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Economy & Labor , World

In Wake of Beirut’s Devastating Blast, Stranded Kenyan Domestic Workers Demand Repatriation

by Louise Donovan August 12, 2020

This article was published in partnership with Kenya’s Daily Nation.

What you need to know
  • An estimated 30 women - at least three with children - took to the streets to protest. They are sleeping outside the Kenyan consular on mattresses with little food or water.
  • Many of them have either been let go or not found work since the ammonium nitrate blast and are now homeless, along with some 300,000 others.

For the second night in a row, a group of Kenyan women have slept on mattresses outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut, Lebanon on concrete pavements littered with plastic bottles. As night fell, they held up a Kenyan flag and chanted, “we want to go home,” throwing trash and rocks at the locked gate protecting the building entrance.  

The women are domestic workers who have lost their jobs, many of whom are now homeless.  They are calling on the Kenyan government to fly them home immediately. 

On Monday morning, an estimated 30 Kenyan women – at least three with children – took to the streets to protest. Many of the women say they have either been let go or have not found work since the ammonium nitrate blast devastated Beirut last week, killing scores of people and injuring thousands. They now have nowhere to live, along with some 300,000 others.

Attempted arrest

The women cannot afford money for meals, nor plane tickets home.

On Monday night, the army attempted to arrest one of the Kenyan women but a number of bystanders intervened and no arrests were made, according to rights groups on the ground.

“Us Kenyans, we are tired,” said Kathy, 31, a domestic worker who asked to use her first name because of visa issues.

“We’ve reached a point where we will die in Lebanon.”

“We don’t have any hope. Some of us have kids here. What will happen to us? I’m not able to pay my own rent, let alone a ticket home.”

In interviews with several women, many say they have either been deserted by their employers, lost their homes due to the blast or simply can’t afford the rent any longer due to both the ongoing economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just want to go home”

“The blast made me realize that you can die in this country anytime,” said Kathy, who has lived and worked in Beirut since 2017.

“The glass was falling on our heads. Half of the houses are gone. Thank God I survived but I’m very mad. I’m going crazy. I just want to go home.”

The group is calling on Kenya’s Honorary Consul in Lebanon, Sayed Chalouhi, and his assistant, Kassem Jaber, both Lebanese nationals, to help.

On Monday, Kathy said she asked Jaber about the cost of a repatriation flight. When she explained that she had no money, he replied that she could engage in sex work to cover the fee, according to Kathy.

Two women – one Kenyan, another from Tunisia in close contact with the group – verified Kathy’s story. After the Daily Nation reached out for comment, Jaber denied any allegation of wrongdoing.

Women with brooms pass by a historic building damaged by Tuesday’s explosion in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, Beirut, Lebanon, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

In a WhatsApp message, he wrote: “As a consulate and as a person who represents the name of a country, we will never ask a girl to do such a thing, we are always here in this country trying our best to help those girls to go back home.”

“I understand their anger and their need to go back home, but I cannot understand when a girl come and accuse and spoil a name of a consulate that represents a government.”

Two weeks ago, CNN published a story detailing how both Chalouhi and Jaber allegedly physically and verbally assaulted Kenyan women seeking services at the outpost, including pressuring domestic workers to pursue sex work.

In response, the Kenyan government said they would dispatch a fact-finding mission to Beirut to “look into reports of mistreatment” at the country’s consulate.

This morning, the Kenyan Embassy in Kuwait said they are following up with the consulate in Lebanon, and that Kenyans stranded in Lebanon will soon be repatriated.

This has been confirmed by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), a global labour rights organization, who are in touch with Halima Mohamud, Kenya’s Ambassador to Kuwait, about the ongoing situation in Beirut.

“We have communicated to the Kenyans to register with the consulate and we are already trying to address their issue,” Mohamud told Nairobi News.

Devastating poverty

Volunteers and members of the public in Beirut have donated tents, mattresses, food and water to help sustain the Kenyan women.

On the ground, the women are being assisted by the IDWF, who is in conversation with the Kenyan government and Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (Kudheiha) the domestic workers union, to speed up the process of repatriation. 

They are also in talks with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to accelerate repatriation of the most vulnerable, including potential survivors of trafficking.

The Arab country was already struggling with an unprecedented economic crisis, with thousands of families being pushed into devastating poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic and last week’s explosion, which left a trail of destruction some 10 kilometres from the port, have only added to the misery.

No salaries

For the 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, the vast majority of them women from African and Asian countries, life has become doubly hard.

For months, many domestic workers have lost jobs, received reduced or no salaries or were forced to work increasingly long hours as employers isolated at home due to the pandemic. In July, employers abandoned scores of Ethiopian women in front of their country’s consulate in Beirut, saying they could no longer pay them.

Under Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system, women are routinely abused. Migrant workers cannot move to new jobs or leave the country without an employer’s permission.

Many workers rely heavily on their countries’ diplomatic missions for protection and to help figure out a way home in emergencies. But such missions, largely African and East and South Asian, have failed to provide aid.

Unclear fate

“The women are just sitting on the streets,” said Roula Seghaier, from IDWF, who is assisting the group with government negotiations.

“They have no money and a lot of them have no place to live. So when the consul demands that they leave, they have no place to leave to.” 

“Their fate is unclear,” she added.

Another protester, 33-year-old Karen Wanjira, says she has not worked since the blast and is supporting her three children living back home in Nairobi. A part-time domestic worker, she has been forced to share a single room with six others who needed accommodation. 

“I would like to say to the Kenyan government, humbly, please remember us,” said the single mother by phone.

“At least send a plane to take us home. You will save many lives.”

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