At 17,000 square feet, complete with eight bathrooms, six bedroom suites, 14 living areas, the mansion on Aziza Court in Great Falls, Virginia is fit for royalty. An old real estate listing video even called it where “you can envision a princess losing her glass slipper as she runs down the staircase.”
It’s perhaps fitting then that its past occupants were a son of the late king of Saudi Arabia and his wife, a daughter of the late crown prince. For years, the couple resided in the mansion nestled in the wealthy DC suburbs, where they employed nannies, cooks, and other domestic workers who had traveled from faraway countries to work there.
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But in a lawsuit brought by a former Eritrean employee, Simret Semere Tekle, the Saudi royals are guilty of human trafficking.
The Washington Post reports:
[Tekle] claims she was subjected to human trafficking, forced labor and psychological abuse, and was paid less than $2 per hour despite consistently working 15-hour days. Simret Semere Tekle, a citizen of Eritrea, whose case has attracted the representation of several high-powered firms, is seeking damages not limited to the alleged loss of wages.
“Ms. Tekle was held in forced labor in the United States for seven months, working morning to night, seven days a week, with no days off,” the lawsuit said, and in return was paid about $3,000.
Tekle also alleges in the lawsuit that throughout that time in 2011 and 2012 she was “forbidden” by the Saudi family from speaking with people outside the mansion and was told Americans would “attack” her if she went outside.
Stuart Nash, an attorney for Princess Nouf Bint Nayef Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and Prince Mohammad Bin Abdullah al-Saud, called the allegations false at the hearing. “She was paid thousands of dollars above the minimum wage,” he said, adding that pictures exist that undercut her claims. “She had a wonderful life in the house. They treated her wonderfully and with respect and dignity.”
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal battles between diplomats and foreign officials, many of whom have diplomatic immunity, and their former live-in domestic workers.
Over the past 15 years, 35 lawsuits have been filed across the United States by domestic workers alleging that they were trafficked into the officials’ homes, facing wage theft, isolation, and even sexual and physical assault.
The US State Department has taken notice for decades, stating in 1981 that it had “deep concern over the evidence that some members of the diplomatic missions have seriously abused or exploited household servants.”
Part of the problem is that domestic workers’ visas are tied to their employers in the US. “When you have a worker who lives in your home and whose immigration status is tied to them, they have this worker by the neck, basically,” said Riya Ortiz, a case manager for Damayan Migrant Workers Association in New York City.
In a hearing last Friday, the Saudi family’s attorneys asked that the court dismiss Tekle’s claim for breach of contract, saying it is disqualified by the statute of limitations. The judge granted the motion, thus giving the plaintiff time to amend the complaint.
Incredibly, Stuart Nash, the Saudis’ attorney, also said he contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Justice in an attempt to revoke Tekle’s T-visa, a special visa given to victims of human trafficking in the United States.
“A government agent has informed us that Ms. Tekle would be investigated for fraudulently obtaining a T-Visa telling us that ‘what the government gives, it can also take away,” said Nash.
Agnieszka Fryszman, an attorney for Tekle, described that as “categorically false.” In Tekle’s complaint, she says she met US government authorities in 2013 to report the abuses and was later certified as a “victim of a severe form of trafficking in persons” by the Department of Homeland Security.
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