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Kenya: Forsaken By Their Country, These Women Led a Dog’s Life in Beirut

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As Teresia Wambui sits, watching her children play around the compound in Thika, Kiambu County, she appreciates such small joys of life.

The fact that she can now make decisions such as going out for a walk, visiting friends or calling whoever she wants independently and without looking over her shoulder, excites her even more.

For about a decade, she lived a life of fear, far from home, in Beirut, Lebanon, where she was a domestic worker until September 4, when she arrived in Nairobi.

Ms Wambui has experienced sexual harassment, insults and slavery.

It had taken her nearly a year, seeking every possible way to get back home and not even the money she had saved could help her. When she finally breathed Kenyan air, her excitement was palpable.

“I may not have returned with anything from Lebanon, I’ve come back empty-handed but I’m happy. At least I returned alive and with my children,” she says.

Work hard

When she left Kenya for Lebanon in 2011, she was determined to work hard, make enough money to send some back to her family for upkeep and save as much as she could. She would then return home, her life much better, she thought.

A naive young woman then, Ms Wambui never imagined she would return home nine years later, broke, and a mother of two.

The moment she landed in Lebanon, she realised things were not as she had imagined. Immediately she arrived, her passport was confiscated by her employer. She would later realise he did that because he had bought her.

“Then I started experiencing mistreatment, racism and inhumane conduct from my employer. I was not allowed to eat with them, touch their children with bare hands and I would work from 5am to 1am. It was exhausting and I was suffering,” she says.

I told them I’d rather be killed than go back to that employer,”

When she complained, her employer became harsh and told her he had paid Sh400,000 to have her and she was expected to work for him for 10 years, she tells the Nation.

Then insults, sexual harassment and being denied basic rights such as going outside the compound, calling her family and friends or having time to rest, became the order of the day.

It was clearly not the Canaan she had anticipated.

At 4am one Monday in October 2011, seven months after arriving in Lebanon, she ran away from her employer. Her attempts to seek intervention from her agents in Kenya and Lebanon had failed. The agent in Kenya told her the only option was to run away.

She ended up at the Kenyan consulate in Beirut, where she sought help to travel back home. Her boss was forced to pass on her passport.

“I told them I’d rather be killed than go back to that employer,” she says.

A few months after coming back to Kenya, she got a better job — to assist the man who had been her agent in Lebanon, and in February 2012, she was back in Beirut.

This time round, she had better working conditions — an eight hour-job daily, one day off and with some freedoms.

Then her employer moved to Kenya and she had to find another job. She found one at an organisation where she worked until last year, when the Lebanese economy started doing badly and she lost her job.

When things got too bad, she visited the Kenyan consulate, seeking to travel back home.

“The consul told me that I had to pay $2,000 (Sh216,000) in order to travel with my two children. I told him I did not have enough money and he told me to go look for it,” she says.

Boiling point

Heartbroken, she left the office and sought menial jobs, going back to the hardships she had escaped seven years ago. She worked until last month, when the situation reached a boiling point.

Esther Kageha was a domestic worker in Lebanon for five years until two weeks ago, when she returned to Kenya. She is currently at her parents’ home in Kakamega County.

As she helps her mother with chores and looks after her children, she draws her happiness from small things such as seeing they are together again, healthy and happy as a family even when “we don’t have much”.

After working in various homes, she has come to realise that dignity, peace and safety are critical. She has suffered sexual harassment, assault by employers and the Kenyan consulate officials in Lebanon and arrest by police.

“Working with Lebanese is not easy, they take you for a slave. At some workplaces, my employers called me a donkey,” she says.

Mistreatment was slowly becoming part of the job and coming back home more impossible since her passport had been confiscated, but last year brought a new challenge from unexpected quarters — Lebanon experienced an economic recession and employers started laying off workers.

Dealing with Lebanese employers before the recession was hell for the migrant workers and as expected, things could only turn uglier. With most employers now unable to afford domestic help, they resorted to firing them, many without pay, and throwing them out of their houses. Most found themselves homeless.

Ms Kageha visited the Kenyan consulate. She was asked to pay for a ticket and gave the $600 (about Sh60,000) she had, but was told the money was not enough.

“I was told to go back and look for more money. They did not return the $600 they had taken and have not [done so] to date,” she says.

She was forced to go back to the life she was escaping. She rented a single room in Beirut, together with nine other women. She would live there for the next 10 months.

Dozens of other women living in Lebanon as domestic workers share similar stories of mistreatment by employers, police and officials at the Kenyan consulate.

World’s attention

It’s such tales that piled up, leading to protests outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut last month and capturing the world’s attention.

