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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Aster Goshu squints as she speaks quietly into the phone’s camera. “They lock me in the home when they leave,” she says in Arabic, speaking in a frantic tone.
“I spend my days crying,” she adds, pointing to the dark circles under her swollen eyes. “I’ve cried so much that I have trouble seeing things from a distance.”
It was late 2019, and the then-24-year-old Ethiopian woman had waited for her employers to leave their home for work in Beirut, Lebanon, before hitting record.
“I went four years without hearing from my parents,” Aster says into the camera.
“My employers say, ‘you Ethiopians will always be poor, what difference would it make?’” she adds, explaining that she’s only received a salary for three months of the four years she is owed. “I beg you to help me escape this home.”
Six years earlier, Aster left Ethiopia in search of work. But after a Lebanese family hired her as a live-in housekeeper in 2014, she found herself cut off from the outside world and labouring without pay. Aster’s family, unable to contact her, feared she was dead.
Ethiopian women, like Aster, have flocked to the Middle East to work as nannies, caregivers and housekeepers for decades. Driven by Ethiopia’s rising living costs and unemployment, hundreds of thousands have gone to Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Kuwait. But what many find, activists and domestic workers say, is a cycle of exploitation and modern-day slavery that is hard to escape.
The kafala system
Rights groups have long documented cases like Aster’s, finding “consistent patterns of abuse” under Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries’ “kafala” or sponsorship system. The system links a migrant domestic worker’s legal status to the contractual relationship with her employer.
In Lebanon, where as many as 400,000 Ethiopians live, migrant workers are also excluded from the protections of the country’s labour laws – putting their lives and livelihood at risk of abuse and exploitation.
Under the kafala system, migrants seeking employment in Lebanon must receive an invitation before arriving in the country. At the airport in Beirut, they are often met by local employment agents or sponsors who immediately confiscate their passports.
Local traffickers in Ethiopia work in tandem with recruitment agencies in Beirut. Ethiopian traffickers are known to have charged up to $500 to facilitate the travel of recruits to Lebanon, where domestic workers make on average $150 a month.
Some Lebanese employers force their domestic workers to put in extremely long hours, deny them days off, withhold pay, confiscate their passports to prevent them from leaving, and severely restrict their movement and communication, according to Diala Haidar, Amnesty International’s Lebanon campaigner.
“In extreme cases of exploitation, we’ve documented forced labour and human trafficking as well,” Haidar told Al Jazeera.
Following reports of abuse, Ethiopia, in 2008, banned its citizens from travelling to Lebanon for work. But the ban has never been properly enforced and the numbers of women migrating to Lebanon for work swelled in subsequent years.
The traffickers often portray Lebanon as a country where a worker’s rights to a day off, phone access and salary are guaranteed. The misleading portrayals are used to prey upon impoverished women desperate to change their lives.
‘I just want my daughter back’
That is what happened to Meskerem Amare. Al Jazeera first met the young Ethiopian woman’s parents, Chewanesh Mariye and her husband Amare Asfaw, in their home in Addis Ababa in August 2019. Amare, eyes sunken, looked downtrodden and mostly stared silently at the floor. His wife, seated beside him on the family’s couch, did most of the talking.
Chewanesh told Al Jazeera that Meskerem had hoped to succeed in Lebanon after witnessing a classmate return home with enough money to start her own business. A local recruitment broker who met Meskerem portrayed Lebanon as a shortcut to success.
Meskerem, then 28, and her younger sister Tsedale, who was 25 at the time, travelled to Lebanon in March 2012. Soon after arriving, Tsedale found work and began sending money home. But Meskerem was not so lucky, the younger sister said.
In November 2012, Meskerem moved into the Beirut home of Nahla Mohsen, a 44-year-old single mother of two. Employment records reviewed by Al Jazeera showed that Mohsen agreed to not only pay Meskerem’s $150 monthly salary, but also purchase her air ticket home to Ethiopia, as is custom upon the expiry of a worker’s two-year contract.
Months went by, however, and Meskerem never received her salary.
“I kept asking ‘when are you going to pay my sister?’ She would say that after six months, Meskerem would receive the accumulated pay,” Tsedale told Al Jazeera by phone from Beirut.
In March of 2015, with Meskerem yet to see a penny for more than two years of work, an exasperated Tsedale reached an agreement with her sister’s employer: Meskerem would be paid by the end of the month or she’d be permitted to leave. But when Tsedale went to visit her sister towards the end of March, she found an empty apartment.
