'No-one wants to stay': Ethiopia under pressure to rescue maids in Lebanon
Addis Ababa (AFP) - After flying to Lebanon in 2017 to work as a maid for a family of eight, Birtukan Mekuanint was only able to call her own relatives in Ethiopia a few times.
Her father, Abiye Yefru, did not know what to think when Birtukan showed up unannounced from a taxi outside her house in Addis Ababa last week.
"Everyone was very emotional when she came to meet us," Abiye told AFP, describing her reunion. "I, I didn't hold back my tears and my wife cried even more."
However, Abiye's joy soon turned to anger when Birtukan told of her hardship in Lebanon - an all too common story of uncompensated work under abusive conditions.
Now he joins the Ethiopian choir and asks the government to bring back thousands of domestic workers stranded in Lebanon.
"It's too difficult over there," he said. "Of course they should be brought home."
A quarter of a million migrants are employed as domestic workers in Lebanon, most of them Ethiopians.
A sponsorship system known as "Kafala" leaves maids, nannies, and caregivers extradited outside of Lebanese labor law and employers.
The plight of workers has come into the spotlight in recent weeks as Lebanon has been struggling with the worst economic crisis in decades. Dozens of women were displaced by their employers and dumped in front of the Ethiopian consulate in Beirut.
Nonetheless, Ethiopian women have suffered from non-payment of wages, enforcement, and physical and sexual violence for years, activists say.
The Ethiopian authorities have ignored the abuse, said Banchi Yimer, founder of an NGO that campaigns for the rights of migrant workers.
"I would say they don't do anything," she said. "The Ethiopian government has done nothing."
-A broken system-
Like many Ethiopian women, Birtukan believed that the brokers who told her she was moving to Lebanon would be an easy way to improve her family's wealth.
For 7,000 Ethiopian Birr (around $ 200), they promised to arrange their trip and put them up with a family who would pay $ 200 a month while covering their expenses.
However, when she reached Beirut, she learned that the brokers would take their earnings for the first two months.
The brokers broke the contact and their Lebanese boss refused to pay them.
Under the Kafala system, migrant workers cannot terminate contracts without their employers' consent, which means that Birtukan was effectively caught.
She spent many hours wiping floors, ironing clothes, and cleaning bathrooms while counting the days on a piece of cardboard that she hid under her mattress.
"I haven't seen any other people. Even if I tried to speak on the phone, they would stop me," she said to AFP as tears ran down her cheeks.
Taking the first chance to escape, she wiped a key to the compound gate that one of the family's children had left behind.
It then secured a seat on one of the flights organized by the Ethiopian government and the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines last month.
So far, however, only around 650 women have been flown home.
As the coronavirus pandemic exacerbates Lebanon's economic problems, Birtukan wants further repatriations.
"I think the government should bring all women back there," she said. "You sleep under bridges. You don't have enough to eat."
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the consulate in Beirut did not respond to multiple requests for comments.
- hard times ahead -
Despite all the horror stories from Lebanon, some women are happy that they started the trip.
The 32-year-old Almaz Gezaheng traveled to Lebanon in 2008 and moved in with a family of four.
She found the pay too low and the conditions too strenuous, but after she left, she got a job as a cleaner in a beauty salon that paid $ 400 a month.
She sent half of the money home so that her parents could buy their own house.
"At least I changed my family's life, even if I didn't do anything for myself."
But after the Lebanese economy recovered, Almaz lost her job and exhausted her savings before securing a place on a return flight this month.
"I think the future will be very difficult for Lebanon. I would advise young Ethiopians to stay here and do their own work instead of going there," she said.
She called on the Ethiopian government to intervene and help those who are still stuck there.
"Most of her ladies throw her out of the house," she said. "Before anything worse happens, it would be good for the government to bring all of our girls back from Lebanon."
The call is confirmed by Banchi, founder of the NGO for migrant workers' rights, who said she received reports of Ethiopian women in Lebanon so desperate to drink bleach or try to jump off balconies.
"The inactivity of the Ethiopian government is depressing domestic workers," she said. "Everyone wants to go home. Nobody wants to stay in Lebanon."
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