Standing up for their own:
the relentless journey of migrant workers in Lebanon

Coming from Ethiopia, Massracha worked in two houses in Lebanon. Her journey was long in a country where nothing protected her from exploitation and abuse. Today, with other migrant domestic workers, she is building the safe space and creating the help she couldn’t find years ago.

Writer: Youssef Hajj Ali

First… Exploitation

The mouth-watering smell of Mulukhiyah creeps from the kitchen into the large living room on this cold February day. Mulukhiyah, a cooked, leafy green vegetable, is a staple of the Lebanese kitchen and a favorite dish for many Lebanese. It is one of those dishes that call for a family gathering around the dinner table. But in this particular apartment, inside an old building located in the Ashrafieh area in the heart of Beirut, young women of different nationalities found a little bit of the families that they have dearly missed since they have arrived in Lebanon to work as domestic helpers.
In another room down the hall, several computers are distributed on desks, evidencing that this must be the place that manages this center and organizes its activities. Inside is Masrasha Grima, a young Ethiopian woman who smiles when asked about what bothers her most about life in Lebanon. She fumbles for words, as the reasons for discomfort are numerous.
After giving it some thought, the first word that came out of Masrasha’s mouth was “exploitation”. This exploitation begins, before all else, with the fact that she is “foreign”.

Masrasha’s name became “Rasha” because her “madam” (a superlative title commonly used to refer to the employer) found her real name too difficult to pronounce, and therefore decided to “modify” it, without Masrasha’s consent.
The name might have been the first thing Masrasha lost in Lebanon, but it was far from being the last. Little did the excited young woman know that in the coming days and months, she would also lose her personal safety and liberty. It so happened that Lebanon was entering an era of complex qualitative changes, some of which inflicted the globe, while some others were particular to the small country. These changes would alter Lebanon’s face permanently, sending its social and economic life into a downward, bottomless spiral. The global COVID-19 pandemic, together with an unprecedented internal economic crisis, followed by a harrowing explosion in the very heart of the capital Beirut, would all leave deep wounds that bleed to this day.
Perhaps if Masrasha had known all this earlier, she would have never made the decision to come to Lebanon for work.

A friend tells you about a job opportunity in Lebanon.

You are told that you will be paid a good amount in USD.
You plan to use your salary to build a home, continue your education, send your kids to school, and, maybe, save a little.

A Strange Surprise

Masrasha’s story is no different than the stories of thousands of women who came from Bangladesh, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Ghana, the Philippines, Kenya, Cameroon and other countries, to work as domestic helpers in Lebanon.
Back in Ethiopia, Masrasha was the youngest of her six siblings (four girls and two boys). She had always dreamed that one day she would be someone important in life, and her ambition, enthusiasm, and desire to change her reality encouraged her decision to come to Lebanon. After her short-lived marriage, Masrahsa had to leave behind her only child in the custody of her mother and embark on a new journey.
That was the first time the 20-year-old had ever traveled to another country. As the plane took off, numerous questions unfolded in her head: “Where are you going? Who will you be with? What are you going to do? What language will you speak? Will you get along with the people there?”.
In that moment, from her little seat on the plane suspended in mid-air, Masrasha felt a vast distance from the people she has known and lived with her entire life. She could sense this uncomfortable feeling suffocating her.

Migrant domestic workers usually face their first big shock at Rafic Hariri International Airport (Beirut International Airport). Upon her arrival, Masrasha did not find the “Madam” (her employer), and had to wait for two whole days for her inside the airport. She was forbidden to leave the airport grounds until her employer arrived to “receive” her. Several other young women who had arrived with her were also prohibited from going anywhere; not even to the toilets, without the permission of the General Security officers. The most difficult thing for Masrasha was communicating with the General Security, because of the language barrier.
In the small town of Hasroun, located in the Bsharri District of Northern Lebanon, Masrasha entered the house as if she were a “surprise” to its residents. The moment she set foot inside, she quickly noticed the strange looks in the eyes of the family members, studying her in silence. Little did she expect that in this house, in which she would stay for more than three and a half years of her life, she would also lose her freedom.
Masrasha didn’t have her own private room in the house; her bedroom was actually a little balcony attached to the kitchen, which already contained a gas stove, a kitchen cupboard, and a wastebasket, but no wardrobe. The balcony was located right next to a toilet wherein Masrasha placed her suitcase, as the latter would not fit on the tiny balcony.
The employer used to lock Masrasha inside every day after she finished her daily chores, which went on as long as the employer pleased since there were no fixed working hours. The door shut on her like that of a prison cell.
Masrasha realized that one’s name is not the only thing that a foreign worker like herself might lose in Lebanon. Numerous basic rights were also lacking, mainly due to the absence of a serious approach to the regulation of foreign labor in Lebanon and the failure of the concerned authorities, from the ministries to the local administrations and the foreign embassies, to act on the injustices and attend to the legal problematic issues, the first of which is “Kafala”, the sponsorship system that regulates the legal relationship between the domestic worker and the employer.
This system, deemed a form “modern slavery” by various civil society organizations, withholds freedom of work and lacks the minimum conditions of fair work such as leave days, fixed working hours, a salary that is not less than the official minimum wage, and a healthy relationship between employers and workers who reside with them. This is precisely what Masrasha will come to realize in the days that followed.

