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Meet Julie, One Of The Many Migrant Workers Trapped In The Kafala System In Lebanon

CREDIT: CYRILLE KARAM, PERMISSION GIVEN TO AUTHOR
CREDIT: CYRILLE KARAM, PERMISSION GIVEN TO AUTHOR

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Whatever second thoughts Julie might have had, there was no turning back once she stepped off the plane. She was already 3,000 miles away from her home in Kenya and trapped inside a stranger’s car. When she arrived at her destination in Lebanon, she met the woman who lived in the house she was hired to look after.

Few words were exchanged between the two women. Julie, who requested her real name not be used in this piece, was simply instructed to finish her glass of water and head straight to the bathroom. That’s where she was ordered to take off all of her clothes. The woman wanted to show Julie how to shower, since it seemed that in her mind, Africans were jungle-like people who didn’t know how to clean themselves.

“I told her that I know how to shower,” said Julie, explaining that she was shocked by the request. “I said [do] you really want me to take off my clothes? What is this place, a prison?”

But prison might have treated Julie better. Like so many migrant workers in Lebanon, Julie soon became trapped in a cycle of abuse and was forced to work endlessly without any state protection.

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According to many human rights groups, such harrowing exploitation is rooted in the kafala (sponsorship) system, an arrangement that enables less privileged people from other regions — usually South or Southeast Asia or Africa — to migrate to the Middle East and work in low wage professions. The legal status of foreign workers is tied directly to their employer, and while it’s technically illegal, this means employers are often able to take away workers’ passports, withhold their salaries, and keep them in what sometimes constitutes as a form of modern day slavery. As KAFA, a Lebanese non-profit organization focused on violence against women, noted in a 2012 report, “the [kafala] system reinforces the dependency, the master/servant dynamic, and the power imbalance between Lebanese employers and migrant domestic workers.”

In Julie’s case, she was forced to work up to 19 hours a day for only $150 a month, a salary that is less than one third of the minimum wage in Lebanon and barley exceeds the World Food Program’s defined poverty line for the country.

They used to lock the house when I was still inside. I couldn’t go anywhere.

“They used to lock the house when I was still inside,” said Julie. “I couldn’t go anywhere. Even if I stepped out on the balcony, a woman would come up behind me and ask ‘What are you doing here?’”

Three months after she began working in Lebanon, Julie’s sponsors escorted her to General Security Directorate, a government intelligence agency that monitors the stay of foreigners in the country. The family wanted her to sign a work contract that was written in Arabic, a language she didn’t understand.

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Julie demanded that someone in the crowded and chaotic building translate the document in front of her. A lawyer soon came to her aid and explained that the contract required her to stay with the family for three more years. When Julie refused to sign, the family returned her to the office of the agency that had trafficked her to Lebanon.  “I told the agency that I wanted to go back home [to Kenya]. The agency said that if I wanted to go back, then I have to pay them 3,000 dollars,” Julie said. “I looked at [the people from the agency] and said ‘When have I ever taken 3,000 dollars from you?’”

It didn’t matter that Julie never borrowed that much money in her life. Under the kafala system, workers are often forced to pay high “release” fees in order to make up the recruitment cost to their sponsors. But the discrepancy between the high recruitment fees and the low salaries workers actually receive leaves many, like Julie, trapped.

Lack of regulation

Ramy Shukr, the General Coordinator of the Migrant Community Center (MCC) in Beirut, a grassroots organization that has become a vital support network for thousands of guest workers and is now working on Julie’s case, said that there is hardly any regulation of recruitment agencies or migrant working conditions in the country.

“We have heard horrible stories about many agencies in Lebanon,” Shukr told ThinkProgress over email. “No one [from the ministry] goes and checks if domestic workers are being paid regularly or provided with decent working and living conditions. We have tried to call the hotline of the Ministry of Labor many times but we have never received a reply.”

Due to the lack of regulation, Julie and other guest workers in Lebanon not only face abuse, but are also more likely to die during their employment. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report found that one migrant worker died from unnatural causes in Lebanon each week. Many committed suicide, while others were killed after suspiciously falling from tall buildings. Domestic workers, usually women, remain particularly vulnerable, because they are specifically excluded from Lebanon’s labor law and are not afforded the basic protections given to other workers. Equally important, their abuse takes place behind closed doors.

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And due to the government’s lack of urgency to seriously address the issue — in 2014, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said the severity of abuse against migrant workers was “exaggerated” — rights groups suspect that the number of deaths is still quite high.

