Suzana wasn’t used to having her story heard by a large audience. She stood up among her peers, sat on the chair, waited for a moment, and started reading, her hands shivering. While most of the others were telling stories of friends, Suzana read her own.
She is a Nepali domestic worker in Lebanon and attended the book launch of “If not for the system: migrant domestic workers in Lebanon tell their stories” by KAFA, the Lebanese anti-exploitation NGO. It was the first day of a three-day anti-Kafala festival celebrating labor rights. As part of the event, domestic workers were invited to present their testimonies of what they went through.
Suzana has been a domestic worker since July 2007 when she landed at Beirut Rafiki International Airport. From the very start, the would-be domestic workers felt that something was wrong. She was asked by airport police to wait in a small room.
Her employer arrived at the airport three hours later. They didn’t say much to each other, she was just asked to follow the ‘Madame’. Arriving at the house, Suzana was shown to her room. It was a storage room, the kind that would remind you of that little wizard living under the stairs, only without a door. She had no privacy and her ‘bed’ – a mattress – was just another object among the various utilities that were kept in there.
"Not much to eat, no days off, poor sleep, no family phone calls, passport confiscated, no salary."
What followed was the retelling of a routine that has become all too familiar for myself and those involved in the fight against the so called Kafala system; not much to eat, no days off, poor sleep, no family phone calls, passport confiscated, no salary. She was asked, or rather forced, to act as though she didn’t really exist, as though her presence must be kept to the bare minimum.
Suzana ended her testimony with a call for action, her hands still shivering.
This is how countless domestic workers live in Lebanon. How many exactly, we do not know. But sit down with any of the luckier ones and you seldom end your conversation without a few such stories. Most of those present were no longer domestic workers, and the few who still were, had been lucky enough to get kind sponsors. And luck is what it comes down to in the end, Rahel Zegeye, an Ethiopian filmmaker based in Lebanon, tells us.
Rahel made a name for herself as director of the movie “Beirut” and the play “Shouting without a listener” both revolving around the plight of domestic workers. Before coming to Lebanon, she was an activist using drama to fight the spread of HIV in Ethiopia. But her family’s financial struggle led her to Lebanon, her country of almost 13 years today.