By Isabelle Hui
My helper has always been a huge part of my life. As both of my parents were busy when I was growing up, she was the main parental figure in my life. I remember her sharing snippets of her old life with me and even as a kid, it was shocking to me the pain she had to endure. Until this day, she has never told me her full story. So here I am, sharing the story of the strongest woman I know.
This is Yati’s story.
“I would play with my friends after school and play hide and seek. We would go to the waterfall and wash our clothes together. We would eat the cashew fruit we stole from the cemetery.”
She had a wonderful childhood. It was a childhood filled with games of hide and seek, waterfalls, and the kind of freedom that can only be experienced through motorcycling down the dirt road of a remote village. She was the eldest of four children, but that was a responsibility she wouldn’t experience until years later. Her afternoons were spent at the cemetery, where she would steal from the cashew trees and devour them secretly. Those were her best years.
"I went to school until I was in secondary, I wanted to keep going to school but we didn’t have enough money. I decided to help my mom by working since I am the eldest of the family. I would pick cloves from the cloves trees to sell in order to help out with the financial situation."
When she was 16, she had to drop out of school. She had always been good at school, she especially enjoyed drawing class. She would’ve loved to continue with her education but that wasn’t a choice for her to make. Every day, she would pick cloves from trees and sell them at the market to earn some money. As the eldest child, she knew this was a responsibility that she could not run away from. When she was a bit older, she decided to leave her village and go to Jakarta alone to find a job. She became a helper for a rich family. She cleaned, cooked, took care of the kids. She only came back home for the Muslim New Year.
"In 2000, I gave birth to a baby girl. I didn’t eat anything when I was pregnant. After that, I decided to go to Hong Kong where my sister was already working in. I was on a minibus going to Hong Kong. I had a bad feeling before I went on the bus but I didn’t think much of it. I was sitting in the front with my friend, we were eating FOX candies."
It was 5 am on a Friday. She remembered the exact date. That morning she woke up bright and early, ready to start a new journey, and this time to Hong Kong. She sat with her friend on the bus, right behind the driver's seat. She laughed and ate with her friend. The bus ride was long and the day was early, so naturally, she fell asleep. “I don’t know how I ended up sleeping crouched on the ground, but thank god I did”. She woke up to a loud noise. And then there was nothing (“I think I fainted”). When she woke up, she remembered turning to her friend to find blood. There was a gaping wound where her stomach was and blood was gushing relentlessly out of it. It was a scene right out of the horror films she had seen. She stood up to find all 12 people on the bus bleeding out. Her heart started pounding and she didn’t know what to do but she HAD to do something, right? “I tried to carry all of them out of the bus” Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. That night out of everyone on the bus, only three survived: her, the driver and one other passenger.
“I prayed for all of them”
I used to never understand why my helper took her religion so seriously. She would stay in her room at 8 pm every night, praying. Now, I understand: when life throws so much at you, all you can do is pray.
"Then, I started working in Hong Kong. It was for a small family of three."
She only stayed with them for one year. She was in a foreign country where everyone spoke a language completely incomprehensible to her. “Cantonese was so hard, I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying!” The family she stayed with lived in a tiny apartment in Jordan. Her days consisted of walking, walking, and more walking. Every day, to save transportation money, she had to walk 4 times to and fro the little girl’s school 30 minutes away. One time to go home after sending the girl to school. Twice to send lunch to the girl. And the final time to collect her from school. She was only permitted to take the MTR when the girl was with her. “I had no freedom there. They would have cameras in the apartment and I couldn’t leave the house without contacting my employer”
They made her clean their brother’s apartment, their office, their grandparents’ house. She became a machine that woke up solely for the purpose of cleaning and cooking. “I was very thin because I walked so much. I had no holiday and not much food to eat.” This was her life for one year. One day, when the little girl was playing with her scooter around the apartment while Yati was ironing, she knocked the iron over. The iron fell right on Yati’s hand, “my hand became red and I got a huge blister that turned black afterwards.” She didn’t know then, but that was her exit ticket.
Maybe it was out of guilt, or fear, but her employer decided to let her go. One afternoon, her employer told her they would treat her to yumcha, but instead, they brought her to the agency and ended the contract.
After that, she has been with our family ever since. “I’m so lucky to have my daughter, to have lived despite everything,” she said as she was telling me her story, “now I look back and laugh.” Her life has since slowed down to a comforting routine. “God will always find a way,” she always tells me, “you just have to trust him”.
As I watched her cook our dinner in the kitchen, humming as she chopped up the carrots and onions, I felt closer to her than I had ever before. She has been with our family for 12 years, when she first came, I was only up to her waist, yet, I never tried to know her story. Now, I feel a sense of pride as I watched her, knowing how much she has been through. That is why I am writing this article, to share a voice that would otherwise be unheard, to share a story that would otherwise be untold.