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Explosion Leaves Lebanon's Domestic Workers Even More Vulnerable


In Lebanon, there are hundreds of thousands of domestic workers who come from abroad and whose entire well-being is dependent on their employer. Already many were being put out on the streets by employers who became poor overnight due to hyperinflation and could no longer pay their salaries. So what happens to these women now amid the country's devastation?

Tsigereda Birhanu is an activist in Beirut and a former domestic worker. She helps support other domestic workers through a group called Egna Legna Besidet. And she's with us now from Beirut.

Thanks for being with us during this really difficult time.

TSIGEREDA BIRHANU: Oh, thank you for having me.

FADEL: So, first, how are you doing?

BIRHANU: Oh, physically, I'm doing good. Mentally, I'm lost and frustrated, and everything...

FADEL: Yeah.

BIRHANU: It's going crazy. And yeah, thank God I'm good.

FADEL: And I understand you've been doing a lot of outreach over the last few days. What have you been seeing?

BIRHANU: We're being outreach yesterday, all the - and what we saw is all people, they are homeless, and they have no money, and they have nothing. And even they don't have money to buy medicine how often they get hurt and injured and staying in home asking for support and asking to - just to go back home.

FADEL: Yeah.

BIRHANU: That's what we saw. And it's really scary even, you know, to go out and talk about it because they keep crying. And to see them crying also, you know, you cannot help. Of course, you cannot do nothing to send them back home. There is a legal issue. There is ticket issue and so many things going on and on, so yeah.

FADEL: Right. So you've been speaking with domestic workers over the past few days. As briefly as you can, if you could explain the kafala system, the system that domestic workers work under and what puts them at great risk?

BIRHANU: A kafala system's a modern-day slavery which is we are living in 21 century. But it's still going on, you know - keeping one person in one house without giving a day off 24/7. She was stuck in one house until she finishing her contract for two years, you know?

So this girl - she was stuck in the house, you know, without having salary, some of them - they don't even receive their salary. They don't have day off. They didn't have proper room. And some of them didn't have enough food, and they are overworking, and the salary that they gave, $150 - $150 is nothing now. And 80% of domestic workers - they are not getting their salary every month.

FADEL: How has the explosion made - change things for - I mean, I'm imagining there's a lot more vulnerability now than there was even a week ago.

BIRHANU: Yeah. Now it's everything's messed up. Many Lebanese people - they are homeless. They don't have nothing.

FADEL: Yeah.

BIRHANU: And thank God we survived. But the people who survive - they are indifferent to us because of domestic workers, because if they don't have money, they are inside the house, they didn't get any medication or any medical treatment. And some of domestic workers, they are homeless, and they're sleeping on street. And there's no work, no job in the country.

It's going down, and nobody's paying attention, or nobody's looking after domestic workers - not just Ethiopians. We have Sierra Leones (ph), we have Nigerian, we have Cameroon. And nobody's, you know, helping them. I wish they can go out of this country, and we can provide the ticket or, you know, we can do...

FADEL: Right.

BIRHANU: ...Anything. But, you know, there's the kafala system. We cannot send them easily.

FADEL: That's Tsigereda Birhanu, an activist in Beirut who advocates for domestic workers' rights.

Thank you so much for your time.

BIRHANU: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF GREY REVEREND'S "LITTLE JOSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.