By Tamara Qiblawi, CNN
Photographs by Diego Ibarra Sánchez for CNN
Beirut, Lebanon — Wendy’s boss glared at her as she chopped coriander. Stone-faced and angry, he charged out of the kitchen to speak with his wife.
Moments later, the Kenyan domestic worker was told to never touch food with her bare, black hands again.
It was the culmination of what she says was months of humiliating and racist abuse. “Whenever I remember that part, I normally shed tears. It was painful,” says Wendy, recounting the incident to CNN two years later in a small apartment in Beirut’s eastern outskirts, her baby daughter on her lap.
At that moment, she decided to escape.
Wendy — a pseudonym for her protection — became pregnant a year after she left her job as a live-in worker. She moved from one cramped house to the next, searching for part-time domestic work while sidestepping police crackdowns on migrants who don't have sponsors.
Then a devastating economic crisis struck Lebanon last October and her living conditions went from bad to worse. She now spends her days with her three-month-old baby, waiting for the phone call that could end her years-long horror: her country’s consulate telling her that she can finally go home to Kenya.
Wendy’s not the only domestic worker waiting for the call that would green-light her exit. Growing numbers of women — who came to Lebanon in better economic times to earn a living and send money back to their families — are scrambling to return to their home countries. But many lack immigration papers, including their passports. Workers who are undocumented face growing penalty charges for breaking the terms of their visas, and risk prison time. Some also must contend with court cases against them by ex-employers.
Rights groups estimate that tens of thousands of migrant women in Lebanon are undocumented. For these workers, the hurdles to leaving the country could amount to a dead-end.
In a December 2019 statement, a coalition of international women’s and human rights groups likened Lebanon’s migrant domestic worker population to “hostages.”
The coalition called on embassies and Lebanese authorities to acknowledge that the predominantly African and South Asian migrant workers — estimated by Amnesty International to be more than 250,000 people — were “hit hardest” by Lebanon’s economic and political crisis.
Since October, Lebanon’s economy has buckled under soaring prices, a tanking currency, ballooning unemployment and a growing debt crisis.
The Lebanese Pound has lost over 50% of its value, limiting migrant women’s ability to send financial support to their families. With plummeting demand for their work, many have stopped sending remittances and are sinking deeper into poverty.
“Migrant domestic workers cannot simply decide they want to leave Lebanon,” read the statement by Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights, Association for Women’s Rights in Development and 26 other rights groups.
“Hundreds of (migrant domestic workers) stay months in prison awaiting money for their ticket and their embassies’ support in providing new traveling documents,” the statement said. “Under the economic crisis, this is even worse: migrant workers are trapped in Lebanon and face further exploitation and abuse.”
Sarah, 19, has given herself a two-month deadline before she goes back to Ethiopia. She’s even willing to go to jail for it.
“Of course, it’s scary, but if jail is the only way I can go back to my country then so be it,” says Sarah — a pseudonym for her protection.
She is making her way to work at a home in south Lebanon, after having spent a Sunday afternoon at a crowded and energetic Ethiopian evangelical church service in the eastern outskirts of the capital. The mostly female gathering swayed to the sound of gospel music, their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders and hips. Outside, the women are vulnerable to harassment and deepening poverty. Here they are carefree and protected by fellow nationals.
“I’m going back home no matter what,” says Sarah.
She says she escaped her sponsors a year ago after her boss sexually harassed her. She left her job without retrieving her passport. Her boss had confiscated it when she started work, a practice that is illegal yet widespread.
Lebanon’s security forces classify workers who leave their jobs without their sponsor’s consent as “runaways,” even if the employer violated the terms of the country’s standard contract for sponsorships, for example through overwork, withholding salary payments, or sexual and physical abuse.
Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are caught in a bind. The sponsorship system, known as Kefala, links legal residency to a work contract, but gives the worker little to no legal protection. The woman is at the mercy of her employers who may act with near impunity.
