“I always had a sense of owing due to the good fortune of being able to move to Tasmania and receive a good education. As a young African woman, I have a privileged position. I have the power to do things – to justify my existence.”

These are the words Tsionawit Gebre-Yohannes, spoken instantly when I asked about the motivation behind her honours project and if she had always been passionate about issues of humanity and helping others. I’d caught her at a stressful time – her thesis was due in two weeks and I had made her leave the library to drink coffee and speak to the readers of Forty South – but the stress didn’t show. 

Tsionawit (the initial T is silent) had recently returned from a period in Addis Ababa to complete and submit her thesis, under the School of Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania. Her research focuses on the labour migration of Ethiopian women to the Middle East. A scholarship from Zonta International – a world-wide organisation that aims to advance the status of women through service and advocacy – has helped to make such an exciting and worthwhile honours project possible.

Tsionawit has her own story of migration, and it is within this story that we find the genesis of her thesis; her passion for people and place, including the city sprinkling rain on the café window – Hobart; and a love story. 


. . .

Stories of exploitation, abuse, torture and murder of migrant women sometimes make it into the media. The exposure of workers’ conditions at the emerging World Cup stadiums in Qatar brought a little more press coverage to the plight of migrant workers in the Middle East. 

Tsionawit says the issue exposed by the stadium constructions is not just a World Cup or FIFA issue. It is not just a Qatari issue. It is a huge global issue. The World Cup connection has merely caused some interest from the media. 

Laws in most of the recipient countries are not designed to protect the migrant workers, or where they are, they are not enforced. In any case, migrant workers, and particularly female domestic migrant workers, are not visible, effectively hidden away, far from the eyes of law enforcement or allies of the women’s wellbeing.

I ask if we are talking about slavery. Tsionawit says you could call it “legal or contracted slavery”. The women are not trafficked, they go by choice – albeit under the duress of poverty – with the belief they can provide for their family. The issue is legally and sociologically complex, but there is no doubt the circumstances of the migrant women are precarious at best. 

The migration of Asian women to Middle Eastern countries as domestic workers is quite well known and fairly well researched, but this is not the case for the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian women making a similar journey. Tsionawit is doing something rare – attempting to understand the migration decision making processes “from the neglected perspectives of the female labour migrants”.

Tsionawit hopes to aid understanding of Ethiopia’s migrant women and explore the motives behind their move to the Middle East. She is particularly interested in the recruitment stage and the women’s pre-departure perceptions and knowledge of the destination country, such as living and working conditions. 

Female domestic workers on short-term contracts in the Middle East make up 82 per cent of all labour migrants out of Ethiopia. Of course, the phenomenon of temporary and independent migration of women is not limited to Ethiopia. There is a growing feminisation of migration worldwide.

Migrant domestic workers in the Middle East form a sector that is deemed by the International Labour Organisation to be one of the most precarious in the world. Domestic work is often considered to be outside the bounds of “standard work”, meaning the women are not protected by labour laws even if relevant laws do exist.

In 2013, the government of Ethiopia imposed a ban on migration following publicity of serious abuses in several countries and the mass expulsion of 160,000 Ethiopian migrants from Saudi Arabia. This ban has led to a major increase in unofficial migration by Ethiopian women, bringing with it the added risks of abuse, kidnapping, starvation and dehydration en route. Some walk the 32 kilometres from the Ethiopian border across the deserts of Djibouti to the Red Sea coast in order to make the boat trip to Yemen – a war zone – then onto other parts of the Gulf.

Tsionawit's mother-in-law Astér, mother Tsige, grandmother Meléte and sister Yididya

In parallel with her honours research, Tsionawit is working as a research consultant for the Danish Refugee Council in Ethiopia focussing on the migration route to the Middle East via neighbouring Djibouti. The job has greatly assisted her studies, giving her the opportunity to travel to Djibouti and interview women mid-journey. She has been able to interview other researchers, migrants, government and non-government in addition to the assistance she has received from and her colleagues and scholars from the Addis Ababa University.  

Tsionawit Gebre-Yohannes was born in Jimma, Ethiopia, in 1992, to an Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother. It was a time of great political change. The repressive DERG government had recently fallen and the new government was trying to establish itself within the power vacuum. Tsionawit considers her early years as a fairly normal “middle class upbringing”, but by the time she was seven, her family started to feel the simmering tension of the long conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The two countries have been fighting, on and off, for half a century. 

They are two of the world’s poorest countries spending hundreds of millions of dollars on war.