The Kafala system is composed of a mix of decisions, circulars, systems, practices and customs that govern the presence and work of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon (workers of the third category according to the Ministry of Labor).

What exactly is the Kafala System? Why don’t migrant domestic workers benefit from the Lebanese Law of Labor?

Diala Chehade, Lawyer and civil rights activist

Difficult Times

At exactly six in the morning, the employer’s keys turn in the lock opening the door to the balcony where Masrasha sleeps, declaring the commencement of another day of work. The days goes on till late at night; sometimes till one after midnight, with the long list of tasks including doing laundry, ironing, mopping the floor and cooking. Later on, other tasks surfaced, such as gardening and washing cars.
Whenever the family went out for a picnic, the doors to the house and the main building would be locked, and Masrasha would be told to wait on the staircase until they would came back. She was neither entrusted to the house nor allowed to accompany the family. In case she got bored, the only available entertainment would be going up to the roof of the two-story building and “enjoying” cleaning it. During the long wait, she might need to use the toilet, but the solution to this dilemma is nowhere to be found.

Masrasha tried to endure all this, but what hurt her most was being denied food until the whole family was done eating. This happened constantly, even though she was the one doing all the cooking every day. She felt appalled when she caught her employer once dropping everyone’s leftovers in her plate. Masrasha refused food for the next few days, preferring to sleep on an empty stomach.
Masrasha was not allowed to go out of the house on her day off. It’s “forbidden.” She would hear this word over and over again during her long stay. Forbidden this. Forbidden that… Even when she fell ill, she was forbidden from seeing a doctor, and was given pills at home instead.
A stranger in a stranger’s home. This was how she felt all the time. Still, she never once considered leaving that family to work for another one, because she never wanted to break the law. So, when she exhausted all her energy and lost all patience, she asked to leave Lebanon back to her country. She told herself it was a good idea: “I would go back to school and start a new life.”

Lebanon Again

Masrasha stayed in Ethiopia for no more than four months, during which she got the chance to meet her daughter, Miscara, after a long time away. In fact, she hasn’t seen her daughter again since.
It was very difficult for Masrasha to pick up her life in Ethiopia where she left off. The reality of life there was completely different from every expectation, calculation, or wish she had made. She soon realized that it was necessary to leave again to make a living.
Before she knew it, she found herself in Jounieh, a coastal city north of Beirut, working for another family. In that new home, she would have some good and bad days. She ended up working there for 2 years and 8 months, during which her salary rose to $200 after she became fluent in spoken Arabic. This time, she was able to get weekends off, but her sponsor kept her passport locked in a drawer. Whenever she went outside on her days off, she would be given a copy of her residence card instead of her original card or the passport.
The woman who had hired Masrasha was a lawyer, and even though she was satisfied with Masrasha’s work, she often yelled at her for petty reasons. When Masrahsa asked for a $50 raise in her salary, the woman became furious, saying that she would easily “hire two or three helpers for that much money to “serve her” at home.” It was then that Masrasha asked to go back to her country. The woman’s husband tried to leave room for negotiation, telling Masrasha that she could go home only if she promised to come back.
Masrasha packed her suitcase, and all that was left for her was getting the plane ticket. She thought that she could travel and return from Ethiopia in due time before her residency expires in four months.
But, something very disturbing happened to her on the last weekend before her travel date. Masrasha came back home after an outing feeling sick and nauseous with severe stomach aches. The moment her employer saw her in this state, and without taking a second to check on Masrasha’s health, she yelled out: “You must be pregnant!”
Masrasha was never in her life as offended as she was on that day. After all, she had come from a conservative society in which the idea of an unmarried girl getting pregnant was frowned upon, much like in Lebanese society. Since Masrasha was not married at the time, the “accusation” offended her profoundly.

