“My name is Catherine. I am in desperate need.”
The email arrived in my inbox just before bed on December the 9th, 2012. I’d had an ordinary, well-off Qatar expat sort of day; the drive to and from school twice, a morning of writing, a coffee with a friend in the afternoon, and a trip around the supermarket.
Catherine’s email cut through my privileged, cushioned, segregated life like a serrated knife through butter.
She told me that she had been following me for some time on Twitter, and had read an article I’d written for the Telegraph about the birth of my son in a Qatari hospital. It was this that had prompted her to pose me some very pressing questions.
“I just don’t know where to ask” she wrote. “I want to know if you have any idea about the laws here in Qatar regarding giving birth without a marriage certificate and single?“
It turned out that Catherine was 37 weeks pregnant, and single. Having sex outside of wedlock and giving birth unmarried are both illegal under Qatari law; the two crimes are usually referred to colloquially as “love cases.”
I knew a few single Western women who’d got pregnant unexpectedly in Qatar. They’d either flown home on the first available flight or got married post-haste.
Neither option was open to Catherine, however. Her boyfriend had left her, and she had given her passport to a private money lender as security for a high interest loan.
She had tried to persuade this lender to give it back to her so that she could fly home to the Philippines for a few months to give birth, but he had refused. She was late with repayments and he had lodged a court case against her for “bad cheques,” another criminal matter in Qatar.
“I have made some bad choices and took risks that were beyond what I could manage. I regret all that” she wrote. “I do not plan to run away from my obligations because If that was my plan I would have done it long way back. All I want is for my baby to be safe and not be taken away from me. I’m worried and I’m scared of that.”
I could see, even with the sparse details she had provided me with, that she was in dire straits.
I typed a response frantically, telling her that my (basic) knowledge of the Qatari legal system told me that she needed to get out of the country immediately, if she possibly could.
She and I both knew, however, that she was already beyond the safe limit for flying in pregnancy, and barring a miracle, all airlines would now refuse to carry her.
I also told her to pay her embassy a visit, and she promised she would do so the following day.
The next evening, I received an email update. She told me that her embassy had advised her that she could deliver her baby in Qatar, but that she would have difficulty obtaining a birth certificate for her child afterwards, as she was unmarried. They also told her that they could offer her accommodation if her employer sacked her after the birth.
She seemed optimistic after the meeting. “I hope and pray that all will be well” she said.
I was reassured by her email, and filed it at the back of my mind to follow up on after Christmas.
The festive season came and went. In January, I duly sent an email to Catherine asking how the birth had been, and how things were with her in general.
I received no response. At this stage, I wasn’t unduly worried. Her email about her visit to her embassy had been reassuring, and in my world – the world of the well off, professional European expat – these sort of things resolved themselves without too much drama.
It took some months before I had a sense of growing dread about Catherine’s case. By the summer, I realised she was never going to respond to my emails. I tried once more to get in touch, and receiving no response, I resolved to try to find out what had happened to her.
The problem was, I wasn’t even sure of her nationality. I’d originally assumed she was Singaporean, but the Singapore Embassy told me they’d never heard of her.
Next, I called the Philippines embassy. I was put through to several different people – and I gave a rambling explanation about Catherine to each – before I finally reached the vice-consul. I explained why I was calling, and in a calm voice – a voice which told me he said this stuff every day, to many people – he replied “ah yes, Catherine. Yes, she’s in prison here.”
The vice-consul confirmed that she had been arrested in hospital after the birth of her child, a son. He reassured me that mother and baby were together, and that he had visited her in jail several times. I asked if I could visit, but I was told that only family members or embassy officials were allowed to visit Qatar’s main jail.
After we’d established the facts, he invited me to the embassy to talk about the case, and it was as a result of this conversation that Doha News ran its first piece about ‘illegal birth’ in Qatar, an interview in August 2013 with another Filipina woman, who had given birth in secret, as she was also unmarried. We included a short quote from Catherine’s email in the story.
Catherine’s year-long jail sentence was due to end in December 2013, but the date passed, and I didn’t hear from her. I hoped that this meant that she had left Qatar and put everything behind her, her contact with me included.
In February 2014, however, I got another unexpected email.
This time, it was from a friend of Catherine’s, Maya. She told me that they’d been in jail together, and that Catherine had asked her to make contact with me so that she could ask me to visit her.
