Athenkosi Mfeno (30) from George in the Western Cape became a victim of a job scam in Oman in February. The father of two was led to believe he’d work as a barista at a café, but he was held captive and had to work without pay as the scammers tried to extort money from his family.
“I’d been working as a barista for five years and joined a Facebook group where I posted pictures and videos of my work. One of the women in the group contacted me one day and promised me a job at a café in Ibra, Oman.
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I wanted the job because I like working with coffee and I wanted to gain international experience. I was offered a salary, accommodation and transport to and from the café. I just had to pay for my plane ticket.
It felt like my dreams were coming true. I was sent a two-year contract and asked to send a video of me signing it.
Once in Oman, I was picked up by a taxi driver at the airport and taken to a hotel where I had to quarantine for seven days. Life was nice at the hotel and I sent updates to my loved ones. But things changed once I left the place.
From the hotel I was taken to another building in Ibra. A man in his early 30s asked for my ID and passport because he wanted to make copies. I later asked him to return them, but I was told I’d only get them back in two years. The man is the owner of a café – but it’s not the same café I was told I would work in. That place does not exist.
I was locked up in an empty room with a stove, a pot and mattress. There was another guy from Nepal who had also been scammed but he had his own room.
I was given milk, dry bread and sometimes a sandwich to eat. I was allowed to keep my phone and I informed the people at home of my situation. The only problem is my captor gave me a sim card from Oman that did not allow me to make calls. When people would call me, they would get through to the café owner.
He told me I could only leave after working for four months in his café without payment. I told him I didn’t believe he would set me free and he then told me to pay R25 000.
I had to wash the dishes and the sliding doors at his café. The Nepalese guy got to work as a barista. We worked from 8:30am to 11:10pm. There were times I tried to explain my situation to customers, but they didn’t understand English.
One time I escaped from the room I was being held in after the café owner forgot to lock it. I went to a local police station and explained my situation, but I was told I should go to the South African Embassy in the capital, Muscat. But that was two hours away and I had no money to get there. I had to go back to the room.
I tried to commit suicide. I drank poison and landed up in hospital and the following day the police came to arrest me because I didn't have any documentation. After being locked up for three hours, the owner of the café came to the police station and showed them my passport. I once again tried to explain my situation to the police but they told me they’d need to get an interpreter.
Back home, my previous employer, family, girlfriend and community were negotiating with the café owner. He was pressuring them to pay him because he said I was becoming problematic and it was costing him money.
My loved ones raised funds to pay for my ransom and for my plane ticket. My brother had to sell one of his cows and a Facebook page was started to help raise funds.
The café owner kept asking for more money. He also started charging me for each day I lived in the room and for other things like using an iron.
R32 388 was paid for my ransom. After being held captive from 14 February to 4 April, I was free to go.
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It took three flights to get back home but I was just so happy to be on my way back. I cried when I saw my family. I had no words.
I am also so happy that I got my old job back. I haven’t received any counselling but I’d like to because I still have to deal with anger. My biggest mistake was not verifying the café. I was just too excited about the opportunity.”