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.
I 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 in Lebanon.
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
An 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.
Witnessing the 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.
What I 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 like slavery.
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.
I 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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