama Yosra, patiently translates some of Simon’s instructions into Arabic for the woman in the glasses, who has already confided the reason for the scene.

“This was painted in my mind,” says Kaddoura, translating for the 23-year-old. “I don’t know but … maybe it’s the place where they took me.”

This process of learning how to create art that people will see and, hopefully, buy, has proven to be transformative.

Kaddoura describes a past participant, a terrified woman from a Central Asian country who married and moved to Dubai, only to find out her husband intended for her to work as a prostitute. When she refused, he beat her, and she ran away.

“She was afraid of everything, she was always crying, crying,” says Kaddoura. “If we say come, ‘no’. If we say eat, ‘no’ ... She did not even know how to hold the brush. Jennifer is very patient, she started very slowly, as if she were a child. She said ‘like this’. Then she said ‘wow, nice’, to give her confidence.”

The painting that woman produced, priced initially at Dh800, sparked a bidding war and sold for well over Dh1,000.

Simon – whose colourful and locally evocative works are a fixture on the Abu Dhabi and Dubai art scenes – agreed to help the residents of Ewa’a when the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (Admaf) approached her in 2012.

She spent six months working with the women who have participated in previous shows, but this year, Ewa’a has taken over the event, with support from Admaf, and they have had just two whirlwind months to put everything together.

Because women can be at the shelter for mere days, it has helped that the small core group who have been at Ewa’a the entire time have produced the bulk of the work.

Simon, who has spent a lot of time working with children, arrived at the shelter for her first session in 2012 with an entire workshop planned. But after seeing the limitations of language and art experience, she ended up getting them to paint squiggly lines.

“And that’s when I could see what standard we were working with,” Simon says. “I was like, these girls have never painted, they’ve never done anything. And then slowly we just worked it out as we went along.”

The big changes happen when the women start seeing improvement in their work, says Simon. “It’s nice to have a focus on something. You’re achieving something and it’s real. What I like about this is they are exhibited. If you’re painting something that has worth and value, you put more into it.”

Although the women don’t attend the opening, the shelter does sneak them in during the exhibition.

And that’s when it becomes obvious how much the experience means, says Maitha Al Mazroui, Ewa’a’s corporate communications manager.

“You can see their faces, how much they feel proud. ‘OK, I am really worth something else’,” she explains. “People are really impressed with the paintings. They could see the reaction of people who don’t know them and they are really amazed with their work and they’re impressed with what they’ve done and they want to pay money for it.”

Simon remembers the first opening night.

“Yosra and I bawled our eyes out, it was so embarrassing,” she says, laughing. “I was trying to hold it together before the people had even come. Just seeing it on the walls, Yosra and I were like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve done it.’ Even talking about it, I’m emotional. And we were so proud of the girls for doing it.”

The women are also excited about the exhibition.

“If some of my paintings are not sold I will sit in the street and sell them,” the 23-year-old in green tights tells Kaddoura. “Take me on the last day; whatever is left, I will say ‘please, buy!”

She goes on to explain that her latest piece represents visions of what her life might be like when her court case is wrapped up and she is sent to another country for a new life.

“I need a house and I need a family,” she tells Kaddoura. When asked to identify the people in the painting, she replies: “These are my neighbours. I need neighbours, too.”

• Ewa’a Shelters for Women & Children exhibition Silent Voices 3, under the patronage of Sheikha Fatima Bint Mubarak, opens on Sunday at 6.30pm at The Space in Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 building. It runs until Thursday, May 15

amcqueen@thenational.ae

Published: May 6, 2014 04:00 AM

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