Many women who have spoken to the Nation said their attempts to seek the intervention of the Kenyan Embassy in Kuwait, which is in charge of the consulate in Lebanon, yielded nothing, as officials at the consulate continued to swindle money from domestic workers who had either saved at the office for a ticket back home, or were desperate to get back to Kenya after the economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

The Kenyan community in Lebanon, in May this year, wrote to the Kenyan ambassador in Kuwait, Ms Halima Mohamud, expressing their concerns at the mistreatments, particularly by staff who were swindling money from the domestic workers.

Several sources told the Nation that the women had saved their money at the consulate, amounting to $4,000 (about Sh400,000), but when they went to ask for it, they were either insulted, beaten up or arrested.

But it was only after their plight was highlighted by international media that the embassy issued a statement, stating that it would investigate the allegations. The sources who spoke to the Nation last week, however, said embassy officials have never visited Lebanon to probe the matter and none of the staff at the consulate has been called to record statements on how they lost the money.

“… the embassy would look into claims of extortion and other abuses, which needed more time, owing to their seriousness and complexity. Embassy officials had planned to visit Beirut to probe the matter and obtain evidence. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on international travel, the team could not travel as hoped, but will do so as soon as possible,” the embassy said in a statement issued on July 28.

Thousands of dollars

This was about two months after the Kenyans wrote to the embassy and 10 months since the women first sought help to travel back home.

By July, other countries were evacuating their citizens from Lebanon and, left on their own in a foreign country, the Kenyans’ frustrations boiled over. In August they took to the streets to demand evacuation.

In the meantime, I’m just making sure that I don’t upset people,”

They also wanted the consulate to return thousands of dollars its officials had taken from the women, return of their travel documents and removal of officials at the consulate for insulting and beating up women seeking services there.

“The embassy has informed all Kenyans in the region that since the airspace was open for commercial flights, those willing to return home should do so at their own cost, and as guided by travel protocols provided by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA),” the embassy said on August 12.

By then, the women had been camping outside the consulate for some days.

The embassy is said to have facilitated the travel of just 12 women.

The women have been camping outside the consulate for weeks now, some pregnant and others with small children. Humanitarian organisations stepped in to provide them with basic necessities and get them tickets home.

A Lebanese activist whom many women cited as having helped them travel back to Kenya told the Nation she did so independently and that the Kenyan government did not play any part.

The Kafala system

“I realised there was no one addressing the urgent needs of the migrant domestic workers, so I stepped in to support them with food, clothes, shoes, underwear and other individual needs,” Ms Dea Hage told the Nation.

Part of the reason many migrant domestic workers suffer in Lebanon is an administrative practice called the Kafala system, used to monitor migrant workers. An agency in another country (such as Kenya) uploads details of people seeking jobs, a potential employer in Lebanon pays through an agency in Lebanon to have the person they would like to work for them. The employer will be the worker’s sponsor.

The system denies the worker freedom of movement, where the employer confiscates the worker’s passport so they cannot change jobs or leave the country until the contract period elapses.

‘I was his property’

In reality, this has turned into slavery for many of the workers, who are usually ignorant of such arrangements.

The fact that Lebanese law is also silent on issues to do with migrant domestic workers has provided a loophole for many employers to mistreat them.

“I thought I was coming to do a normal job, only to realise that someone had literally bought me. He actually told me straight [to my face] that I was his property until the contract period elapses,” says a domestic worker who sought anonymity for security reasons since she is still working in Lebanon.

Her passport was taken immediately she arrived at the airport and will only be returned in November next year when her contract ends.

“In the meantime, I’m just making sure that I don’t upset people,” she says. The Kenyan Honorary Consul in Beirut is a Lebanese national, whom the domestic workers have blamed for their woes — loss of their money, assault and arrest — when they visit the office.

A Kenyan woman who previously worked at the consulate backed the women’s complaints, saying, the consulate threatens them whenever they complain.

The embassy in Kuwait has been of little help.

The workers told the Nation that a number of Kenyan women have died in the country since 2014, but it’s they who see to it that the bodies get back home. Where finances don’t allow, the dead have been buried there.

According to Amnesty International, Lebanon, with a population of seven million, is estimated to have about 250,000 migrant domestic workers, most of whom are women.

The country has been rocked by political and economic instability because of bad leadership and corruption, in the worst instances leading to two governments resigning within a year between October last year and last month, because of protests after the economic recession and a recent blast at the port that tore through Beirut.

The World Bank has warned that a majority of Lebanese nationals will be living below the poverty line by the end of this year, because of the near-collapse of the economy.

With this reality, the situation can only get worse for migrant domestic workers in the country.

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