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What It's Like To Be A Domestic Worker In Lebanon

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Domestic workers in Lebanon regularly suffer mistreatment and racism, and now they're facing even more problems as the country endures a dire economic crisis. NPR's Ruth Sherlock spoke to one woman about what happened to her and how her ordeal continues.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Wintana Haftom came from Ethiopia and has been in Lebanon six years, but she soon might find herself out on the street without a home. Her story is like that of many other women, and it began when she came to Lebanon looking for work.

WINTANA HAFTOM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Haftom she says she'd graduated in Ethiopia with a degree in accountancy. She imagined the good life of an expatriate in Lebanon. She'd rent a nice house, find an office job. She came with other Ethiopian workers, but they realized as soon as they arrived something was wrong.

HAFTOM: (Through interpreter) The agents took our passports when the plane landed. Instead of taking us to a hotel as they promised, they locked us in an office.

SHERLOCK: Days later, Haftom was brought to the home that would soon become her prison. She tried to tell the woman in the house that she wasn't a maid.

HAFTOM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: But the woman told her, I paid for you, and sent her back to the employment contractor.

HAFTOM: (Through interpreter) I was angry. I told him, I'm not a housemaid. He told me, in Ethiopia, you were not a housemaid. But here, this is what you are.

SHERLOCK: She says the man slapped her and forced her back to the Lebanese home. Her workday would begin at 5 a.m. She'd take care of the elderly grandparents, clean and cook, sometimes make snacks for the grown sons at 2 a.m. She was loaned to clean the homes of relatives all for a hundred and fifty dollars per month.

HAFTOM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says the family treated her like she was unclean because she is Black. They didn't allow her to eat at the dining table, gave her bad food and didn't give her a day off for two years. This is sadly common for the some 250,000 migrant workers in the country according to Noha Roukoss, who works for the charity Caritas Lebanon.

NOHA ROUKOSS: You don't have the right to go out or speak your language, and you don't have working hours. It's like being treated as the modern slavery.

SHERLOCK: Roukuss says the problem is the kafala system, the legal structure by which economic migrants come to the country. Employers hold the workers' passports, and if a worker quits - even because of abuse - they become illegal in Lebanon.

ROUKOSS: You have the ownership for the person. They cannot go out or ask about their rights.

SHERLOCK: The Ministry of Labor says it's working on this situation.

MARLENE ATALLAH: We are trying to improve the system for the migrant worker in our country.

SHERLOCK: That's Marlene Atallah, who heads the department overseeing foreign workers. They're talking with labor contractors, home countries and aid groups.

ATALLAH: Negotiation takes time.

SHERLOCK: But now an economic collapse in Lebanon has created a crisis. While some employers can still pay their domestic workers, others have left them at the doors of the embassies of the countries they come from. Many now sleep on the street, stranded with no money to pay for flights home. Even the aid workers who help them are exhausted. One is Tsigereda Brihanu, a former migrant worker herself. She works with the charity Egna Legna.

TSIGEREDA BRIHANU: We are tired, exhausted. Mentally, physically, we are now - we are tired because, you know, the problem is huge.

SHERLOCK: While we speak, an Ethiopian worker calls her. Brihanu tells me she wants a home for a baby she can't care for anymore.

BRIHANU: Now she's saying, I cannot handle all this by myself. I want to give my baby for someone. Please put me in contact.

SHERLOCK: This is how desperate people are. As for Wintana Haftom, she eventually got out of her servitude by escaping, and she even managed to land a job in an office in administration. But now she, too, is out of work. She lives in a small apartment with four others, but the rent is due in a few days, and she is out of money.

HAFTOM: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She tells me she's packing her bags. Unable to afford a flight home, she worries she'll have to do like the others and sleep on the street in front of the Ethiopian embassy.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN BAKER SONG, "SOUVENIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.