Winnie Linet is journalist, born and raised in Western Kenya. She worked in Lebanon for five years and in this four part series, explains why she left Kenya to work in Lebanon and her experience working under the expoitative Kefala system there.
Illustration by Alexandra Nikolova (Ål Nik).
Whilst living and working in Tripoli, Winnie is watching the vibrant life of the city as a stranger. She faces the challenge to learn a difficult foreign language, to work every day; and at the same time, she was a silent witness of the life outside the house, being fascinated by the culture and devastated by the racism.
In the previous blogs, have explained how I came to work in Lebanon, now I will speak to you of the experience of myself and other domestic workers I met during my 5 years there. Above all how it feels to be a domestic worker in a new country, with a new people that I was to perceive them as a new family in the course of my stay. I want my reader to also realize the importance of keeping your employee comfortable, in good health and above all emotionally stable in order to maintain a happy peaceful atmosphere and safety of your household as well.
Lebanon, the land of cedars is beautiful. It days move to the rhythm of Arab music. The grandma I worked for lived in Tripoli in an old flat. In Winter everybody is busy going back and forth to work and in the summer, groups gather in restaurants and eateries, happy and jovial some leaving or entering shops or supermarkets to fetch their needs. Entering Tripoli, it is written “”welcome to Tripoli the city of waves and horizon” due to the fact that the city sits on the great Mediterraean sea. The city has middle class citizens and also those underprivileged, including the Palestinian and Syrian refugees who occupy the old buildings and neglected shops.
I count myself lucky to have found the family I worked for. Though not perfect, they were fair. Two of the old woman’s children lived in Tripoli and advocated for peace between us. They helped me understand her needs and together with my family in Kenya, I found the strength to endure. Her entire family was caring and willing to help especially during the year I lost my brother. They interfered even in the times of disagreements, and though silently, they tried to assist a few of my friends who had issues materially. There were times we laughed and also disagreed with how they treated me, I felt the urge to stay and accomplish my dream, because at least I could endure.
My first year in Lebanon (2014) was the hardest. In this new life, I was someone I had never been before. I had the common knowledge of doing routine household chores I had learnt at home. But It was not easy, rising up early in season and out season to attend to an old woman in her early nineties especially not being able to understand each other. Language barrier presented itself as the biggest obstacle since the grandma only knew Arabic and not any other language. It was upon me to strive to learn Arabic so that I could preserve my job. It was no longer about the expertise I knew in doing that job but my ability to understand her, listen to her, and be there for her. During the first year I depended totally on signs from her. One specific day during the first month I disappointed her for not understanding that she wanted to shower, so I had to be taught the signs she would use to help me understand.
The second issue that presented itself is racism. The family I had tried so much to keep me comfortable, but the outside they could not control. It felt so bad knowing that people can discriminate, or talk about you but you not being able to understand what they said especially on your physical appearance and your ability to do some things but unfortunately you can do nothing about it. I felt so lonely but yet still keeping myself strong. Walking along the street of El Mina in Tripoli and greeting someone yet no one bothers to reply back. Life was not easy. The assumption that black is from dirt and that they are inferior beings. The feeling that because of their lack they cant be able to work well was so hurting.
Disagreements with the employer is part and parcel of work. I too experienced such at some point in life I felt over worked on certain occasions or misused and all I needed was one to listen. I was given chance to call home once a week and after one year was allowed to buy my own phone. My family at home played a huge role by encouraging me all the time to keep on strong. They were my pillar. Being alone with nobody to understand and confide in is what brings emotional torture. With no off days but just a few free hours on Sundays or during the weekdays which I appreciate I count myself lucky because actually there was someone else actually who completely had no day to be free. Also having to change from the food was used to the Lebanese cuisine was abit harder but I strived to love them because I had to work and with the love the entire family had towards me I grew to love some aspects. Those were the challenges I faced but life presented me with Kenyan friends I met in the 5 year stay.