“Nahla Mohsen had moved out with no warning and taken my sister with her,” Tsedale said.
Meskerem’s parents said they rang Mohsen repeatedly, pleading for their daughter’s release.
“I begged her. I told her I didn’t care about the money, I just wanted my daughter back,” Chewanesh recalled, a tear rolling down her cheek. “One day we were desperate. I lied and told her that Meskerem’s father had passed away and that I was terminally ill with months to live. I thought that as a mother, she’d find it in her heart to allow Meskerem to be with her mother in her final months. But this woman was a monster.”
Eventually, the family said, Mohsen stopped answering their calls. They lost all contact with their daughter. Meskerem had disappeared.
“It’s like we lost two daughters,” Chewanesh said.
“We don’t know where one is, and the other doesn’t have the strength to leave her sister behind. I spend my days wondering, if Meskerem is alive,” she added. “For a mother, this is worse than a death sentence.”
‘She just vanished’
Emebet Alemu expressed the same desperation and pain. Sitting down after serving tea in her home in the Ethiopian town of Dera, 120km (74.5 miles) south of Addis Ababa, Emebet described her life as “aimless”.
“I must have been punished by God for something. I have attempted to make amends with everyone I believed I wronged. I pray daily. But my suffering is endless,” she said.
Emebet’s biggest regret was not preventing her daughter Meseret Hailu, then 26, from leaving Ethiopia for Lebanon in 2011. When Al Jazeera visited Emebet’s home in September 2019, she had not seen her daughter in eight years.
Meseret started working for a Lebanese family as a domestic worker shortly after arriving in the city of Jounieh in February 2011. Things started off well, Emebet said. Her daughter received her salary and sent money home. But a little over a year after departing Ethiopia, she was suddenly unable to reach Meseret by phone and the monthly remittances stopped coming in.
“I don’t know why she suddenly stopped calling,” Emebet said. “She just vanished.”
Meseret’s parents made the trip to Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, a two-hour bus ride away in Addis Ababa on at least two occasions to plead for help in locating their daughter. “They took our names and opened a file for her. We hoped they might provide answers.”
But none came. About a year after Meseret’s disappearance, her father abandoned the family, leaving Emebet alone to her heartache and torment.
‘Pay or become famous’
Eventually, Emebet enlisted the help of “This is Lebanon”, a Canada-based domestic worker rights organisation that works to locate and free women who have been abused under the kafala system.
The organisation was founded in 2017 by Dipendra Uprety and Priya Subedi, who both worked in Lebanon as domestic workers. Uprety, who is from Nepal, was jailed for six months after complaining about his employer’s failure to pay his salary. Uprety and Subedi have since relocated to Canada where they and a staff of mostly anonymous colleagues, work round the clock to free domestic workers from bondage in Lebanon.
“Pay or become famous,” is the group’s tagline. The organisation pressures abusive Lebanese employers who refuse to pay their workers by promising to publish details of their abuse on their Facebook page, which has more than 120,000 likes.
“Since 2017, we’ve looked into over 6,000 complaints of various types of abuse,” Uprety told Al Jazeera. “Many are resolved through negotiations, in particular when it’s cases related to unpaid salaries. We escalate things only when abusers refuse to cooperate.”
The threats are often enough to coerce employers to pay wages owed, or free women held against their will. The group helped free Filipina domestic worker Halima Ubpah. According to This is Lebanon, Ubpah was confined without pay in the home of a family with close connections to Lebanon’s political elite for 10 years.
“It might be less than conventional, but it’s effective,” said Patricia, a This is Lebanon caseworker who uses a pseudonym for safety reasons.
“Oftentimes, it’s their reputations and not their consciences that pushes abusers to act,” Patricia told Al Jazeera, adding that the group has helped free hundreds since 2017.
‘I won’t get those eight years back’
This is Lebanon caseworkers studied the files of both Meskerem and Meseret for most of 2019. A few weeks after Al Jazeera visited the Emebet’s home, the group called Meseret’s Lebanese employer, Dr May Saadeh, a single mother of three daughters.
This is Lebanon activists told Saadeh they would post Meseret’s story to the group’s Facebook page if she did not release the Ethiopian woman.
Saadeh gave Meseret some cash and booked her a flight back to Ethiopia. Within days, Meseret was free. By September 2019, Meseret arrived back home.
“I was confused and couldn’t believe it,” a freed Meseret told Al Jazeera, weeks after arriving in Ethiopia. “Out of nowhere, she suddenly told me that I would be going home. I wasn’t allowed to use a phone for seven years. That day, she handed me the phone and said, ‘call your mother, tell her you will see her soon’.”
