Washington, DC - For Alem Dechesa, death was the only way out. For
thousands of voiceless Ethiopian domestic workers working in Lebanon,
suicide is the only avenue for escaping a nihilistic existence.
witnessed the range of human rights abuses endured by Ethiopian maids -
from both the perspective of a Lebanese insider and a human rights
attorney - and found that Dechesa's death was anything but a horrific
aberration, but a common consequence of the modern-day slavery industry
Dechesa took her life on March 14, after
experiencing severe beatings, mental abuse and potentially more, from
her employer. A video, showing Ali Mahfouz brutally beating Dechesa in
front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, went viral after she took
her life. The video, viewed by millions around the world and propelling
the story into the global news spotlight, uncovered the dehumanisation
and brutality endured by Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon.
Poverty, lack of viable employment alternatives and desperation, give
fertile ground for traffickers to exploit despondent Ethiopian women.
Once the birthplace of mankind, Ethiopia today serves as a cradle for
traffickers pursuing profit and Lebanese nationals, seeking cheap labour
- a virtual one-stop shop for inexpensive and convenient servitude.
Recipe for enslavement
unsavoury blend of Lebanese ethnocentrism, racial animus toward
Africans, human trafficking and the debt bondage of maids upon arrival
from Ethiopia, make up a recipe for contemporary enslavement. While the
images of silent and submissive African maids trapped inside
cosmopolitan Beirut apartments, condos and villas seemed juxtaposed at
first, the modern portrait of Middle Eastern slavery - I gradually
discovered through on-the-ground research, interviewing nearly 50 maids,
and an examination of Lebanese labour laws and observance of human
rights - was a common picture and practice.
living conditions of these maids - from being made to sleep on kitchen
or bathroom floors in small, congested apartments, to being denied the
opportunity to travel home for vacation - I was prompted to search for
more. I challenged family and friends, who employed undocumented maids,
many of whom were working or middle class, only to hear unapologetic
echoes including, "Everybody here has a maid, no matter your economic
class", or "They have no opportunities in Ethiopia, and they are
grateful for the work".
However, the more maids I spoke to -
oftentimes surreptitiously - the more I heard pleas for help and a
desire to return home. The deeper I dug, the more akin to chattel or
classical slavery the maid industry in Lebanon resembled.
found was an ugly underbelly of rape, subjugation, violence and
comprehensive dehumanisation - underlined by a pervasive and entrenched
racism toward brown and black people - which looked, smelled and felt
Many of these women wanted to return to their lives
in Ethiopia, but denied that wish due to tallied debts, confiscation of
their passports and travel documents and lack of funds. As evident in
the video, Dechesa was desperately fighting to flee from Mahfouz's
bondage, in front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut - an attempt many
Ethiopians have pursued, contemplated or fell short of undertaking.
was an Arab American - a geographically malleable identity that the
United States marked me as a minority, and at worse, a potential menace.
However, my existential standing was turned on its head when in
Lebanon, and felt I was part of an oppressive majority that reduced
Ethiopian women into - as Cheryl I Harris of the UCLA School of Law
states - "racially contingent forms of property".
As a lawyer
for the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, I coordinated
an independent study, examining the illegal trafficking of and human
rights abuses suffered by Ethiopian domestic workers. I met with
Lebanese government officials, human rights organisations, and
interviewed 55 maids.
While I anticipated a list of human rights
abuses, my research uncovered what was nothing short of a full-fledged
atrocity that resembled slavery. Although it cannot be said that all
cases of trafficked Ethiopian women working in Lebanon rise to
slavery-like proportions, numerous accounts expose cases that merit, if
not supersede, label. I returned to the US alarmed, but empowered by the
courage of the women I interviewed and befriended.
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