Despite Threats And Attacks, Tunisian Activists Are Still Fighting For Greater LGBT RightsCREDIT: Erin Kilbride TUNIS, TUNISIA – Abdelbraki Mezin asked me over coffee last week if homophobia was dead in the…thinkprogress.orgCertainly, nobody from the Ministry of Labor inspected Julie’s working conditions.

Julie’s new sponsors forced her to look after their entire villa by herself. She watered the gardens, walked the dog, washed the laundry, removed and relayed the rugs, and mopped every floor in the mansion. She worked there for four months — over 18 hours a day for a salary of just $175 per month — before breaking down from exhaustion. Unable to go on, she demanded to be returned to the agency again.

The mother of the family living in the villa, however, refused to let Julie leave. When Julie insisted, the woman, who had injured her leg a long time ago, threw herself off her chair and began screaming hysterically on the carpet.

“She said that I broke her leg and threatened to take me to the police [if I left her home],” Julie told ThinkProgress. “I told her that even your own son and husband saw you fall down alone. I told her to do whatever she wants but that I wasn’t sleeping in her house tonight.”

Julie left, despite not knowing where she would end up next.

The agency, which was fed up with Julie at this point, reassigned her to a household in the mountains to look after an elderly woman. It was Julie’s last chance. Without a legal sponsor, she would become an illegal resident in the country and could risk heavy fines, detention, or deportation if caught by authorities.

While everything seemed relatively okay at first in her new arrangement, Julie said, the health of the woman she looked after was deteriorating rapidly. She would scream throughout the day and night without reason and was too weak to stand on her own, causing her to fall on the floor every time she tried.

Julie of course was not a trained medical professional, and the woman’s son, Elie — whose name has been changed for privacy reasons — refused to provide his mother with the around the clock staff assistance she needed. Julie said she could barely get a moment of sleep, and one day, she finally told Elie that she couldn’t care for his mother any longer. She told him she had to leave or she’ll die from exhaustion.

Elie began resenting Julie since she was unable to look after his mother. But since the agency wouldn’t take Julie back, Julie’s only recourse was to work at his home. Like all of Julie’s previous sponsors in Lebanon, he quickly made it a point to try and control her. On the day Julie first entered his house, he dangled his gun in plain sight for her to see.

The following Sunday, after nearly a week of intimidation, Julie told Elie that she was heading to church because it was her right to have a day off.

“He told me that if I walk out of the door then I should never come back,” she recalled.

That was five years ago.

A new beginning

Julie left that day, though she didn’t know where she was going or who she would meet along the way. Since then, she has managed to retrieve her passport and other valuable possessions from Elie with the help of the Kenyan embassy in Beirut.

But still, Julie isn’t entirely free yet.

Three months ago, she found out, with the help of the MCC, that she had to pay $2,500 to the government for staying in Lebanon without a legal sponsor — a substantial amount considering Julie only earns $450 from a car company under the table. Her socioeconomic standing matters little to Lebanese authorities, who have threatened to deport her if she doesn’t come up with the money in due time.

Of course, Julie is just one of many who have been trapped in the kafala system. Her story speaks to the dangers of a system which puts approximately 250,000 domestic workers — who often cannot even speak Arabic, read legal documents, or seek the help they desperately need — at high risk of abuse in Lebanon, not to mention the millions more across the Middle East. Julie’s story also highlights the need for change in a system currently designed to enslave people.

But for Julie, there is some hope. So far, a crowdfunding campaign has risen over $1,500 for her legal costs. Julie hopes that once she acquires legal status, she can finally visit her family in Kenya for the first time in six years. And despite her harrowing journey, she wants to remain in Lebanon, since it’s where she has built a dignified life for herself against all odds.

If my sister or wife went to another country, I would want the people there to help them.

Charbil, a 32-year-old Lebanese national who did not want his full name used, said that he’s willing to sponsor Julie after she pays off her fines. A deeply religious man with a vibrant personality, he said that he first met Julie when she attended a church service three years ago. She has since become a close friend of him and his wife, and they have taken Julie into their home when she had nowhere else to go.

“I proposed the idea of sponsoring [Julie] two years ago,” Charbil told ThinkProgress. “I feel she’s like a part of my family. And if my sister or wife went to another country, I would want the people there to help them.”

For Julie, such rallying support has touched her immensely, but it is clear her courage and perseverance has inspired those around her even more. Those running the crowdfunding campaign have pledged to donate every extra dollar they raise to the MCC. Their aim is simple: they want to help migrant workers like Julie in any way they can.

Mat Nashed is a journalist covering human rights related news in the Middle East. He has reported extensively from Lebanon and Turkey, with his work appearing on publications such as Al Jazeera, VICE, and Al-Monitor. You can find him on Twitter @matnashed.