Meseret boarded a late-night flight back to her homeland, with nothing but the clothes on her back and the cash she was handed. She had no luggage and was still owed seven years worth of pay, more than $12,000.
“It’s very hard returning empty-handed,” Meseret later said.
“The first few months were the hardest. I was always depressed and couldn’t sleep at night,” she added. “I left thinking I would change my life. It hurts to realise that after so many years of toiling, you are returning to square one. I won’t get those eight years back.”
According to Meseret, Saadeh’s family lived in a high-rise apartment, which discouraged her from escaping. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t dream of getting out. But I did not want to jump out of a window and cripple myself or worse.”
When she was taken by her employer to renew her residency papers, Meseret pleaded with officers at the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut for help. But they turned her away, she said. Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry, as well as an official Meseret said she spoke to at the consulate did not respond to requests for comment. Saadeh also did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment.
Overcoming the trauma remains a continuing battle. “For years, I was forbidden to leave a room, except to clean. My employer would insult me daily, she’d even threaten me with a knife. I was also forbidden from growing my hair,” Meseret said. “For eight years, she always demanded it be cut short, I don’t know why. I would work endlessly and be locked indoors whenever she left the home. It was unbearable.”
‘The pain in her eyes’
The case of Meskerem, the domestic worker who went to Lebanon with her sister, was not so simple.
“We were able to determine that Nahla Mohsen had a number of lawsuits filed against her from her business dealings,” Patricia, the caseworker at This is Lebanon, said. “She moved frequently from address to address, making it hard to find her.”
The organisation went as far as to hire a private detective to help find Meskerem. But there were no leads. It later emerged that this was likely because Meskerem was imprisoned sometime in February 2020. While it is not clear why Meskerem was taken into custody, a common practice among employers is to falsely accuse a worker of theft, often to avoid having to pay salary owed. Mohsen did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comments.
Shortly after being released three months later, Meskerem boarded a plane and returned to Ethiopia as part of a group of formerly imprisoned domestic workers whose one-way tickets were covered by donations from members of the large Ethiopian community in Lebanon.
Meskerem was a free woman again, but returned to Ethiopia last June, terribly scarred by her ordeal. Emaciated, drained, Meskerem had also lost most of her teeth.
After months of recuperating, Meskerem gradually opened up about her time in Lebanon, and spoke of the physical and mental abuse endured, the lack of food and how she was locked in at all times and forbidden contact with the outside world.
“She was cruel,” Meskerem said of her employer.
Meskerem remained reluctant to go into detail about what caused her to lose most of her teeth. Months after her arrival, relatives chipped in and paid for implants.
Before arriving in Ethiopia, Meskerem didn’t know her mother, in her desperate pleas, pretended that she was ill and told her employer Meskerem’s father had died.
“My employer just told me my father was dead and I thought it was true. I mourned him for years thinking that he was dead,” Meskerem said.
When she arrived at the airport in Ethiopia, Meskerem called his phone thinking a relative would answer.
“But he answered it and I recognised his voice,” she recalled. “I almost fainted because I couldn’t believe it. But I was so happy and so was he. We both started crying. We both couldn’t believe we were going to see each other alive.”
Chewanesh Mariye spilled tears of joy, but also sadness when she first laid eyes on her daughter who was a shell of her former self.
“She had aged considerably and was so frail-looking,” she said. “But it’s the pain in her eyes which broke my heart the most as a mother. I took her into my arms and didn’t let go.”
‘Freed from prison’
As Meskerem was languishing in police custody, Aster Goshu was marking year six in the home of Lebanese couple Michel and Oula Keyrouz. The Keyrouz family had only paid Aster three months’ pay, no more than a few hundred dollars.
Al Jazeera first reached out to Michel Keyrouz in late 2019. The following January, he directed Al Jazeera to speak to his wife, Oula.
“Aster is happy in our home, she is like one of my daughters,” Oula Keyrouz told Al Jazeera by phone. “I don’t understand what the family in Ethiopia wants because we don’t speak their language. But we treat her well.”
But Aster told Al Jazeera that she has endured years of abuse, in particular at the hands of Oula’s husband Michel, allegations Oula denied. Aster explained that years ago Michel nearly strangled her with a belt, as punishment for an ill-fated escape attempt.
