North Africa, West Asia

My name is Winnie, I survived Lebanon’s kafala system

With Lebanon’s economic crisis deteriorating, the already dire situation of migrant domestic workers is getting even harder.

Winnie Linet
28 August 2020
Sometimes migrant workers are held at the airport for days without food, waiting for their new employers to collect them
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Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

My name is Winnie Linet. I grew up in a big family in western Kenya. In 2013, I left Kenya for the first time to work in Lebanon as a domestic worker under the Kafala system. This is an exploitative system, that ties a migrant’s visa and work permit to their employer’s approval.

I want to tell you what this was like and what motivates young people like me to go and work abroad. Finishing school at seventeen I felt unstoppable, full of energy to pursue my dreams, to study at university and become a journalist. Life seemed uncomplicated and I believed that my dreams would become true.

However, the reality was very different. My mother was the sole breadwinner, supporting me and my five siblings and whilst I passed the exams to study journalism at university, she could not afford the fees. So I worked as a vegetable seller, hawking toys for very little money. Then in a Mpesa shop. Then selling water bottles on the street for 5 Kenyan shillings (4 pence) to survive. I felt that society looked down on me and so I began to hide from my peers who had excelled and gone to university. When a distant relative offered me work abroad, I agreed immediately.

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Winnie leaves her family to work and follow her dreams to one day get enough money to go to university. | Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

My situation was not unique. All over Kenya, there are young people like me willing to give up everything for a better life. When you are hungry and have no food on the table, you do not care what life abroad may be like, only knowing that you must accept any offer that could change your situation.

After an interview, I was told I would work as a patient attendant in a hospital in Lebanon for two years. All I knew of Lebanon was that it neighbored Syria and that Syria was at war. The day my flight left was the toughest day of my life. I kept crying until my brother assured me that two years would fly by. I did not know that would be the last day that I ever saw him.

I was left heartbroken that this was how we were viewed in the eyes of our employers. It is this type of discrimination against black people that hurt me the most

Upon arrival to Beirut airport, I was led to a waiting area where three other Kenyan girls were placed. It was the first time in Lebanon for two of them, but one of the girls was returning from a vacation after three years in the country. She warned us that we would not be doing the jobs that we were expecting, but would instead be house girls.

As we waited in that room, I saw many nationalities. There were women from Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, Philippines, Benin and Madagascar and more. One after another, their names were called and they left. But as I waited, I also learnt of women who had been neglected at the airport for days without food waiting for somebody to show up and claim them. After seven hours my name was called and with a sigh of relief, I left to meet my new employer.

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Sometimes migrant workers are held at the airport for days without food, waiting for their new employers to collect them | Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

I was met by a woman in her late fifties. She was nice and though fear engulfed me, I contained myself. She told me I was to work in the house of her mother in Tripoli. Before this however, I first had to register at The Office. I was left there for three days with 15 or so other women. We were all African. We slept on thin mattresses spread on the floor. On the first day, I was registered and then we cleaned the office. On the second day, we were told to unbraid and wash our hair. Like the other girls, I washed in the buckets of water provided. When I had finished, I felt a burning sensation all over my face and soon it was clear we were all suffering. We did not know what it was until an Ethiopian girl, who had been in Lebanon before, explained that the water had been treated with pesticide to kill the bed bugs that they believed African girls carry in their hair because they do not wash it often. I was left heartbroken that this was how we were viewed in the eyes of our employers. It is this type of discrimination against black people that hurt me the most.

My first year in Lebanon was the hardest. I had not expected to do this work and it was not easy, rising early every morning to attend to an old woman in her nineties. She only spoke Arabic and I understood that I must learn the language fast to preserve my job. However, when I compare my experience with others I count myself lucky to have found the family I did. Though not perfect, they were fair. I was allowed to speak to my family once a week and after a year, even allowed to have my own phone. I had no day off, but a few free hours on Sundays which I appreciated because other workers I knew had no free time at all.

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Winnie looks out the window of the house where she works in Tripoli | Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

Outside the house, I faced a lot of racism. When I greeted people in the street, no one would bother to reply. I felt that there was an assumption that black people are inferior, made from dirt and thus incapable of working so well.

During my second year, I met Emma, a Kenyan girl who worked in the neighborhood. She was a single mother. She had been taken to Lebanon by an agent who promised her that she would be safe and make enough money to provide for her son back in Kenya. But upon arriving in Lebanon, the agent handed her over to cruel employers before disappearing. They locked her up in the house alone without food every time they left for the capital. And even though she would starve when they left, she was so overworked and physically abused when they were home, that she used to look forward to the times when they would leave.

And it was not only us Kenyans. One time, an Ethiopian girl arrived at my employer’s house, pleading with my employer to help her escape. She had been locked up with no pay and managed to escape after her Madam forgot to lock her inside the car one day at the market.

We must not forget domestic workers living this crisis in a foreign environment who wish to return to their families safely too

On 15 March 2014, my brother died. I was broken and wanted to return home but because I had signed a contract for two years, I could not. Nothing could console me at that time. It was five years before I returned back to Kenya and saw my family again. It was the best moment of my life, but tinged with sadness because of my brother’s death. And as for my dreams, despite the pain of my journey, I have gathered enough money to attend university and I am grateful that I arrived home safely.

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Winnie returns from Lebanon back to her home in western Kenya. | Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik). All rights reserved

But as corruption, political instability and COVID-19 have accelerated Lebanon’s economic crisis, the situation for migrant domestic workers is getting even harder. As Lebanese are struggling to put food on the table for themselves, many employers are simply putting their domestic workers on the street without their wage or even money for a ticket home.

On 4 August 2020, an explosion at the Beirut port killed more than 200 people and left 300,000 people homeless. Amongst these victims, we must not forget domestic workers living this crisis in a foreign environment who wish to return to their families safely too.

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