If she tries to leave this working relationship, then her status in the country is illegal. If she tries to leave Lebanon, she will likely be detained, with undocumented workers accumulating fines for every year they spend in the country without contract.
For undocumented women like Sarah and Wendy, their main avenue out of the country is through a consulate or embassy which can negotiate their exit with Lebanon’s state security, as well as pay for their penalties and plane tickets. Many diplomatic missions in the country, such as the Kenyan embassy, help serve as a go-between with Lebanese authorities, but do not cover expenses. Rights groups and NGOs say the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon plays the same role.
Some of the smaller consulates, according to rights groups, do not help at all.
The Ethiopian consulate and government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. Most migrant rights organizations estimate that there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon — one of the biggest foreign populations in the country.
Several NGOs also try to help with repatriations, and, despite constrained resources, field legions of women wishing to return home.
In a few weeks, Sarah will be out of a job, and she doesn’t expect to find another way to make ends meet. Like many other migrant women in Lebanon, she doesn’t believe her embassy will help repatriate her. She has decided to try to get herself deported, which will mean waiting out her departure in one of Lebanon’s notoriously overcrowded prisons where malnourishment and mistreatment are rampant, according to multiple reports by rights groups and local media.
It is ”common” for migrant domestic workers to voluntarily surrender to police, a diplomatic source in Lebanon told CNN.
One woman, who said she wished to return home, bought a bus ticket to Lebanon’s border with Syria and declared to customs officials that she had no paperwork. She waited in detention for two weeks before she was deported home, according to the diplomat.
In a working-class neighborhood near the Beirut river, four Ethiopian workers are squeezed into an attic they turned into a cozy and tasteful home. Three sleep in a queen-sized bed, the fourth on a sofa. In the daytime, they gather around a coffee table where they drink tea and plan their single meal of the day. Only one of them still has a full-time job as a domestic worker. Since the start of the economic crisis, the four women say they have each subsisted on a dollar a day.
“We have nothing to do,” says 25-year-old Lisa — not her real name. “We just sleep all day. It’s a boring day. We eat only once a day.”
Before the crisis, Lisa was a part-time domestic worker. Now she’s out of work, undocumented and trying to concoct plans to leave the country. “My friends told me to get myself arrested. But then I heard the police aren’t arresting migrants anymore because their jails are so full,” says Lisa, her face in her hands as she contemplates the chasm that separates her from Ethiopia.
“We need to save up so that we can leave the country, but we also barely have enough money to eat,” says Lisa. “It’s very difficult.”
Her roommate, 26-year-old Julia, is also undocumented and has been in Lebanon for five years. A survivor of multiple sexual assaults, she is afraid to leave her house to run errands, and her prolonged absence has wreaked havoc on her life back home in Ethiopia.
“I will go anywhere. I have two kids, twins … But my husband married another woman,” says Julia — a pseudonym — choking on tears as she clutches the edge of the bed. “He doesn’t want me anymore because I spent too much time here.”
“I just want to go home for my kids,” she says.
Her suitcase is already packed. Gifts for her 8-year-old boys — football shoes, dress shirts, trousers and boots — spill out of her luggage.
But Julia’s prospects of return are dim. In addition to the usual hurdles, her ex-boss has a court case against her, she says, which has prevented the Ethiopian consulate from facilitating her repatriation. She says she does not know what the charges against her are.
According to the International Labor Organization, ex-employers “frequently” press charges against domestic workers. Many demand that the worker reimburse them for recruitment fees.
“There may be a justified reason for that court case, but often, research shows that they are based on false accusations. It’s a way for the employer to pressure or withhold the worker,” says Zeina Mezher, the International Labor Organization’s migration focal person for Lebanon.
“If there is a court case it becomes more complicated for (Lebanon’s main state security office) General Security to act. (Leaving the country) becomes a longer process and a more complicated process.”
