Dodging pulped food and glass shards, I walk the narrow and winding streets of Beirut up a hill in Hamra, one of the city’s main commercial districts, to the Q Hotel, with its crumbling sign and exposed brick façade. I make my way to the third floor, room 304, where, between ancient cupboards and worn carpets, time seems to have stopped in the 1950s. Mariema — her back hunched, her blue shirt sagging, her face hollow — is lying on a bed with its crumpled sheet on the floor.
“Look at me,” she sobs. “I can’t move.”
Fatigued arms, dead hands, rigid legs — 12 months in the home of a wealthy Lebanese family have reduced her to this. Not an incapacitating ailment. Just a year’s work as a maid in what was “more than a house, a prison,” with its exertion and pain, coercion and abuse. The days of fear and nights of torment were a literal plague since she ended up with optic neuromyelitis, a disease of the central nervous system. “An illness that takes away your sight, atrophies your muscles, and gives you no respite.”
The orphaned 24-year-old woman had left Sierra Leone in July 2019 on a one-way ticket to Beirut. On arrival at the airport, she met the kafeel — the sponsor who organized the trip. Her passport was confiscated, and a contract was signed: $150 a month for 12 months for a total of $1,800. Though she would only receive $320. She was then confined in an isolation room, “the room where you wait for 12 hours, without food and water, for the Madam to come and pick you up,” she recalls. The hours felt endless. Hours “where you wonder why they took your documents, kept your mobile phone, and then you realize, only a few weeks later, that it is their way of controlling you. They got you, they can blackmail you, you are their merchandise.”
According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers — the majority of them from African and Asian countries — are registered under the Kafala system in Lebanon. Girls like Mariema do not know that the Madam and the kafeel are part of this sponsorship system and that they are excluded from the Lebanese Labor Law and therefore have no rights or protections. The relationship with their employer will be unequal, abusive, violent. As the “holder” of the permit, the sponsor alone will determine their legal status, which may be revoked at will.
“There is no way to negotiate with this slavery system,” says Farah Baba, the spokesperson for the Anti-Racism Movement, a Lebanese association that last April conducted a survey of 356 domestic workers and other migrant workers, the results of which are alarming. “You cannot oppose your sponsor because it is the only legal link you have in Lebanon.”
On Sept. 8, 2020, the Lebanese Ministry of Labor tried to take a step forward and decided to adopt the new Standard Unified Contract, granting workers more rights such as the national minimum wage, a 48-hour workweek, a weekly rest day, sick pay, and annual leave. However, the Syndicate of the Owners of Recruitment Agencies in Lebanon challenged the validity of the legislation, and the State Shura Council suspended its implementation one month later. “Instead of providing more protections and dismantling the Kafala system, Lebanon’s highest administrative court has appeared to prioritize the narrow commercial interests of the recruitment agencies,” says Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This shameful pattern of abuses has to end,” adds Diala Haidar, Lebanon campaigner at Amnesty International. “Authorities must stop protecting a system that facilitates exploitation, forced labor, and human trafficking.”
Sawsan Abdulrahim, a professor at the American University of Beirut, sees any contract reform as just an intermediate step that leaves other issues unresolved because “employers do, and will always do, what suits them.”
A steady demand for cheap laborers with virtually no rights keeps the cogs turning in this lucrative machine. According to “Cleaning Up: The Shady Industries That Exploit Lebanon’s Kafala Workers,” a recent study by the Beirut-based policy and research organization Triangle, this business generates more than $100 million annually. In 2019, recruitment agencies — the main beneficiaries of this trade — received around $57.5 million in revenues. Lebanese employers benefited indirectly in the form of cheap labor, and the Directorate of General Security and the Labor Ministry collected $36.5 and $6.1 million, respectively.
In this system of racial capitalism, the interests of private and public stakeholders are intertwined and the imperative for the workers remains the same: Keep your head down and obey.
There is the quotidian indignity of a Madam who calls you sharmouta, a whore, and makes you work endless hours. “Nineteen, do you understand?” says Mariema. “Seven days a week. Zero time to rest. No day off.” The alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m.; the day’s only meal is consumed in a hurry in the dark at the back of the courtesy bathroom; there is no rest. You are made to sleep on the ground, in the cold, on the terrace of the house.
“One day I had to wash 16 carpets by hand, without a break,” Mariema recalls. “Once I finished, I sat on the sofa to rest. I was really exhausted. But the Madam saw me and ordered me to get up, yelling, ‘Get out of there, I don’t want your germs to infect my couch.’” Then, she pulled Mariema’s hair, as she frequently did, and hit her on the head with a wooden stick over and over again. “Do you see the scar on my forehead?” Mariema asks me, bowing her face forward. “This is what remains.”
This ritual of reproach and mortification is repeated every day. This also encourages the man of the house to abuse. “He grabbed me from behind with sweaty hands,” she remembers almost with shame. “I pushed him away, but his grip only grew harder. He told me: ‘I’m here to rape you.’” And so he did, in the dining room, with a knife at her throat. He was confident in his impunity. “You cannot report. You will never get clean at the police station, because your name is already on the list of people to arrest. Is it clear? Courage, here, costs you prison.”
