As she described her year of abuse – physical, mental, sexual – it was so clear: the young black woman sitting across from me was a slave.
We all know the story. But the fact is, it’s not just history. Slavery is still with us. It’s all around us.
It takes different forms and exists at different levels of society. Some experiences are more extreme than others, but all come from the same roots – prejudice, law, racism.
It is the story of a woman from Ghana living in Lebanon.
It is the story of a system called Kafala. And this is the story of an escape to freedom.
For us, it starts outside a building in a Lebanese city south of Beirut.
But for the young woman we were expecting, the story begins a little over a year ago.
Sarah landed in Lebanon on a flight from Ghana on April 22, 2019. She was anxious but excited.
Back home, her job was to put on beads to decorate shoes and jewelry.
She had come to Lebanon to earn more money so that she could transform her business into something better.
Like many people across Africa and Asia too, she had to be part of the Kafala system.
The word is Arabic for “sponsorship”. The system is legal and common across the Middle East, providing domestic workers to the middle classes and wealthy families.
But it’s a rotten scheme to the core. Workers have no rights under local laws. Their passports are held by officers who assign them to families. Their visas are only valid if they respect their employment.
The potential for abuse of the system and the people in it is immense.
Sarah would tell us about her hell in the past year. But first she had to escape. And we had to watch the escape happen.
We were quietly waiting in a parked car for a taxi to pull out of an aisle.
“Look for a white taxi,” explained our contact to the charity This Is Lebanon.
The charity is one of the few to try to help those caught in the Kafala system.
We were only waiting in our car for a few minutes when the white cab pulled out.
A few minutes earlier, inside “Madame ”’s house, Sarah had hidden her suitcase – which she had packed the day before – in a black garbage bag.
“I’m taking out the trash,” she said to her employer – her “madam.”
“Clean the kitchen when you get back,” replied the lady.
Sarah left the house, a black bag in her hand. She got into the taxi and escaped.
It was a harmless moment but his break for freedom.
Spotting her at the back of the taxi, we followed her. She knew we were going to follow. The charity had of course received her consent in WhatsApp messages with her while they were planning the escape the previous days.
The journey to the refuge in the suburbs of Beirut took about an hour.
I greeted her briefly outside.
How was she, I asked. “Healthy. Good. She said with a smile.
Upstairs, in a small room where she will now hide from her employer and her agent, Sarah told us her story.
“I came to Lebanon to work and get money for my own business.
“Because I was doing my own business in Ghana … you have to find money to put inside. I make beads for shoes, necklaces, other models. “
“So you came here because you thought you were making more money here than in Ghana?” ” I asked him.
“Yes, to be able to continue my business. But I came for nothing. ”
” I work [in] lots of houses. On the first day, when I arrived, they [first family] received me well, with the husband they were good to me. Only [after] a week, they change… if you make a mistake, she will use her shoes to beat you. There, the referrals were too much.
“Did they hit you with shoes?” ” I asked.
“Yes – you won’t sleep. If she wakes you up, she’ll use her shoes to wake me up. So I decided to run. I fled the house. “
She explained that her agent then assigned her another family. Remember that the agent holds his passport and is responsible for his salary.
“The agent owns me,” she said.
“So I went to another different family. There is [was] sexual harassment. It’s too much. So I decided to leave it. I told the woman that I can’t work with her, I want to leave. ”
She then explained the abuse in more detail. Referring to her employer’s brother, she said, “I was in the bathroom rubbing. It came [in] naked. He wore nothing… ”
“He holds a knife and does it like that …” She ran her hand over his neck.
“… and he said ‘do you know that?’ I said “knife”. So he put it on my neck and said, “If you say to my sister, I will kill you. Here’s a cemetery, I’ll kill you at night and throw you there. Nobody will know it is me ‘.
“So I stayed silent and listened to him. He said to me “starting today, I have to suck your breasts every day. I have to do it. I have to do it ” .
“That day, I cried. I’m crying. I have no one to talk to.
“Today, when I suffer here, there is no parent. There is no one to encourage you.
“I don’t even want to remember because what this guy did to me was very painful. It was very painful. ”
At this point in our conversation, his memories of many different employers were numb.
“I am a Muslim so I went to do ablutions – pray. So I prayed and she came and started to beat me saying “this is not Mecca!
“I said to him ‘You can beat me but I will continue to pray’. So I prayed and she beat me. ”
She described how she would be regularly locked in the house to make sure she did the cleaning.
“If she leaves, she will lock me in the house. She will close the door with keys everywhere. Then she will leave me in the house. She will ask you to iron. ”
Sarah received a total of $ 620 (£ 495) during her 15 months in Lebanon. She should have received $ 200 (£ 160) per month.
“They take us as slaves. I know that perhaps now some people are still preparing to come. They should not come because this trip is to do and to die. This is a very, very serious case. They shouldn’t come. It is not a good thing to do, “she said.
This is not an isolated case. Far from there.
There are a quarter of a million migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, all under the Kafala system.
In recent months, Lebanon has been hit by multiple existential challenges – a crumbling economy, a banking crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and the chronic ineffectiveness of government.
Together, they exposed the Kafala system and the plight of migrants in the country.
And this goes beyond domestic workers. Outside African embassies in Beirut, migrant workers are waiting for help from their nation.
At the Sudanese embassy, we found dozens of men; workers who have been literally undervalued by their employers who cannot afford to pay them.
“The Kafala system is modern slavery. There are no two ways to do it, ”said Aya Majzoub of Human Rights Watch.
“Unfortunately, most people here still do not understand the racism inherent in the Kafala system. They think that the abuse they see day after day is the result of some bad employers rather than a system that is built on the exploitation and subjugation of these women.
“People think it is a right to have a migrant domestic worker living 24 hours a day, confined to her room, and not to have her passport with her. These are all things that, due to decades of practice, have been completely normalized. ”
Sky News asked the Lebanese Ministry of Labor for an interview or statement in time for publication. None were received.
The Lebanese government has already recognized that the Kafala system needs reforms to eradicate the abuses, but they have yet to be implemented.
Sarah is not her real name – he was changed to protect his identity.