Despite the tension in their relationship, Masrasha had always liked to think of her employer as a second mother. That idea, however, vanished in a heartbeat as the latter uttered these words. Masrasha’s heart sank, and she knew she never wanted to set foot in that house again. She no longer wanted a raise; she simply wanted out. Something inside of her broke, never to be repaired. It was her wounded dignity.
The emotional and physical harm that Masrasha had been subjected to is no different from the experiences of hundreds of other domestic workers in Lebanon. In Mariam’s case, the abuse took the form of repeated, nauseating sexual harassment by her employer.

New Horizons

Later on, Masrasha learned about the “Migrant Community Center” (MCC), which is affiliated with the “Anti-Racism Movement” in Lebanon. She began frequenting the Center to learn Arabic; not the spoken colloquial language, but the formal written and spoken Arabic. Masrasha wanted to read and write the language of the people who lived in the country. She wanted to be able to fully comprehend the words of the contracts she was asked to sign.
When she arrived in Lebanon years ago, there was no translator to explain her rights to her. The contract she signed was in Arabic; a language completely alien to her, which left her no other choice.
The Migrant Community Center provided the opportunity to meet other workers, share personal concerns, and discuss common problems. Their stories overlapped and their experiences intersected. This set the ground for the birth of another idea. “Why don’t we start our own community center?”, the workers thought.
This was in the year 2017.

Banchi Yimer, a young Ethipoian woman, was the first to come up with the idea. Banchi suggested gathering the women workers in one place to inform them about their rights and offering them help with the issues they may be facing. The founding members decided to explain to the newly arrived migrant workers everything they needed to know about their labor rights and related issues. They chose a name for their center that expressed the purpose of these meetings precisely: “Egna Legna Besidet,” a word in Amharic (Ethiopia’s official language) that means “Standing for each other in a foreign country”.
The women migrant workers at the Center started to produce short videos in Amharic and circulate them on social media platforms. They looked for young women stranded in difficult situations; in hospitals, shelters, or even prison cells, because they wanted to know what was going on behind sealed doors and in isolated environments. Those of them who were outside had a voice, but what about those who were walled in and voiceless? The young women were able to secure a space of their own with the help of donations. That one one room soon became an apartment; a migrant center that would change the lives of many over the following days.
When Banchi left Lebanon to Canada, her friend Tsigereda Birhanu succeeded her, taking over the responsibilities at Egna Legna, including project management.

A Country in Crisis

October 17, 2019 was a turning point for the Lebanese people, as well as for the center that the workers had recently moved into. It is a date that will certainly be engraved in the minds of the Lebanese for a long time, because on that day, citizens took to the streets in protests against the ruling class. What started as a movement rejecting the government’s decision to impose new taxes later expanded to nation-wide demonstrations and active civil insurgences against the government and the ruling political class. The popular uprising raised the slogan “All of them means all of them”, in a statement that stresses that all of the different components of the Lebanese ruling political class were corrupt and rejected by the people, without exception.
There were various signs of an eminent economic crisis in the country months before the beginning of what was dubbed the “October 17 Revolution.” The crisis was the worst in modern Lebanese history, and its repercussions will continue to inflict and burden the people who reside in the country for many years to come, as their purchasing power continues to diminish at astounding rates, due to the sharp devaluation in the Lebanese lira. The grim situation will not only affect the lives of the Lebanese, but also those of the residents of the country, especially female migrant workers.
At the end of December 2019, almost two months after the economy began to spiral out of control, Lebanon and the whole planet seemed to stand still for a moment in anticipation and fear. A new virus had surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and the following month, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that said virus was contagious and transmitted easily between humans. Death tolls started to emerge from China, then from several countries all over the world, and soon the virus, dubbed “COVID-19,” was declared a global pandemic that threatened all of humanity.
Lebanon received the virus like the rest of the world, with repeated lockdowns and precautionary measures limiting travel between countries. One of the most important measures taken to limit contagion was social distancing. Suddenly, the streets became ghost towns, schools and universities were closed, offices and shops were emptied of employees and customers, and all gatherings were prohibited.
This situation went on for many months, prompting hundreds of Lebanese institutions, especially small and medium enterprises, to discharge their employees. Among those were migrant domestic workers who found themselves stranded on the streets, alone and penniless, after having lost the jobs that supported not only them, but their families back home too. They camped out on the sidewalks in front of the embassies of their countries, demanding to be repatriated immediately, especially after their employers became incapable of paying their wages with the financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic both in full swing, leading employers to forego the services of domestic helpers altogether.
That was, perhaps, the first time that the Lebanese collectively abandoned the domestic workers they had always relied on. Hiring domestic helpers was normalized in the early nineties in the country, although it was often viewed as a luxury. However, with the return of stability following the years of civil war (1975-1990), and as most family members went back to work, many households made a habit of hiring migrant domestic helpers.
The year 2019, laden with crises and hardships, promised defining changes to the Lebanese people’s quality of life, with the number of new work permits granted to domestic workers rapidly declining.

