Beirut, Lebanon – The employer of a Nigerian domestic worker accused of abuse was blacklisted and referred for a criminal investigation after Al Jazeera exposed the case.
Ariwolo Olamide Temitope, 31, said she was beaten by Mahmoud Zahran, the husband of her employer, Feyzeh Diab, on April 25 at a home where they live in Choueifat, south of Beirut. Temitope also mentioned past beatings by Diab.
Diab was called in for interrogation at the Labor Ministry on Tuesday and was subsequently blacklisted – meaning she will not be able to hire any more domestic workers.
Temitope’s case follows the arrest of a man last week accused of putting a Nigerian domestic worker up “for sale” on a Facebook page that is used mostly to sell second-hand items.
Both cases have caught the eye of Nigerian authorities, who told Al Jazeera they are worried about increasing abuse of Nigerians, trafficked as domestic workers in Asia and the Middle East, amid complaints of abuse and sexual exploitation.
Julie Okah-Donli, head of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, said trafficking has soared in the past two years.
“Estimates of the number of such victims in the Middle East range between 5,000 and 10,000,” Okah-Donli said. The “majority of these girls have been trafficked for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation”, she told Al Jazeera.
On the night of April 25, Temitope said Diab overheard her speaking on a mobile phone and accused her of stealing it. She said Zahran then hit her in the mouth, causing serious bleeding.
Temitope said she had been calling her family in Nigeria to wish her son a happy birthday – he had turned six years old two days before.
Reeling from the blow to her mouth, Temitope took a video of herself, revealing the scale of the injury.
“Help me. Oh lord. How long do I want to keep doing this? And I didn’t take the phone. Look how they beat me! Look how they beat me!” she says as she films.
Diab told Al Jazeera her husband “pushed” Temitope “out of self-defence” after she attacked them.
She claimed Temitope had stolen the phone and said she had in the past “pulled a knife on me” and “hit me”.
“That is a big, big lie. There is nothing of the sort,” Temitope said of the claims. “If I had beaten them before, why would they leave me in the house working with them?”
The day after the alleged assault, Temitope said she was locked in an empty room on the second floor of the same building her employers live in.
Fearing what they might do to her next, she contacted a Nigerian activist in Lebanon.
He agreed to help her, and so she scaled down the outside of the building via the balcony, leaving behind possessions and her passport, and made her way to a safe location.
Temitope said the employers had initially treated her well. When her phone broke following her arrival in Lebanon on October 1, 2019, they had provided one for her, allowing her to contact her husband and two children, aged 6 and 11, back home.
But then, she said, Zahran made sexual advances and even offered to pay her $100 a month in exchange. Her entire month’s salary was just $200.
“I shouted at him. I’m not going to lie – I spoke to him roughly to say that I’m here to work, so I can have a good life, not for sex,” Temitope said. “Since then, their attitude changed.”
Diab denied that her husband had made sexual advances, saying he was an old man who spent much of his time away working on a farm.
Al Jazeera was unable to contact Zahran directly. Diab said he was away, without elaborating.
After she turned down the advance, Temitope said the phone she was provided was taken away, and she secretly bought herself a new one and used it only at night.
Temitope said she was not allowed to rest, being made to work seven days a week.
These are common grievances of domestic workers in Lebanon, of which there are an estimated 250,000.
Harsh conditions are facilitated by the notorious kafala system, which ties the legal residence of domestic workers to their employers.
This means they cannot end their contracts or transfer to another employer without the consent of their current employer – a system former Labor Minister Camille Abousleiman likened to “modern-day slavery”.
One of the main concerns of experts is the manner by which domestic workers are brought to Lebanon – through a chain of recruitment offices that have been known to mislead and abuse women.
These agents are legal in Lebanon, but Nigerian authorities told Al Jazeera the system is illegal there because of human trafficking regulations
Temitope’s move to Lebanon was facilitated by an agent in Abule Egba, a suburb of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.
The agent – who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity – said they do not force women to travel – they only help with processing travel documents and identifying potential employers.
The agent said he collects 100,000 naira ($256) as his fee, while 50,000 naira ($128) goes towards bribing immigration staff at the airport.
He said a salary of $250 a month in Lebanon was justified by the fact that employers were paying about $1,800 in expenses on each domestic worker.
“They like women in their early 20s … and it depends on your physique. They prefer people who are small,” the agent said. “It takes about a month to process the travel arrangements. There are also opportunities in Baghdad and they treat workers better. They pay around $300 there.”
The agent said his role ends when the domestic worker leaves Nigeria – they do not intervene when any problem arises between the domestic worker and the employer.
Okah-Donli of the Nigerian anti-trafficking agency expressed confidence in their efforts “to weed out rogue recruiters” would save domestic workers overseas.
Despite her experience of abuse in Lebanon, Temitope said a lack of opportunity back home was pushing her to stay.
“I want to make it, I can’t go back to Nigeria empty-handed,” she said. “And I want justice.”