Oula Keyrouz admitted that Aster was owed six years worth of pay, totalling thousands of dollars. “We keep her money for her in a safe. She will take all of it when she returns to her country one day.”
When asked when that might be, Oula Keyrouz said that “because of the dollar crisis in Lebanon,” the family couldn’t afford to send Aster home.
“We will wait for things to improve,” she told Al Jazeera at the time.
Not long after Al Jazeera and This is Lebanon first contacted the Keyrouz family, Aster was given a phone and permitted to contact her family for the first time in more than four years.
In March 2020, Oula Keyrouz told Al Jazeera that the family would not release Aster because they feared that doing so during a coronavirus pandemic would “endanger her”. By this time, Aster, who had been granted phone privileges had started extensively communicating with the outside world and was determined to have a second go at escaping, years after an ill-fated escape attempt nearly cost her life.
Aster said she gave herself a mid-June deadline. “Either I’ll get out this week or I’ll die. I will not let this go on,” she said in a voice message to Al Jazeera at the time.
On June 17, 2020, a taxi pulled up to the Keyrouz family home. Aster, who had made coffee for Oula Keyrouz, walked outside, pretending to be taking out the trash. Instead, she stepped into the waiting vehicle, never to be seen again by the family that had stripped her of her dignity for six years. She was dropped outside the Ethiopian consulate, where members of a community group who had called the taxi, paid the fare and took her in.
“It was like being freed from prison,” Aster later said.
Aster was part of a group of 90 Ethiopian domestic workers who were repatriated in September, with the help of Egna Legna Besidet, a Beirut-based nonprofit organisation.
Aster successfully escaped the Keyrouz home, but like Meseret and Meskerem, she returned from Lebanon empty-handed after years of toiling without pay. It troubled her so much that on one occasion, she sent a voice message to her former employers, pleading with them to at least send some of her salary. They never responded.
Months after being reunited with her mother in the rural farming community of the Oromia region’s Guna district, she says she is recovering.
“I’m finding peace because I remember where I used to be,” Aster explained.
“In Lebanon, one day I had enough. I poured rat poison into a bowl and was about to drink it. While I sat there staring at it, I saw a fly land in it and roll over, dead,” she said. “I realised I would be like that fly in a few minutes if I went ahead. I began to cry, thinking of how that would crush my mother and I poured the poison into the toilet.”
Oula Keyrouz admits Aster is still owed six years of wages, but denies her family mistreated Aster, saying she has pictures she took of Aster enjoying herself in the family home. “I saw her like a daughter to me, like another one of my children.”
‘I’m lucky to be alive today’
When asked about the three women’s cases, Lebanese Labour Ministry official Marlene Atallah said her office was aware of such cases and was working on preventive measures.
“We have set up a committee at the ministry tasked with dealing with complaints from domestic workers,” Atallah explained. “There is now an emergency hotline number workers can call in case of violations. We have also begun giving orientation sessions for domestic workers to learn how to bring their cases to Lebanese courts.”
But Lebanese courts have rarely sentenced abusive employers to jail time, and any kind of justice is often out of reach for migrant workers.
“If there was any justice, I wouldn’t have been jailed for a single day,” Meskerem said.
Worse still, is that authorities estimate that at least two domestic workers die weekly on average. These are mainly deaths by suicide or from botched escape attempts.
Last year, Ghanaian domestic worker Faustina Tay was found dead in a car park under her employers’ fourth-storey home in a Beirut suburb. Hours earlier she had sent an activist group a desperate plea for help.
While Tay’s case, which received international media attention, is currently under investigation, the deaths of most migrant workers in Lebanon are rarely looked into. The same is true for allegations of abuse.
The three women Al Jazeera spoke to have trouble sleeping at night, with Meskerem especially prone to nightmares. But she enjoyed the celebration of the Ethiopian new year in September, which was the first in which the whole family was under one roof. “In the end, the Lord didn’t forsake me,” her mother, Chewanesh, said. “I have my daughters back.”
At a cafe in Addis Ababa in October 2020, Aster was somewhat philosophical. “I was desperate for work, but if I could go back, I would never have boarded that flight to Beirut. I’m lucky to be alive today,” she said.
“I wish I never went to Lebanon, but today I tell myself that I’m strong,” she added. “Life is what’s precious. If I’m alive, I can still work hard and make something of myself one day.”
Meseret, who was sitting across from her, nodded in agreement. “Every day I woke up in that home, [and] I would tell myself that my day would come. If I’m still alive it’s because I’m not going to die in Lebanon. This is what kept me going.”