For Mariema, the house was a crime scene; for her masters, it was a closed space where the laws of decency and humanity were suspended.
For Mariema, the house was a crime scene; for her masters, it was a closed space where the laws of decency and humanity were suspended. To erase evidence of the crime, Mariema herself was discarded. Overnight, she was thrown out of the house, dragged to the employment agency that had assigned her that job, and left without an explanation. “I slept on the floor, in the cold, with other girls for four months,” she says. “They treated us worse than animals.” A crowded corridor, a single toilet, little food, many regrets.
Mariema shows me videos from this ordeal. In one of them, she is sitting on the dirty floor, head tilted, with her left eye half closed. “I am losing my sight and there is something wrong in my arms and in my hands. Do you see my hands?” she asks, trying to show both palms, but the fingers are all clawed up. “Look,” she continues slowly. “Look also at my feet.” They are gaunt and atrophied. She gets up from the ground and sits on the nearby chair with the help of another stranded maid. Mariema tries to take a step forward, but she staggers and her knees collapse.
“What life is this?” she asks. “How can I take care of myself?”
That video made the rounds of social media, capturing the attention of some Lebanese volunteers who, worried about the woman’s health conditions, managed to get in touch with her. It took time and patience because the maids are forbidden from using mobile phones and exchanging messages was full of risk. “The kafeel was looking for another family to employ me,” she says. “But how could I work in these conditions?”
The volunteers eventually rescued her and took her to a hospital to stop the progress of the disease. After a few weeks of treatment, Mariema had regained enough strength to be able to make her way back to Sierra Leone.
“I just want to go back to my country,” she said. “This is all I want.”
Patricia Pradhan, coordinator of This is Lebanon, an organization that has been denouncing the violence suffered by domestic workers in Lebanon for years, is familiar with such abuse. “We receive about 20 reports a day,” she says while perusing the photos of the girls who asked her for help. “It is really difficult, if not impossible, to get justice.” Even when the evidence is unambiguous. Patricia shows me a video.
“He forced me to have sex. I told him I had my period, but he didn’t believe me.”
It’s the voice of S.M., an African girl who arrived in Lebanon last August, in a video sent to This is Lebanon. “He didn’t believe me” — she repeats in the video — “and he slipped his hand into my vagina.” The sense of impunity is pervasive. “They sold you like a slave,” he tells her during a meeting secretly recorded with the girl’s mobile phone. “What do you think?” — he continues raising his voice — “To have rights in Lebanon? To call the consulate thinking I might be afraid of someone? I don’t give a shit.”
S.M. was beaten and raped by her employer for more than a year. Men like her employer can do whatever they want, says Patricia, “because they are generally protected by political parties and leaders.” They are untouchable in a system where the interests of the powerful always prevail over the well-being of ordinary people.
Corruption, patronage, and sectarianism have led Lebanon to bankruptcy and an enduring economic crisis, which, according to a recent World Bank report, ranks globally as one of the top three worst crises of the past 150 years. The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen from nearly $55bn in 2018 to $33bn last year. Per capita GDP has meanwhile fallen by 40 %. Public debt exceeds $90 billion, equivalent to roughly 170% of the country’s GDP. The Lebanese pound, officially pegged at 1,507 to the dollar since 1997, has lost around 90% of its value on the black market. Wages have fallen by 90% and over half of the country’s 6 million people live below the poverty line.
Thirty years of bad politics had sunk the country into a deep depression, and seven years of neglect had brought it to its knees. But it was 13 minutes last August that extinguished hope altogether. When 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port, killing over 200, and injuring 6,500, it also left an estimated 300,000 people homeless. But if Beirut was suffering, the hardships were even more acute for its migrant workers.
Within her domestic confinement, Adama has reached her limit. The house where she worked for eight and a half months, to help her family back in Sierra Leone, showed her the fiercer side of the system’s exploitation. “The suffering in Lebanon is too much for me,” she says in a voice message. “I regret … I totally regret coming here.”
They promised her $200 a month, money that she’ll never see; they said she’ll work eight hours a day, but she actually works twice as many hours; she was promised her own room, but she actually sleeps on the damp laundry floor. The humiliation is gratuitous since there is no shortage of space in the large villa where she works, near Na’ameh, a coastal city south of Beirut. The control over her life is complete, to the point of depersonalization. “I almost forgot my name,” she says, ashamed. The couple’s three sons, little more than teenagers, have always called her a “whore” or a “monkey” when she kneels on the ground to mop. Far from criticizing them for such behavior, the parents see it as an amusing act of hazing.
“I couldn’t catch my breath, sit down for a moment, drink a glass of water without being hit by the boys with rods, on orders from their mother,” she says. The abuse culminated in her being raped by the oldest boy.
Her mind always goes back to that moment, to her helpless violation. Trying to dispel that image, she clings to the thought of her husband and the 3-year-old daughter she left behind. But this brings little comfort when, in her never-ending nightmare, her eyes seek but do not find, hands reach but do not grasp, and all her screams are silent.
“I will kill myself,” she says desperately. “Please, help me.”
“I will kill myself.”