Tsionawit’s mother, Tsige, is Eritrean-born and was at risk of deportation. Her father, Kiros, began having problems with the authorities and it soon got to the point where her family was fearful and could no longer live freely in Ethiopia. The family had moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, and eventually Kiros found a job in Kenya, making it possible to leave without drawing attention to his family and the reasons for needing to leave. 

Tsionawit didn’t like living in Kenya. It was very different to Ethiopia and she was picked on at school. Fortunately, in 2006, Australia welcomed Tsionawit and her family as humanitarian entrants and they arrived in Hobart in March. 

The first three months was tough. It seemed very cold and the girls couldn’t start school until the next term started. But once Tsionawit did start school, she found “lots of other nice misfits like us”, and she began to enjoy her new home, especially playing soccer with her schoolmates. 

There were some culture shocks in those early days in Tasmania. “I couldn’t believe kids would speak back to the teachers and show a lack of respect,” she said. “And people had boyfriends and girlfriends in Grade 7!” 

She laughs, recalling that everyone, especially blonde people, looked the same to her. People sometimes asked awkward or even offensive questions, such as, “Why are you black?” But Tsionawit says she didn’t mind. “It was from curiosity rather than negativity or maliciousness.”

Later, Saint Michael’s Collegiate School sponsored the education of Tsionawit and her two younger sisters. 

In 2010, Tsionawit finished high school and went on to study economics and arts at the University of Tasmania. When she turned 18, her parents took her on a trip back to Ethiopia to reconnect with her origins and cultural identity. On this journey, she visited Surafel, a childhood friend from Jimma. They had been close family friends and had stayed in contact via email, but sparked from this first return trip and enflamed by subsequent trips, Tsionawit and Surafel fell in love. They married in January this year. Surafel is studying medicine and they are now living together in Addis Ababa.

Surafel and Tsionawit

. . .

Two incidents during Tsionawit’s second trip to Ethiopia in 2011 guided her toward the subject of her honours research. The first was on a flight from Dubai to Addis Ababa when an Ethiopian woman sitting in the next seat asked Tsionawit’s help to fill out the pre-arrival immigration form. The woman was illiterate and knew only how to write her name. As they talked, Tsionawit learned that she was returning from ten years as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Her hands were rough and callused, her arms bruised. She had left her home many years before with the hope of returning with large savings to improve the life of her family. In the end, she had a couple of hundred dollars. The woman confided to Tsionawit the cruelty of her employers and that they often didn’t pay her.

When the plane landed, they parted ways, Tsionawit to her holiday, the woman to try to recover her former life with almost nothing to show from her long absence. Tsionawit thought the woman’s story was a rare tragedy, until a second incident revealed it was anything but. 

Walking past the immigration office in Addis Ababa with Surafel one day, Tsionawit saw a long line of women wearing scarves and burqas to cover themselves. It was a queue so long that an organic system of commerce had grown around it, with vendors selling tea and snacks, passport covers, hair accessories and much more. Tsionawit asked Surafel what was going on and he explained that they were all in the process of migrating to the Arab world to become maids. “As I learned more about this culture of migration, I realised most of the women in the long and daily queue would have experiences similar to the woman I spoke to on the plane,” Tsionawit reflects.

“So meeting this suffering upon return, then seeing so many other women waiting in a queue to follow that deceitful hope provided your motivation?” I ask.

“I am a young Ethiopian woman. I have a privileged position. I have been able to live in a first-world country, and get a first world education. But take away these privileges, and I remain a young Ethiopian woman. I guess that I feel I should use my privileges responsibly.”

Tsionawit is passionate about the power of social research and hopes that better knowledge will lead to more informed decisions by migrants, governments and non-government actors in both the sending and receiving countries. “The practical aim is to make migration safe for those who undertake it.” 

But it’s also clear that her motivation includes a desire to allow people to stand in these women’s shoes; to create understanding of why Ethiopian women do this; to redress the under-exploration of the voices of African women. 

Midway through our conversation Tsionawit had stopped to warmly greet two other young Ethiopian students who passed our table. Sitting back down, she told me that not many of the other Ethiopians who arrived in Tasmania around the same time as her family still live here. Of the 3,000 who migrated to Australia between 2000 and 2005, most eventually settled in Sydney or Melbourne where there are larger communities. But Tsionawit says this has changed in the past few years, with more choosing to stay in Tasmania. Today, there are about 60 Eritreans and 200 Ethiopians in the state. 

By the time this is read, Tsionawit Gebre-Yohannes will have graduated, and after an hour in conversation, I have no doubt it will have been with flying colours.

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