During the second year I got the chance to meet Emma a Kenyan girl who was just new in the neighborhood. Emma had come to Lebanon to try and provide for her family. She was a single mother who had left her son in the custody of her mother. She was to work and send money home to help raise the kid. She had come to Lebanon through a Kenyan agent who took care of her travel and promised her all would be well once she arrived in Lebanon. On arrival, she tried to call the agent, but he was out of reach until the time she would return to her mother country.
She ended up working in a young family with one kid. The life she lived was cruel. She complained of being locked up in the house alone with no food for almost a week whenever the family left for the capital of Beirut. But also when they were there they treated her so badly, that she would even feel better when they had gone. She was being over worked and being physically abused by the kid who would hit her in the name of playing. One specific morning she came crying and fed up and wanted me to talk to her employer to let her go because she couldn’t speak Arabic. But they couldn’t let her, whenever she would be send to the shop she would come to my place and confide in me. I felt so frustrated not being in a position to help her until day all I heard wad that she had left after one and half year service with late salary reimbursement.
She was not the only one. Elizabeth too came in my third year. She was a mother of two children left in the custody of her husband. Having suffered in a marriage that was brutal she chose work other than remain being battered daily. She had worked at Nairobi as a house girl before opting abroad and just like Emma an agent facilitated over her travel formalities and thus landed in Lebanon. Her employer had met my granny and the old woman wished we become friends. It didnt last long before she left the reason being over worked without food, and delayed pay upon asking would result to insults.
Eunice too was a friend I met. We were agemates who became best of friends. According to her she had been raised by a single father and the major aim of coming to Lebanon was to help her father raise the siblings by providing them with assistance. The family that took her was so unfair. She would be insulted for any small mistake done and being referred to as a “prostitute” and most especially while asking for her pay. Until it came to point where they could no longer accommodate her and send her back home. All this while the agent who colluded to bring her here was not in contact.
It wasn’t only we Kenyans. One time, an Ethiopian girl who had escaped from her employer once came to our place for help she claimed to have been locked up alone in the house working with no pay until a chance presented for escape after the Madam took her to buy some commodities at the supermarket but forget to lock her inside the car, so then she escaped and with my employer’s help we took her to the office.
On March 15th 2014, I was broken to hear that I had lost my brother. The only one I had. The pain was so much that I hated work, nothing could console me and I wished to be home but just how, even during this harsh times I still worked since I had signed a contract!! This issue depicts the ability of the employer to stand with their employees during their most weakest moments. My Lebanese family tried since they offered me all the help they could. Most employer’s fail at this point because they fail to understand that you have got emotions and feelings that should be attended to and not any kind of property. In as much that we work for them they too should appreciate your efforts most especially if you’re a faithful employee like Mugures case that will explain as you keep reading this story.
A situation that broke my heart so much was that of Mugure, a Kenyan girl who during my fourth year fate presented her through Teresa a Kenyan lady working at a neighbor. She had lost her husband and left her children at her sister’s custody. Just as Eunice, Emma and Elizabeth she was here to fend for her family. Mugure lost a daughter and wished to be granted a chance to go home during her two year contract by then she had only finished a year. I accompanied Teresa to her at Abou Samra and it would be us to inform her that she had lost her daughter. We arrived and on reporting to her Madam on why we had come she replied…..” so what if she has lost her daughter….is she the first one to loose a child”. Gave as some five minutes with her and send us away. I was so angry and devastated because in my entire life that sentiment was not welcome since I knew how it felt to loose the one you love while far away. It became really common to hear of mistreatment and sabotage for domestic workers. In short being safe an comfortable was not for everyone only from my experiences then will just say it is with God’s help. The only thing my Lebanese family could do is help silently so as not to create conflict with those the girls were from eg offering Emma food when she was left with nothing.
I worked in Lebanon for five years and during those years I had experienced and seen a lot. Some good and others bad. As a black domestic worker I had to cope with a lot of nasty things. In as much as the Lebanese family I had tried to help me feel welcome the world around me drew clear boundaries. It broke my heart to know that skin colour is a segregating factor. A lot happens in other countries that affects an employee’s well being and unfortunately nothing is done about it. We yearn for a change.
A shorted version of this series was published in OpenDemocracy 28-08-2020 titled “My Name is Winnie, I survived Lebanon’s Kefala System.“