This week, a group of women staged a sit-in outside the Consulate of Kenya in Beirut. There were about 30 of them, activists said, all domestic workers who had lost their jobs and homes in last week’s blast.
“We want to go home. We want to go home,” they chanted.
Related: Protesters demand change in Lebanon
Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 migrant workers, according to Amnesty International. They are mostly women and come from countries in Africa and Asia. They typically work as domestic workers, cleaning homes and taking care of children.
Dozens of domestic workers have been stranded in Lebanon since last week's blast. Many have lost their jobs and homes. They say they have no money for plane tickets back to their countries. The coronavirus pandemic has made the situation even more complicated.
Catherine, 31, was among the women protesting at the consulate. When The World spoke to her, she said she had been protesting for three days. She had camped outside the consulate along with other protesters and her young son. Catherine didn’t want to share her full name because she fears for her safety.
A few years ago, Catherine left her elderly mother and two kids in Kenya to come work in Lebanon.
“I came to Lebanon to make my life better than it was,” she said.
But, she said, her employer was abusive.
“[I worked for] one year [and] three months. No going out, no off days, nothing,” she said.
That’s not all. Her boss, whom she calls "madame," made her live with a man.
The woman's 52-year-old, single brother “wanted to sleep with me,” Catherine said. “Then, one time the sister told me, 'Why can’t you sleep with my brother?' I asked my madame, 'Are you crazy?'”
Catherine described how one day, the brother tried to attack her. She ran to the kitchen and picked up a knife. He let her go but Catherine was done. She wanted to leave.
But migrant workers in Lebanon are bound to what’s called the kafala system that legally binds migrants to their employers.
Amnesty International describes kafala as “an inherently abusive migration sponsorship system, which increases their risk of suffering labor exploitation, forced labor and trafficking and leaves them with little prospect of obtaining redress.”
It meant that Catherine couldn’t quit or change her job without her boss’s permission.
She decided to run away.
One day, she told her boss’s brother she was going to take out the trash. In the plastic bags were all of her belongings. She left and never returned.
But leaving means she has to pay a penalty for breaking her work contract.
“I tried to work hard, I look for money for the penalty, I come to my consulate, the consulate asks me for $1,200,” she said, explaining that the sum includes airfare.
“I have no job, even to get food is a problem. So, how [do] you expect me to pay [for] my ticket and for my son?”
Lebanon's recent economic crisis has worsened with the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many domestic workers out of jobs and with few options.
“Some sponsors are throwing the domestic worker on the street like garbage. ... After they work for them for so many years taking care of their kids and their elders. They just throw them on the street so as not to pay their salary.”
“Some sponsors are throwing the domestic worker on the street like garbage,” said Banchi Yimer, an activist in Beirut. “After they work for them for so many years taking care of their kids and their elders. They just throw them on the street so as not to pay their salary.”
Reports about this phenomenon have circulated online since early summer. Some employers, unable to pay the workers, have simply dropped them off at their country’s consulates.
Yimer is from Ethiopia and also worked as a domestic worker until she ran away from her employer five years ago. She founded a group called Egna Legna that helps domestic workers in Lebanon.
Since the explosion last week, Yimer and her group have seen a rise in the number of workers who need assistance.
“Different nationalities depend on us and they are asking for help,” she said. “The Sierra Leonians are struggling. The Kenyans and the Nigerians, many nationalities ... Bangladesh. No one is assisting this time. They are asking for food, they are asking for rent, they are asking for medication.”
Another activist, Roula Seghaier, was with the Kenyan protesters outside the Kenyan consulate.
“There are children here, and it’s not the safest time or place to be sleeping on the streets,” she said.
Seghaier blamed the kafala system for how the migrant workers are treated in Lebanon.
“Employers have a very easy way out of their obligations,” she said. “Because if they file a complaint against a domestic worker saying that she ran away or saying that she stole something, then she would have a criminal record and they would be exempted from following up with her.”
On the website of the Kenyan Honorary Consulate in Beirut, a statement asks workers to register for repatriation.
“The Consulate of Kenya announces the registration of all the Kenyans working in Lebanon both legal and illegal who are ready to travel back home once the airports in Nairobi and Beirut are reopened,” it reads.
The World sent messages to Kassem Jaber, assistant consul, about the workers and their repatriation but didn’t hear back.
In June, the Ghanaian government repatriated a group of domestic workers who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic. The workers filmed the moment they got on the plane. They’re dancing and rejoicing.