Before the economic crisis, which began to materialize in the early months of 2019, the number of issued work permits reached two close numbers, both exceeding 70,000 permits for the years 2017 and 2018.

The decreasing number sharply plummeted in 2019, going from from 70,857 and 76,570 permits issued in 2017 and 2018 respectively, to 35,957 issued in 2019.

The number of the first-time work permits issued continued to sharply decline in 2020. By the end of 2021, it became relatively stable at less than 10,000 permits.

Considering the number of first-time permits issued in the past five years, the distribution of permits to different nationalities reveals a large discrepancy in the number of migrant domestic workers coming to Lebanon.

The discrepancy in wages has been important for a group of Lebanese who wanted to keep benefiting from “domestic service” despite their financial hardships in light of the economic crisis, and they could do so by hiring “cheap” labor.

The reality of migrant workers in Lebanon is not reflected in the numbers of work permits granted for the first time alone; the decreasing number of renewed work permits by the Ministry of Labor is also indicative of a growing number of workers who have left Lebanon, as well as of those who are “illegally” residing and working in the country.

The economic decay in Lebanon continued with the unabating devaluation of the local currency on the one hand, and the relentless greed of merchants on the other.

Basic commodities such as fuel, medicine, baby formula, and cooking oil were missing from the markets, after the monopolies stockpiled them in order to raise the prices and increase their margins of profit by an unreasonable percentage, without any control whatsoever from the Lebanese government. Citizens and residents alike lived through some difficult days indeed, but the worst was yet to come.
On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion shattered the port of Beirut, along with half of the city due to the combustion of an ammonium nitrate shipment. The roar of that explosion was so violent it was heard and felt in different parts of Lebanon and nearby countries.
The tragic event was described as “the largest non-nuclear explosion of all time”; it killed over two hundred people, left thousands injured, and damaged tens of thousands of homes and commercial, touristic, medical and educational institutions, with material losses estimated at billions of U.S. dollars. Subsequently, Beirut was declared a “disaster-stricken city”. Among those injured by the explosion were tens of migrant workers who lived or worked in the areas surrounding the port, and who found themselves without a job, a roof, protection, or medical coverage.
In the aftermath of this series of unfortunate events, the migrant workers assembled and asked themselves two questions: What can we do to help? And how can we do it? The goal was to find ways, within the available resources they had, to help the young women in the domestic labor sector, who comprise one of the most vulnerable groups among migrant workers in Lebanon.
“Real work begins now,” thought Masrasha and her friends. Their efforts would effectively change the lives of many women they met in times of trouble, tragedy, and pain in this foreign land. Masrasha was one of the women who had volunteered to host the workers in her own room. At one point, she had 16 women workers living with her.

Searching for Hope

The girls saved money from their own salaries to help others in need. Masrasha forewent her taxi ride between her room in the southern suburbs of Beirut and her workplace in Mkalles, in the North Maten District of Mount Lebanon. However, she gladly walked the long route; 45 minutes to work then 45 minutes back, believing that what she was doing was important for her community members. Helping them out was worth the effort. Sometimes she had to carry aid boxes and go out to distribute them herself on the days of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Masrasha couldn’t leave her fellow workers outside alone, exposed to danger, physical harm and harassment, if not something worse.
One of the many problems that faced the migrant workers was securing rent after their employers had abandoned them. Some of them had been evicted from the rooms they were renting because they were unable to pay the rent after losing their jobs. That’s when “Egna Legna” stepped in to help, giving top priority for the domestic workers who were infected with COVID-19 and single mothers, as adults can manage the repercussions to some extent, whereas infants cannot. Masrasha and her colleagues made the decision to postpone paying support to their families back home in order to take care of the victims in Lebanon.
The group actively produced short videos introducing its work and the services it provides, while welcoming volunteers and donations. The videos were then circulated on social media platforms for visibility. In the beginning, “Egna Legna” was able to provide in-kind support, such as foodstuffs: pasta, rice, cooking oil, milk, diapers, and everything else that mothers might need.

