“This madam started shouting at me from day one. These people are not welcoming. I greeted the [husband], salam o alaikum (may peace be with you), and he said, ‘Don’t ever greet me, I don’t speak to Black people.’” – Catherine Macharia, Kenyan migrant domestic worker
Catherine left her home country of Kenya last year to find work in Lebanon but instead of being able to earn money to support her family, she was subjected to deplorable conditions in the private homes of her employers. An estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon who are governed by the kafala system, an exploitative system that ties these workers to their employers facilitating abuse and domestic servitude.
Kenyan women demanding change
Today, Catherine is one of at least 30 Kenyan women who have been protesting outside the Kenyan embassy in Beirut for weeks, requesting support to return home.
Like the majority of migrant domestic workers, Catherine’s passport was confiscated upon her arrival in Lebanon and she was made to sign a contract in Arabic she didn’t understand. Though she was meant to receive $250 a month salary, her employers never paid her directly. Without her wages to send home, Catherine was unable to send her children to school or support her sick father. She worked day and night, surviving on scraps of leftover food and endured dehumanizing treatment with no way out.
Following her father’s death, Catherine explained, “I just wanted to die. I wanted someone to come and knock me over with a car and kill me.” After walking out into the road one day, a passerby helped her to a police station and eventually Catherine ended up in a Caritas shelter for migrant domestic workers who have fled their place of work.
According to the ARM, the Kenyan vice-consul in Lebanon generally sends Kenyan domestic workers to Caritas if they leave their employers. The consulate tells the women they will stay there for a maximum of two weeks while their laissez-passer travel documents, diplomatic documents issued by the United Nations, are processed.
“It’s a way to imprison the women so it doesn’t make it out to the public or media outlets,” Baba said. Some migrant women who are sent to Caritas stay for as long as a year, because the Kenyan consulate stops replying to their requests while they are there. They never hear back … unless they stage a protest or sit-in.”
A future without kafala
Catherine left the Caritas shelter after a few months and ended up sleeping on the floor of the Kenyan consulate for two weeks before finally moving to an apartment rented by the Kuwait embassy where she has greater freedoms.
Kenyan women are taking their demands to return home into their own hands by continuing to protest, but the future for migrant domestic workers in Lebanon can be different.
The Freedom United community is urgently calling on Lebanon’s Ministry of Labour to abolish the kafala system and better protect migrant domestic workers from exploitation.