Julia showed CNN a receipt for $550 which she paid to the Ethiopian consulate last July for her repatriation, before they declined her request for help.
Yet she maintains hope that she can return to Ethiopia before her children outgrow the new clothes and shoes that she bought for them.
Not all migrant women in Lebanon are trapped. Because of the crisis, the Philippine embassy has held a free, months-long voluntary repatriation program for citizens. Around 1,800 mostly female nationals have applied to return — hundreds have already been evacuated, according to the embassy.
“I’m going back to the Philippines. I’m one of the lucky ones,” says 22-year-old Julian Rebamonte. “I want to leave because of the crisis and because my boss didn’t give me a salary for almost a year and two months.”
“I’m sort of sad because I love the kids that I take care of here. But I’m happy because I will see my family now.”
Nearly a hundred women pack the large hall of the Philippine embassy in Beirut. Smiles and tears abound. Women in colorful outfits embrace each other, waiting for the bus that will shuttle them to the airport.
“Those who feel that they have to go back to the Philippines do so because they have nothing here anymore. Some have become homeless,” Philippine ambassador to Lebanon, Bernardita Catalla, told CNN.
It costs the Filipino government up to $600 to repatriate a single person. The embassy’s negotiations with Lebanon’s state security led to a reduction of penalty fees and an expedition of the clearance process for undocumented Filipino workers.
At the entrance to the hall, Catalla sits at a plastic table and helps women fill in their departure papers. Each carries a folder with their documents, as well as a $100 note from the embassy. The women clamor for selfies with the ambassador.
“We’re just doing our jobs,” says Catalla.
Some other embassies in Lebanon, such as the Bangladeshi embassy, are also carrying out voluntary repatriation programs. Others with smaller diplomatic missions, such as the Kenyan and Ethiopian consulates, require their citizens to pay hundreds of dollars in penalty fees in addition to the price of their plane tickets, and take months to legally clear them for travel.
Qassem Jaber, Assistant to Lebanon’s Kenyan Consul, tells CNN that the consulate is “ready to help Kenyan workers,” but “cannot help all of them” with their repatriation expenses. He requests that Kenyans be “patient because it is a long process.”
Rights groups and international organizations argue that Lebanese authorities can also step up to the plate. The government, they say, should issue temporary amnesty for undocumented workers, a move that would accelerate their return, mitigate the cost of repatriation and alleviate fears of seeking legal recourse.
Lebanon’s main state security apparatus, General Security, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
“When your employer does not pay you your salary at the end of the month, when you are deprived of food or talking to your own family … you are left with little options,” says the ILO’s Mezher.
“By making the simple choice of leaving the employment, the worker risks falling into irregularity, regardless of their nationality,” says Mezher. “So, of course, amnesty is a crucial tool to grant some justice to victims trapped in the system.”
Meanwhile, Wendy has decided against waiting for the phone call from the Kenyan consulate. Baby in arm, she goes to her country’s office herself.
There, she learns that the fees she must pay to repatriate herself and her daughter come to $1,400. Her voice quivers as she speaks to CNN on the taxi ride home — she says she can only manage to cobble together around $200.
“I’m shaking,” says a dazed Wendy. The embassy worker told her that if and when she settles her fees, she would need to wait for another three months before she can go home.
The community around her is falling apart, heightening her desperation to return. Her Ethiopian neighbors, she says, were kicked out of their apartment this month when they were unable to pay the rent. A paper hanging from the ceiling at the building’s entrance tells tenants the landlords have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to delayed payments.
Many of her friends, Wendy says, have resorted to sex work as they wait to go home.
“A majority of girls they keep it secret,” says Wendy. “They say that they’re doing it here and when they leave this country, they say, it will stay in this country.”
Her voice fraught with despair, she exclaims: “I just pray that I’ll go back to my country. That’s my big prayer. At least there I’ll be safe.”
Photo editor: Brett Roegiers