The girls all pitched in to help pay the late fees of those who were unable to afford rent in that situation, and they secured the vital medicines, vitamins, and laboratory tests for those infected with COVID-19. Later on, they launched a funding campaign, and asked those who watched the videos and believed in their mission to take part in helping or donating to their bank account.
As the economic crisis worsened, the team had to reprioritize. Only the basic necessary goods were to be purchased. Tomato sauce, for instance, was not as important as cooking oil or sugar. The main goal was to remain capable of providing support, no matter how small, under any circumstances.
Meanwhile, some embassies were calling on their national migrant workers who were unable to travel to settle their legal status and get regularized. Workers who didn’t have a legal residency were granted a grace period. “Egna Legna” took it upon itself to pay for the tickets of some of the young women from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Kenya, who couldn’t afford to buy a ticket themselves.
The embassies’ response to the various crises and problems experienced by the migrant workers was extremely underwhelming; not only during the Lebanese economic crisis, but also in the period that preceded it. Some of the embassies opened warehouses for their nationals to stay in, and called them “shelters”. The rooms were damp and humid and allowed for the rain to seep inside and trickle down the walls in random, depressing lines. Dozens of women were forced to share a single bathroom, which they used in turns.

A Seedling to a Bigger Project

At “Egna Legna”, the women migrant workers finally found solace. They could meet at the center as one family to discuss their problems, share their fears, and talk about anything in a safe and welcoming space.
They planned to establish a second branch of “Egna Legna” in Ethiopia too, because they believe there is an urgent need for it there, in order to accommodate and assist the workers who return home to figure out their next step. Almost a year ago, the team implemented the plan, launching the Ethiopian center which provides classes that train returnees, most of whom are single mothers, in various practical professions, such as hairdressing.
The inviting smell of Mulukhiyah wasn’t the only beautiful scent filling the air at Enya Lenia’s headquarters on this cold February day. Other fresh aromas waft through the spacious hall of the old Beirut house; those of the different fragrances of soap lying on the table in the middle. Teaching soap-making is one of the many activities that Enya Lenia has launched with the aim of giving the migrant workers the opportunity to learn new skills. Although they have not yet started to sell their product, they are planning to do that soon.

What started out as an interesting idea discussed among friends has expanded into a full-blown project, capable of changing lives…

Today, the center teaches English, organizes workshops on planned parenthood, and teaches classes on providing care to children, families, and pregnant women. The center gives introductory classes to Lebanese law, and provides the workers with the legal support they need through the help of volunteering lawyers.
It may happen that some of the workers face legal issues like those Masrasha had faced; they might be accused of theft in retaliation for their escape from an employer, and they might consequently become subject to lawsuits preventing them from leaving the country.
Masrasha and many other migrant workers of different nationalities have benefited from the presence of “Egna Legna” and the support it provides, be it through advice, in-kind and monetary aid, sharing useful information, and giving legal consultation and assistance.

However, despite the powerful impact Enya Legna has had on the lives of tens of female workers, it remains a lone candle trying to illuminate a pitch-black darkness. Despite the nobility of the idea, it remains an individual and limited effort that cannot possibly fulfil the needs of every migrant worker who seeks legal assistance and solutions to the complex problems that the unjust labor system throws their way. There cannot be a final and decisive solution to those issues unless the concerned official bodies take responsibility and create a real protective umbrella for all workers residing on Lebanese land.
Masrasha won’t be leaving Lebanon any time soon. Her mind is made up about that. There are young women just like her who are still flocking into the country seeking work. Indeed, the problems persist, and Masrasha knows that she cannot be responsible for solving them. She knows full well that she can’t save the girls, but she also realizes that she has an important part to play. At “Egna Legna”, something significant was created; something Masrasha decided she would always carry with her; something that has become inseparable from her being.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

This project is part of the global initiative
“Transparency and media freedom – Crisis resilience in the pandemic”

This project is the result of a workshop of DW Akademie. All views expressed in this project are those of the author and do not reflect the views of Deutsche Welle.

Story: Youssef Hajj Ali
Arabic to English Translation: Sabah Jalloul
Illustration: Tharwa Zeitoun
Photographs: Hussein baydoun
Video: Ali Chiran, Fourate Chahal El Rekaby
Design: Ibrahim Charara
Development: Jaafar Charara, Rawan Houri

Editor: Ibrahim Charara