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They were laid off and far from home. Now an explosion in Beirut has left them even more vulnerable

The 21-year-old lives in a small room in Lebanon’s capital city with six other Ethiopian women. When Beirut’s devastating blast hit on Tuesday evening, it blew out their door and all their windows.

“We weren’t home at the time, so we are safe,” Hanna said, speaking to CNN on the condition that her full name wasn’t used. But now, she said, “anyone in the street can walk through the door and find us sleeping. We are afraid.”

Hanna and her six roommates are just some of the thousands-strong mainly African domestic worker population living in Lebanon. Some of them were swept up in the explosion that left a 10-kilometer circle of destruction in Beirut.

In the aftermath, rights groups are warning that this vulnerable group is facing dire situations as many of them are stranded in the country and unable to go home.

The treatment of domestic workers in Lebanon had already come under intense scrutiny in recent months. Last week, CNN reported multiple allegations of abuse by the top two officials at the Kenyan consulate in Beirut. The assistant consul denied all allegations of wrongdoing at the consulate, while the honorary consul did not respond to requests for a comment.
Ethiopian domestic workers who were dismissed by their employers gather with their belongings outside their country's embassy in Hazmiyeh, east of Beirut, on June 24, 2020.

Lebanon’s economic crisis was exacerbated by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and domestic workers were largely considered expendable, with some dumped outside their countries’ embassies by their employers, who could no longer afford to pay their salaries.

Recently, a video surfaced online featuring a group of Nigerian women, in a room, making a direct appeal to the camera, and pleading with their government to rescue them.

The veracity of the video was confirmed to CNN by Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who is the Chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission, a government agency that oversees diaspora affairs.

She told CNN the women had been reached before the explosion and were in a safe location.

“We will be evacuating them on August 12,” Dabiri-Erewa added. They will be repatriated to Nigeria alongside another 150 others in Lebanon, she also confirmed on Twitter.
Activists participating in a flash mob don bloodied sheets as they lie in the streets outside the Ministry of Labour in Beirut to protest over violence against migrant workers in April 2012.

For many migrant workers in Beirut, the destruction of Tuesday’s blast added one more reason to quit the country.

Aster Kidane, an Ethiopian migrant employed as a domestic worker in Beirut, told CNN that she was sweeping the floor when the explosion shattered windows. Glass shards left her cut and bruised but she was treated at home because hospitals in Beirut are so overwhelmed.

“Glass cut my arm in two places, I was bleeding everywhere,” Aster said.

“The blast destroyed a lot of homes, I’m not aware if I even have a home to return to,” said Tsigereda Birhanu, a domestic worker and member of the Beirut-based Ethiopian migrant rights collective Egna Legna Besidet.

Tsigereda says she has been visiting hospitals to check up on wounded domestic workers.

“They were bandaging people outside since the hospitals were full,” Tsigereda told CNN. “I’ve met with injured Sudanese and an Ethiopian.”

One Ethiopian has died so far following the explosion and nine others injured including “one woman who is in intensive care fighting for her life,” Ethiopia’s Consul General Temesgen Omer told CNN.

‘Endless stream of trauma’

Egna Legna Besidet was founded by Banchi Yimer, a former domestic worker who now lives in Canada.

In April, Banchi started a crowdfunding initiative that has raised over $125,000 US to help domestic workers in crisis.

Aster and Tsigereda are among more than 250,000 migrant workers who hail from countries in Asia and Africa and live in Lebanon working in private households, according to rights group Amnesty International.

The vast majority of the migrant domestic workers with work permits are females from Ethiopia, Amnesty said in a report citing 2018 figures. Accurate figures for all workers are hard to come by as some of the domestic workers, who are mostly women, are trafficked or brought into the country illegally.

Many have been abused under the controversial kefala system, a form of indentured servitude that ties the woman’s immigration/residency status to a live-in work contract.

“The kefala system allowed them to treat me like a pet or a toy. They could use me, beat me, and discard me when they wanted”

Aster Kidane, Ethiopian domestic worker

Aster says under a previous employer, she wasn’t allowed to eat more than one egg a day. “The kefala system allowed them to treat me like a pet or a toy. They could use me, beat me, and discard me when they wanted,” she said.

She eventually moved on to her current employer, whom she says treats her better. Domestic workers often face prejudice in Lebanon, activist groups say — which can make it even harder to access help in a year beset with crises.

“They live under racism and discrimination,” said Farah Salka, of Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement. “They are running from one escalating situation to the other and it is an endless stream of trauma. They have faced Covid, economic crisis, airport closure, quarantine restrictions in often hostile conditions and they want to go home.”

No easy way home

But for Ethiopian workers, finding a way home isn’t easy. To be repatriated, Salka says the women are required to pay $600 for the flight plus $140 per night for 14 days of quarantine upon arrival in the country.

“Who has this money? In this country that is in complete crisis?” Salka asked.

With prospects bleak and unable to afford return tickets home, many domestic workers have chosen to work in homes for free to avoid homelessness and starvation on Beirut’s streets, according to Yimer. Others were abandoned by their employers outside the doors of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted a message of condolences for the Lebanese people on Tuesday and called on Ethiopian citizens to contact the consulate for assistance.

But his tweet was met with some angry responses, including Yimer, who berated him for not helping to repatriate these women from the country earlier.

CNN has reached out to the Ethiopian government for comment on the complaints about repatriation.

Billene Seyoum, the Press Secretary for the Office of the Prime Minister, referred CNN to the Ministry of Foreign affairs when reached for comment on complaints about repatriation. The Ministry is yet to respond to queries.

“There were no tweets when Ethiopians pleaded to be rescued nearly 11 months ago,” said Yimer.

“Most Ethiopians are in this predicament because the government refused to evacuate its citizens.”

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