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A Heart-Wrenching Journey: Grace's Resilience Amidst Adversity and Trauma

“Nilitoka Kenya Kuokota Ugonjwa Huko”

I left Kenya, only to come back with a heart disease.

Grace's story is one of resilience and adversity, marked by a series of harrowing experiences that unfolded during her time in Saudi Arabia. Her return to Kenya, after nearly ten months, bore the physical burden of a heart disease caused by the weight of her emotional and psychological scars. Despite undergoing medical evaluations deeming her fit for work both in Kenya and the Gulf State, her health deteriorated significantly in a remarkably short span of time, revealing the less known connection between stress, trauma, and heart diseases.

Deceived by a Kenyan agent who promised employment with a cleaning company and assured coverage of incidental costs of her two-years stay, Grace embarked on her journey with optimism. Yet, she had to revise her expectations as soon as she arrived when she found herself confined to the agency's hostel for five agonizing weeks. The miserable accommodation forced her to use bedbug-infested mattresses on the floors and meager rations to be shared among nine souls. Her spirit was crushed when she and fellow women in the hostel were presented as livestock at the marketplace to potential employers. Under the scrutiny of those leering gazes, she felt reduced to an object, a commodity to be inspected and selected.

The stark contrast between Grace's expectations and her actual situation deepened in her first place of employment, where she was subjected to exceedingly long working hours, indecent accommodation quarters, bullying by her employer, his wife, and the children. The continuous stress from taunting, lack of any privacy and excessive duties culminated in her developing chest pains and swollen legs. Her pleas for medical help were met with cold indifference, pushing her to the brink of absconding duties.

Returned to the agency office, Grace was immediately deployed to a new household, where she encountered a new form of abuse: both the employer and his eldest son were continuously sexually harassing her. When she dared to stand up for herself, the retaliation was swift and brutal. The eldest son's advances turned into torment, a vile dance of power and submission. Isolated and degraded, Grace's world shrank to a prison of endless chores and misery.

Fleeing was the only option. She became a "Kemboi", or “Runaway”, an illegal migrant outside the confines of the sponsorship contract. Grace's life as a fugitive was even more difficult, as she had to look for employment in the illegal labor market, where she navigated several households, which unfair conditions kept her in a vicious circle of abuse causing her health to deteriorate to the extent of suffering what felt like a heart attack. The anxiety and fear of her illegal status and her failing health convinced her to seek for help from the Kenyan Embassy. Yet, the very institution meant to protect her abandoned her when she needed it most.

Alone and shattered, she found herself at a deportation center, a place of last resort. The irony wasn't lost on her – seeking refuge in a place meant to cast her out. The next morning, they processed her biometric details, which revealed the Saudi agency office details, who came to pick her up and returned with her to the agency hostels. At the hostel, she was locked up in an isolation room where she suffered a similar attack to the previous one.

Grace’s story and fortune took a different path when her plight gained the attention of the BBC through the social media. Fearing a scandal, the Saudi agency promptly released Grace. As per today, she remains unaware of who covered the costs of her repatriation. In Kenya, she now battles a heart disease that has incapacitated her ability to work.

Grace’s story shines light on the relation between stress, trauma, and heart diseases. Indeed, although trauma is considered to be a psychiatric symptom, the most serious long-term effects of trauma may be physical. Trauma, stress, hypervigilance, and sleep deprivation have strong effects on the heart: they can affect it both acutely and chronically. The chronic cardiovascular effects of trauma are also potentially life-threatening: intense emotional stress resulting from a traumatic event can sometimes weaken the heart so severely as to produce a lethal episode of heart failure. For reasons that remain poorly understood, these effects are vastly more common among women.


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