The first shelter I visited was small. Really small. One room, with a bed crammed against the wall and a mattress on the floor. A dozen masked women huddled shivering under large blankets. A space heater leaned against the wall unplugged. The electricity would cut if they had both the lights on and the heater plugged in. I couldn’t tell if it was the cold, or if they were uncomfortable with my presence, but you could have cut the tension with a knife.
In Beirut, dozens of shelters overflow with migrant domestic workers who have escaped the prison-like conditions of their employers’ apartments and have made the courageous—and difficult—decision to seek repatriation back home. They sit in limbo, in cold borrowed apartments with too little food and too little power, waiting for the bureaucracy to run its course before they can return home.
The dozen or so Kenyan women who wait in this shelter all came to Lebanon within the last year, well after the Lebanese economic collapse saw thousands of migrant domestic workers cast onto the street when their employers could no longer afford to feed and clothe them. These women had been recruited by agents in Kenya who spun tall tales of good work in Lebanon. They capitalized upon desperation and sold a false dream.
Upon their arrival, the women enter the kafala system, a labor sponsorship regime that places migrants under the total control of their employers.
Each of the women that I speak to tells a different story of severe mistreatment. They all tell me that they have escaped environments where they were worked to the bone, subjected to incredible racism, and made to feel less than human. Each one of them had a different breaking point, and each one of them experienced heart-wrenching suffering.
For these women who left inhumane working conditions, escaping their employers was just the beginning of their hardship. Their stories are remarkably similar. Thinking only as far as the need to flee Lebanon, they found taxis or were dropped off at the Kenyan consulate. Alone. They arrived at the consulate to find it shuttered. Their calls and messages went unanswered. Resorting to wandering the streets, they found doormen, pastors, or other migrants who connected them to Ruth, a Kenyan woman who offered to rent an apartment and support them through the repatriation process.
For these vulnerable women, it is almost impossible to know who to trust. A few days after my first visit, I was informed that the shelter fell apart. My contacts told me that Ruth herself had abused the women in the shelter. When this came to the attention of Kenyan community leaders, a small group of women who saw the negligence of the consulate at the onset of the crisis and decided to take matters into their own hands, they confronted Ruth, who fled with the women’s money, belongings, and food. It was the middle of the night, and the group of women, stranded again, did not know where to go.
A couple of days later, I visited their new shelter. In a borrowed apartment, the women told me that Ruth had been running the shelter like a business. They told me that she demanded money from their families in Kenya and beat them when it did not arrive. One claimed that Ruth had stolen and sold her phone, the only means she had to contact her family and small children in Kenya. They said that she refused to let them touch the food that was delivered to them by the community leaders, instead feeding them only bread and tea. Worst of all, they allege that she intentionally submitted inadequate documents to delay the repatriation process. These women escaped so much, only to find themselves again exploited and abused.
Since these dramatic events, I have visited these women many times. They have been kind enough to sit with me and relay deeply personal stories of their profound struggles. I end every interview asking a simple, but difficult question: “Do you have any good memories from your time in Lebanon?” Each of them answers clearly: No.
Recently, they decided to change this. I was invited to tag along as the group piled into a bus to visit the snow-capped peaks that tower behind Beirut. Through slivers between the tall, crowded, buildings, you catch a glimpse of these imposing mountains, but nobody in the group had ever been to the snow. They wanted something, anything, to show their families when they got back to Kenya.
Between snowball fights, modeling shoots in the powder, and dance parties outside the après-ski lounge, we had a total blast. Sitting stuck inside, waiting to go home, is incomprehensibly draining and their experience here incredibly dehumanizing, but for a day, I was invited to see them simply as a group of friends enjoying snow for the first time.