By Tania Tabar
The Daily Star
November 11, 2008
BEIRUT - At the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, Lebanon, a poster declares "Ethiopia: 13 weeks of sunshine" as two officials sit at their desks. The three chairs in the waiting room are usually occupied these days: In just one recent week, the mission heard of one Ethiopian domestic worker who died a suspicious death and another who is in hospital with both legs broken, possibly paralyzed, and can only communicate by blinking her eyes.
The previous week, a woman walked in shaking. When the social officer asked her what was wrong, she replied that her "Madame" - her employer - threatened her with a knife.
It has long been the case that women from impoverished countries like Ethiopia come to Lebanon to work, that many encounter abuse and even violence, and that most find they have nowhere to turn.
Elinore Molla and Victoria Andarge, two Ethiopian women who are involved with the Full Gospel Church in Beirut, have turned an apartment they are renting into a makeshift sanctuary for women who flee their employers after facing some sort of abuse.
"The consulate doesn't have a resting room. Women sleep under the cars [outside the consulate], so many guys come and harass them. They are only 20 years old with a future and destiny. I take the decision in my life to suffer for them," said Molla, 27, who is originally from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
Molla first found out about the women sleeping underneath the cars about a year ago.
"When I was walking I saw the girls," she recalls. "I found four girls … I was shocked. They said, 'help us.'"
She took them into her home, which today houses about two dozen women at any given time. "I'm Christian, I'm a believer," she told The Daily Star. "Everyday I see my people and my nation, with no one to take responsibility. The idea comes from God - helping protect someone who was abused. I ask the girl when I take her to my home: 'What's the problem with your sponsor?' And she says, 'so many things.'"
The head of the social affairs office at the Ethiopian Consulate, who preferred not to be identified by name, confirmed that women continue to sleep under cars near the mission until this day.
There are several problems with the situation of domestic migrant workers in Lebanon, she explained: "It is not only Ethiopian workers facing problems, but because women from other countries stopped signing contracts, the number of Ethiopians increased."
There is currently no reliable data, but the consulate estimates the number of Ethiopian workers in Lebanon to be between 40,000 and 50,000, a substantial increase since the number of women coming from Sri Lanka and the Philippines dropped off following the 2006 war with Israel - and attendant stories of abuse and neglect. The Ethiopian government officially barred its own women from coming to Lebanon earlier this year, but many are now traveling here through third countries.
The head of the consular section, who also did not want to be named, said that problems frequently begin from the day of arrival. Many sponsors do not adhere to the terms of the contracts, he explained, such as duration, remuneration, and hours of work expected.
What is even more problematic, he added, is when agencies do not take responsibility when a woman files a complaint, paving the way for a volatile relationship between the workers and their employers.
"We are facing a lot of problems," he said. "One problem is by the housemaids, second by the sponsors. Since we are foreigners to this country we have a different culture, so from the beginning it is difficult for her to get accustomed.
"But I want to turn to the sponsors' problem," he added. "There are a lot of problems from sponsors, they don't pay salaries on time, they treat them aggressively, they don't get enough food, and they don't provide shelter."
According to the consulate, some 70 percent of employers who employ Ethiopians don't pay their employees on a monthly basis.
"Sometimes they close the balcony and make them sleep on the floor," added the head of the social affairs office, "and they beat her to make her understand. That's why she becomes aggressive toward agencies, the consulate and herself."
Most troubling of all, the mission says it has been sending a record number of corpses back to Ethiopia.
The consulate estimates that 150 women have died in a little more than a year, and there is no accountability.
In one recent case, Mekdes Tesfaye Tefera's corpse was found with a noose around her neck. But the consulate has doubts that this was a self-inflicted death and has filed a police report.
"They always say, 'she killed herself,'" the social affairs officer said.
In the case of Zebiba Kedr, who is currently hospitalized, the consulate is working on having charges laid against the woman for whom she was working. The employers have stated that Kedr fell from the 12th floor of their building, but the head of the consular section said that when he went to see her in the hospital and asked her "Madame" had pushed her, she indicated 'yes' by blinking her eyes.
Stories like these make the unofficial shelter run by Molla and Andarge even more essential. Andarge said the agencies were the main problem, accusing them of "playing a game" with people's lives. The government needs to get involved, she added, and make sure the agencies take responsibility for the women and how they are treated.
The consulate representatives said they had an agreement with all the agencies that said the latter were to be responsible for the women they bring to Lebanon, and that this is why mission does not have a shelter.
The nongovernmental organization Caritas offers a safehouse for workers who are flee their employers' homes, but Molla said that these spaces are usually reserved for those who are very sick or have psychological problems.
Molla is one of the lucky ones. She came to Lebanon when she was 17 years old and says she has always been well treated by her employer.
"She is like my mom, she is Lebanese, and she supports me. I love her," Molla told The Daily Star.
But since she regards her own experience as the exception rather than the rule, she discourages other Ethiopian women from traveling to Lebanon for work - a process which she described as getting easier by the day.
"The Lebanese name is collapsing everywhere," she said, explaining that in Addis Ababa, Lebanon's reputation is causing fewer and fewer would-be migrant workers to sign up.
To compensate, she added, the recruiters have started concentrating on women from remote villages.
Molla said she tells women in Ethiopia "what is going on" in Lebanon, "and that it's better to stay in your country, because you still have hopes there. Here there are no hopes."
Nonetheless, a young woman now staying at the makeshift safehouse said she would like to stay here and support her family back home - if her employers here were to treat her well.
Andarge believes there is hope to change the situation and has already noticed changes in public opinion and awareness. New York-based Human Rights Watch recently conducted a hard-hitting campaign on the plight of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, and last month the American University of Beirut hosted a conference and roundtable discussion on the issue. Some of the students were appalled at what they heard, she said, and their reaction was a pleasant "surprise."
"It will be changed," Andarge said with tears in her eyes. "We just need strong people."