Despite having finished her sentence for ‘illegal birth’, Catherine was still incarcerated. The authorities had sent her and her son to the country’s deportation center for a while, before finally realising – after Catherine repeatedly urged them to check her files – that she had outstanding debt cases to answer in court.
I agreed to go to visit Catherine at the Capital Security building in central Doha, where prisoners awaiting trial are held.
Capital Security doesn’t look like a jail. It’s a large, modern complex with attractive architecture and mirrored windows, and it’s flanked by palm trees. There is no barbed wire – just a man in a booth who checks visitor IDs as they pass by.
Beyond here is a courtyard full of parked cars, and two flights of steps leading up to separate reception areas – one for men and one for women.
I was greeted by friendly female guards, who looked me up and down quizzically. Catherine’s friend was with me, and she took the lead. I was relieved about that, as I was nervous. I was visiting as a journalist rather than as a friend, and I didn’t know if the authorities would permit that if they knew.
My name and residence permit number were listed in the register, and I was asked to leave all of my belongings, including my notebook, with the guards. We were then asked to sit down briefly on the majlis style seating in the reception area before being ushered into a side room.
Here was a single row of plastic chairs, all facing segregated booths mounted on a counter, topped with inch-thick glass. There were grills beneath each window through which prisoners and visitors strained to communicate with each other.
Catherine came to sit down on the other side of the glass, cradling Adam. She was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had her hair tied back neatly. Adam was more than a year old now, and walking. He was wearing a Hugo Boss t-shirt, a gift from the jail’s governor, and he was smiling broadly.
As we talked – a difficult task as the room filled up and visitors all began shouting into the grills, each struggling to be heard in the hubbub – Adam waved and made smeary hand trails across the glass.
The story I wrote after this meeting – with quotes from memory, hastily scribbled down after I’d left the jail – detailed her story thus far. Known in the piece by the alias “Mary,” I explained that she now faced a series of “cheque cases”, court cases due to unpaid debts. Some were for her loans, and others were for rent she had been unable to pay while in jail.
Somewhat incredibly, the authorities had not told her how many charges she was facing, so she had no idea how long her future jail term might be.
A friend was helping her gain access to her legal file so she could defend herself in court, but aside from that, she was on her own. Several scheduled court dates had already been cancelled, a symptom of Qatar’s incredibly congested legal system. She told me she hoped that the court might order her release so that she could work to pay off the debts, and so that Adam could grow up outside of jail.
As our meeting came to an end, Catherine signaled to security staff, asking them to bring her son to the other side of the divide.
They handed Adam to me beyond the security arch, through which we smiled and waved at his Mummy.
I took him through to the reception area, where we both looked out through the double doors at the car park outside and the road beyond.
“Dar,” he said, pointing to the cars parked outside. “Buuus” he said, delighted at the sight of a real bus.
I asked if I could take him for a walk outside, but the staff said it wasn’t allowed. Instead, Adam held his hand to the window, staring at the traffic passing by in the distance, eventually being persuaded to return to his mother inside.
Catherine asked me if I’d visit her again, and I agreed.
A return visit
I went back two months later. On the previous visit I’d asked what she needed, and she told me she was short of clothes, and that she loved to read, but had read most of the English language novels in the prison library.
I arrived loaded with shopping. A friend had bought her a selection of brand new children’s books and some novels, and I’d also bought toiletries for them both, as well as clothes and toddler snacks. The guards told me I would need to ask permission from the “Captain” – the policeman in charge of the jail – so I duly walked outside and entered through the men’s entrance on the other side.
The Captain’s office was on the left as we walked in. He was on the phone, but ushered us into his office and gesticulated at two chairs, separated by a table, upon which sat a box of tissues and some sweets.
When he ended his phone conversation, he asked us, in a pleasant but slightly exasperated way, why we were there. I garbled something about gifts for Catherine and her baby, and he nodded. He asked to see what was in my bag. I watched him take each item out and examine it. He opened the brand new box of children’s books and checked each book, presumably for drugs or some other contraband.
He initially refused the toddler snacks until I explained that they were for Adam. Then, with the same lack of ceremony with which we’d been received, he dispatched us back to the women’s section with his approval.
