It was a quarter past seven in the evening, as Zakiah (not her real name) stared out of the window of an ambulance, intermittently wiping tears from the corners of her eyes using her headscarf. Her tiny body looked fragile, wrapped in an old jacket and faded pink trousers.
Looking uneasy, she mumbled, and at times exclaimed: “I can’t take this!” before she stopped and turned silent again.
That night, Zakiah, along with two other women, were being transferred to Raden Said Soekanto police hospital, better known as RS Polri, in Kramat Jati, East Jakarta. Earlier that afternoon, the 37-year-old mother of four landed at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport after flying in from Bahrain, where Zakiah had gone to work as a maid.
Along with thousands of other migrant workers who travel to the Middle East and Asia-Pacific countries to work, Zakiah was taken to the Gedung Pendataan Kepulangan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia or GPK-TKI, a government office located in the airport that keeps records of migrant workers’ arrivals. The GPK-TKI is affiliated with the BNP2TKI, a national agency that deals with migrant workers.
After a data check-up at one of the counters, Zakiah was directed to a unit that analyzes migrant workers’ problems, which can be identified from their passports, or any other documents they have with them. Those “problems,” according to Rolly Laheba, head of the GPK-TKI, include abusive treatment, sexual harassment, accidents and unpaid work, among others.
“Every migrant worker signs a contract for a minimum of two years to work abroad,” Rolly said. “So, if their passports show that they left Indonesia less than two years ago, it is very likely that they were involved in a certain ‘problem,’ hence their return home to Indonesia.”
Zakiah, according to that calculation, does have a problem — she left Indonesia for Bahrain in September, only two months ago, but no one could determine what happened to her, as she remained silent when she was taken to the small clinic at the GPK-TKI building.
“There is nothing we can really do at this stage. She won’t talk as she obviously seems very frightened and depressed,” said Regen Lumbantoruan, a physician at the GPK-TKI clinic. “She doesn’t trust us just yet. That is why all patients from here will be transferred to RS Polri to get the right treatment.”
On most days, an average of 1,000 to 1,200 migrant workers arrive at the GPK-TKI building, Rolly said. That number drops by about 50 percent during the Hajj season. Around 10 percent to 15 percent of that number belong to the “migrant worker with employment problems” category, he said. “And among that group, we usually have three to 10 people who need to be transferred to the RS Polri for medical treatment,” he said.
As the ambulance carrying Zakiah entered the Polri hospital’s driveway and stopped in front of the emergency unit, she looked confused and scared — Zakiah got out of the ambulance and slowly walked behind the vehicle. “I can’t take it! I can’t take it!” she shouted.
The ambulance driver, Suryana, told Zakiah to follow the nurses who were helping the other two migrant workers get seated on wheelchairs.
“She is OK. I’ve met some who were extremely hard to handle,” he said. “They could get very noisy in the ambulance, shouting, crying and even getting naked and dancing.”
Zakiah just stood in the corner of the unit’s waiting room with her eyes looking down at the floor. At times, she walked around and stopped occasionally, talking to herself and sometimes wiping her tears with her scarf.
Later, a nurse took Zakiah to the Eboni mental ward, designated for patients with mental problems who are taken for observation and further treatment. Data from the hospital shows that, on average, about 100 patients are treated at the hospital each month, of which more than 51 percent are former migrant workers.
Inside the small ward and from behind bars, a dark-skinned young woman waved her hand. “Hello, how are you? Are you well? I’ve worked in many countries, in Saudi Arabia, and also all over Africa,” she said, followed by laughter.
“Most of the patients at Eboni are women in their 20s and 30s,” said Henny Riana, a psychiatrist at the ward. “The kind of treatment and how long they are here for depends on the level of the mental problem. There are patients who get better after only 10 days, but there are also others who are still in treatment after more than three months.”
Having worked for the past 25 years at the only hospital where depressed former migrant workers are referred, Henny said many patients shared common symptoms.
“There have been patients who committed suicide. They mostly hung themselves using a long scarf. That is why all patients who arrive here wearing abaya (traditional Muslim loose dress) and headscarfs are required to take them off and wear something else instead,” she said.
Henny added that once a patient showed signs of improvement, he or she usually was able to talk about who they were and what they experienced. Not all of these former migrant workers were abused or had unpleasant experiences that triggered their depression, Henny said.
“There were also patients who seemed to get everything a migrant worker wants, a very nice employer and regular payment — but they were still depressed. Sometimes homesickness was the trigger,” she said. As for Zakiah, she will have to stay for an unknown length of time depending on the results of the observation. “I can’t accept it,” she said the same words again, softly. “Take me home.”
‘All I Got After Two Years Was This Teddy’
Waiting at a data-checking counter at the GPK-TKI office at Soekarno-Hatta airport, Catu Binti Suryadi’s left arm clung to a huge colorful teddy bear as she gave her passport to the officer.
The 23-year-old left her hometown of Indramayu, West Java, to work as a maid in Jordan two years ago, having already had a successful stint in Kuwait.
“My boss was a very kind person. That’s why I thought I wanted to do it again,” she said. “This time I was not lucky.”
Catu finished her contract of two years but never got paid. “My boss said I didn’t do my job well and so they didn’t pay me,” she said. “The only thing I got from two years of work is this teddy bear. This is from my boss’ child, for my younger sibling.”
Asked if she ever made an attempt to run away like many Indonesian maids did overseas, Catu smiled.
“If I could, I would have done it. They locked all doors and windows. I had to wait for two years to be able to get out,” she said.