[Beirut] Chanting “Sami! Sami!,” dozens of people gathered at the entrance to the departures area of Beirut International Airport earlier this month, to bid farewell to Ethiopian activist Samuel “Sami” Tesfaye. After 13 years in Lebanon, the community leader was deported on February 18, with local authorities issuing a 1-5 year ban on returning to the country.
“While Sami committed no crime, the Lebanese state is actively criminalizing and punishing him,” said Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement in a statement the night before his deportation.
Sami was one of thousands of migrant workers in Lebanon affected by the discriminatory “kafala” system.
“The kafala system, which means sponsorship, is a set of practices, administrative regulations and policies that bind the residence and employment of these migrants to the will of their employer.”Samaya Mattouk
“The kafala system, which means sponsorship, is a set of practices, administrative regulations and policies that bind the residence and employment of these migrants to the will of their employer,” explains Samaya Mattouk, who works at the Lebanese Kafa NGO, which fights to end violence against women.
How does the kafala system impact migrant domestic workers in Lebanon?
Lebanon is home to over 250,000 migrant domestic workers (MDW), who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households.
The vast majority of these workers are women. Since the system that regulates their residency and work permit in the country is not based on any centralized law, most of these migrant domestic workers depend on traditions and informal decisions that function against their well-being.
“Once they arrive at their new houses, their bosses confiscate their passports, stop paying their salaries, prohibit them from contacting their families and lock them up when they leave the house,” Mattouk tells The Media Line.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), around 50% of female employees in Lebanon used to work more than 85 hours a week; most of them do not have free hours and are imprisoned far from home. And while this situation has changed in recent years, it is not for the better.
The majority of the blame lies with Lebanon’s worsening financial woes.
For the past three and a half years, the country has been going through one of the worst economic crises in the world since 1850, according to the World Bank. Almost three-quarters of the population are living below the poverty line, the United Nations says.
The Lebanese lira has lost 95% of its value, and the migrant domestic workers have seen their salaries disappear along with it. Before the crisis, they used to earn just between $150 or $250 per month, most of which they would send back to their families back home.
“Many families are choosing to abandon these women in front of their embassies, and when the pandemic hit, most migrants gave up their hopes of recovering their unpaid wages and asked to return to their countries,” an anti-racism activist who spoke on condition of anonymity told The Media Line.
Created by a group of Lebanon anti-racism activists, this movement fights against what she calls “modern day slavery.”
Fighting "modern day slavery" in Lebanon
Sarktelu Teshome from Ethiopia experienced the traumatizing kafala system when she was 16 years old, following the dream of working in a household and sending money to her family.
During her first eight months of living with the Lebanese family she worked for, Sarktelu was not allowed to leave the house or even eat. She would feed herself with the leftovers from the young child she cared for.
When she turned 17, her “monsieur,” the man in charge of her residency permits, asked her to have sexual relations, but she refused.
“It was only eight months but it was enough for a lifetime,” Teshome tells The Media Line. “I don't understand how some women can stay two or three years locked up,” she says.
After nine years in the country, Teshome has managed to leave behind the distress of working in a domestic household. Now she has a good position with Médecins Sans Frontières, from which she helps women who are suffering through similar experiences to her own. She wishes to return to Ethiopia, but she has a son with a Lebanese man and he won’t give his permission to her to take their child out of the country.
“I am still trapped,” she laments.
Being ignored and even criminalized by the Lebanese authorities, these women had no other choice but to organize themselves. Many organizations, representing every different community present in the country, have been the first responders for these social groups.
Initiatives such as Egna Legna Besidet, a collective of Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon, or the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon have been providing food, medication, health assistance and many other services to thousands of MDW. They have funded most of these women’s return trips back to their respective home countries.“What we have to do is fight as a community, as one people,” Tsigereda Brihanu, former domestic worker and current coordinator of Egna Legna Besidet, tells The Media Line.
“There is no hope from the Lebanese side, the few good people that have helped us aren’t enough,” she says.
As the ones suffering the most, they know how to find solutions, how to help their own people.
“We are the victims and we come from our own life experiences,” Brihanu says.
“We created this organization to fight for ourselves, we are not waiting for someone to come and help us,” she says. “The struggle that we came from, the life that we are living… Only we know what it is like.”
The economic crisis has forced these women to put a stop to their long-term fight.
“Our main demand is to abolish the kafala system, but it is a long process,” says Brihanu.
Most of the organizations established by the migrant workers want to end this system, which, before the economic crisis, saw two MDWs killed every week, either by suicide or under strange circumstances. Most of these deaths were never investigated.
But the current dire situation in the country means their fight comes at the end of Lebanese society’s list of priorities. Yet their presence in the country, despite the racism and ostracism they experience, is vital for Lebanese society, which is very much based on bragging and keeping up appearances.
“I would die to see how Lebanon would stand up if all the migrant domestic workers left,” Teshome tells The Media Line.
“There is a culture of supremacy among the Lebanese when it comes to refugees or migrant domestic workers,” says the anonymous anti-racism activist. “It’s very difficult to engage people in this conversation when they are convinced of their superiority.”
MDWs are leading their own fight in a country that simultaneously marginalizes them and depends upon them.
“We are living in the 21st century; are Lebanese really okay with slavery?” asks Brihanu. “Do they really think that domestic workers are not human beings?”