The female guards took the bag, and then we walked once again into the room with the plastic chairs and the glass screens. Catherine appeared, bearing the bag, and a huge smile. I watched as she removed each item from the bag, examining the books, the toiletries and the clothes in turn.
I’d given Adam some of my son’s old clothes, and she held them up to him to check the size. After a long chat about her legal situation – still no clearer than before – we prepared to say goodbye. This time, though, she had something for me – a little knitted pouch, along with a home-made envelope and note. Catherine had been learning to knit in jail.
Back to main jail
In July, I heard from her friend that she’d been sent back to the main jail to serve a sentence for debt. Neither she nor I knew what her real legal situation was. We kept in contact as Catherine tried to get her court documents translated.
Then that October, I had an email out of the blue from Catherine’s cousin, Kristina. She’d read the story Doha News had run and wanted to ask if I was writing about the same woman. She said Catherine had been calling her Mum every fortnight from Qatar, but that apart from that, the family had no idea how things were, or how to help her.
“We’re in a desperate situation, both Catherine and our family. Your article somehow gave us a glimpse of hope that we will be able to finally make progress with her case” she wrote.
She added that the family were trying to raise funds for a family member to fly to Qatar to try to help.
I confirmed that I was indeed writing about Catherine, and I told her I’d recently visited her. We exchanged further emails over the following months, trying to make sense of Catherine’s court appearances and sentences.
Time dragged on; my husband got a new job in the UK, and we left Qatar for good in April 2015. Despite my new surroundings, though, I hadn’t forgotten Catherine and Adam.
A surprise tweet
Then in late October 2015 – more than a year since I’d last seen Catherine, I received another unexpected message, this time via Twitter.
“Hello, it’s me :)” it said.
Catherine and Adam were out of jail in Doha. She’d been woken early that morning, unexpectedly, and told to pack their things.
The pair had initially been placed in the country’s deportation centre, but Catherine had complained that the overcrowded, unhealthy atmosphere was bad for Adam’s asthma, and the authorities had agreed. She was released into the care of distant family members in Doha, and aged nearly three, Adam now had his first taste of life beyond prison walls.
Catherine hoped she would be home in the Philippines by Christmas. Her father had died while she was in jail, and she hoped to be reunited with her mother as soon as possible.
It was not to be. It turned out – after a great amount of digging and multiple fruitless visits made by Catherine to various government offices – that she still had several civil debt cases hanging over her.
This meant a travel ban. She and Adam could not leave Qatar until they were resolved, and as she was supposed to have been deported, she couldn’t work either. She had no income and no way of paying back the loans.
I wrote another story for Doha News explaining her new predicament, and it was after this that I received an email from a lawyer who was interested in helping out. Kristen Johnson, then of law firm Squire Patton Boggs, successfully persuaded her colleagues to work pro bono on the case.
Travel bans lifted
Catherine and the SPB team met regularly and in April this year, she messaged me with great excitement. The Ministry of Interior had removed her travel bans – effectively forgiving the civil cases – and she and Adam were free to leave.
Thousands of miles away in London, I cracked open a bottle of wine and toasted their freedom.
Her family wasted no time in booking her flights, and on April 25th 2016, Catherine and Adam flew out of Doha’s Hamad International Airport bound for the Philippines.
When they walked out of arrivals in Manila, a whole crowd of Catherine’s family were there to meet them – cousins, aunts, her niece – and her mother, who she hadn’t seen in over four years.
Her return home is bitter-sweet, however. Her mother has kidney failure, and requires weekly dialysis.
“She looks okay though, but still it scares me,” Catherine told me after her return. “But I’m glad I am finally here with her and I want Adam to have memories with her and my family.”
Despite all this, she remains upbeat. She has plans to apply for an Australian work visa, and hopes to take Adam with her.
A life lesson
What strikes me most about Catherine is her resilience and her lack of anger.
She told me that she initially felt anger towards Adam’s father for leaving them, but that she has forgiven him, and that she is now focusing on moving on. She says she has no anger towards the Qatari authorities, as she knew she was breaking the law, and she knew that there would be consequences.
Just after she was released, she told me that her ordeal had given her a new appreciation for life’s opportunities.
“Every single thing – every little thing that you can do today – do it, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said.
I learned many valuable lessons during my years as an expat, but this particular lesson from Catherine is one that will stay with me forever.