Stuck in a foreign land with no passport or work

I support family in Ethiopia, have to pay my Lebanese sponsor who keeps my passport - and my cleaning work has stopped with lockdown. #HumansofCOVID19

Selam Abebe*
23 April 2020, 8.42am
"My employers fear that I might infect them because I share an apartment with other people"
Selam Abebe*

I am a domestic worker. I clean people’s houses. I am from Ethiopia but I came here to Lebanon nine years ago. I could only finish grade nine at home and then I had to start working. But I was earning a very low salary in a beauty salon back home in Ethiopia, so I came to Beirut.

I am 38 years old, and a single mum of a son who is 21 years old. I support my son, my mother and my sister back home. My son got a scholarship to study in China this year but I have to pay his expenses every month.

I work for a cleaning company and I have six-hour daily shifts but the money is not enough so I also have part-time work cleaning houses near where I live.

This pandemic has made things very hard. Most places are closed. Only the supermarkets and pharmacies are open. My company was completely closed for two weeks. My part-time work has also stopped. My employers fear that I might infect them because I share an apartment with other people.

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I had to take a loan from my friend to pay the rent last month. This month, I also cannot pay but I talked to my landlady and she says she can wait a little bit. Two weeks ago, my company was able to start to work a little. I have been able to do three shifts a week. I am very grateful but the money is not enough.

I am in the country under the ‘kafala’ system. I have to pay an agency and I have to have a sponsor to work here. For the first three years, I worked for my sponsor. It was very bad. I was like a slave. The wages were very low and I worked every day, all the time, sometimes for 18 hours a day.

For the past six years, I have been a freelancer and it is much better. I don’t work for the sponsor. I work for a cleaning company. But I still have to pay an agency $650 and a sponsor another $650 every year to renew my paperwork so that I can remain working in Lebanon.

My sponsor keeps my passport, even though I don’t work for him. Last year, I wanted to go home for Christmas and I had to pay him $100 to get my passport. He will not take Lebanese pounds, only US dollars. The agency also wants dollars. But this is a big problem now because the Lebanese pound has become very weak. I must pay double what I used to pay.

The Ethiopian Consulate does not do anything. They know what is happening but they don’t care.

The Migrant Community Center, where I have been learning English and how to use a computer, is also closed so I have nothing enjoyable and interesting to do when I am not working.

* Not her real name.

[As told to Kerry Cullinan]

Lebanon announced a national lockdown on 15 March. Human Rights Watch has warned that millions of people in the country may go hungry as the pandemic has exacerbated the country’s serious economic crisis. Half the population is estimated to be living below the poverty level. The Lebanese pound has been devalued by almost 50% in the past year, and the country has the third-highest debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio in the world. There is a shortage of US dollars and banks have placed withdrawal limits on local currency. All domestic migrant workers are excluded from Lebanese labour law and instead governed by the exploitative kafala system that requires them to have sponsors who are usually their employers and can keep their passports and generally restrict their movement.

This story is part of our Humans of COVID-19 project: lifting up voices from across the world that are not being heard during this crisis. Click here for more of these stories

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