When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t know what to expect. I was fresh out of the Air Force and starting my new job as a private military contractor. Because of my background in aircraft fabrication, I had been hired by the Royal Saudi Air Force to help support their jet fighter program. I had heard rumors from other contractors about how cold and indifferent Saudi Arabia could be, but I was advised by fellow contractors to focus on doing my job and collect an easy paycheck.
My life slipped into a steady routine. Each day I would leave my villa on the heavily guarded compound, work my eight-hour shift on the air base and return to my villa. The compound had all the amenities I needed—a grocery store, a pool, a gym, and even a small restaurant—so there was no reason for me to venture into the local city.
One day, my supervisor, Willie, who had been in the country for decades, and I decided to go to the mall. On the way, as we drove slowly through a crowded street, I saw him: he was a small kid, dirty, and dressed in ragged clothing. He looked like a lost puppy. I knew he couldn’t be Saudi Arabian, because he was wearing an Afghan-style hat. He walked up to our car and knocked on the passenger window. He was begging for money. Willie told me not to give him any, but he didn’t say why. However, I decided to give the kid a fist full of riyals, so I rolled down my window. As I handed him the money, he looked up, thanked me, and quickly ran back to the corner. Willie grunted, visibly upset.
After I rolled up my window, Wille said, “Michael, I hope you’re happy. You just contributed to human trafficking.” Soon after, I saw a van pull up and watched the kid give the Saudi driver all the money he had. Willie told me that human trafficking was common here and that boys were usually tasked with begging for money for their handlers. Begging was the best-case scenario, he said. At first, I didn’t believe Willie, but I already knew about Afghan “tea boys,” the sex slaves of older men in Afghanistan, but everything made sense once I really thought about it. Why else would an Afghan kid be in this location, on the far side of Saudi Arabia? Willie told me that this was the reality of the country and that most contractors couldn’t handle working in the Middle East. I reminded myself that I was only supposed to care about getting the job done and making easy money, but my stomach still twisted into knots.
On the drive back to the compound, I didn’t say anything. I was just trying to make sense of the world around me. I had heard stories about rape victims being lashed when they left their homes without a male escort, people having their hands chopped off, and the debt slavery of third-world workers. But now, I could finally connect a face to a story. I felt a whirlpool of emotions; I couldn’t sort myself out, but I knew I wasn’t acting like a contractor. Contractors were supposed to be indifferent professionals who only cared about the money.
A few months later, my contract was near its end, and I was given the option to sign up for another year, but I didn’t take it. Willie told me I was an idiot to give up my company-paid housing, my tax-free income, and my relatively easy job. He had valid points, but I felt I had to leave. In order to continue being a contractor, I would have to kill a small part of myself, as Willie had done. I didn’t want to end up like him.
When I left Saudi Arabia, I took a lavish holiday in Thailand before returning to the U.S. I ate at the best restaurants, stayed at expensive hotels, and spent a good amount of time drinking. While on holiday, I donated money to charities, gave money to those who looked like they were in need, and always tipped the workers. However, I couldn’t escape my feelings of guilt and shame. I had managed to leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but I knew a lot of people weren’t so lucky.
Even after five years, I still wonder what happened to that kid with the Afghan hat. I know happy endings don’t exist. Maybe in a different place and under different circumstances, I could have helped that kid, but in Saudi Arabia, I was a bystander.
Michael Ramirez is an Air Force veteran who served from 2008 to 2014. After his initial military enlistment, Michael became a private military contractor for a foreign country. After working overseas, Michael decided to quit and return back to the U.S to finish his degree. Currently, Michael is finishing his degree in Statistics and Data Science at UC Santa Barbara.