Alem’s life is over, but her story is not: ending domestic worker abuse in Lebanon

Recently, a viral video showing the abuse of an Ethiopian migrant in Lebanon shocked those who saw it. The Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) has worked with abused housemaids for years and sends us this timeline in the life of Alem, who was known to CLMC staff.

By Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center Staff

Like over 200,000 migrant women in Lebanon, Alem Dechasa-Desisa, a 33-year-old Ethiopian, made the difficult choice to leave her family and two children, and come to Lebanon as a housemaid to improve her family’s living conditions. Unlike many women who are able to realise this dream, Alem faced the harsh reality that some domestic migrant workers experience in Lebanon.


In the video, Alem’s employment agent showed publically, in the streets of Beirut, the same treatment that some employers keep secret and hidden. Before LBCI news released the video on 8 March, the International Woman’s Day, the TV channel contacted the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center (CLMC) to comment on the video footage showing Alem groaning in Amharic “I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to travel to Ethiopia.” She was then dragged on the ground, with a person pulling her hair to force her enter her agent’s car in front of the Ethiopian consulate in broad daylight. Despite the shock caused by the violence of the images, CLMC told the journalist this was not the worst case CLMC’s social workers had seen.

Later on, CLMC would be told that Alem’s agent went to the Consulate to ask them to shelter her for a night before sending her back home for the reason she had mental health issues and had tried to commit suicide twice. It was also reported that the Consulate rejected the agent’s request and stressed him to send her to the hospital. Not back home.

It was therefore a greater shock when CLMC discovered, after the video release, that the mistreated woman been in the video was already a CLMC beneficiary. Then, CLMC was able to connect the dots and deliver Alem’s story:

Two weeks before the video was released, on February 24, Alem arrived at the Beirut Detention Center after having been arrested by the police for allegedly attempting suicide. This was the day she was filmed in front of the Consulate of Ethiopia.

On February 25, CLMC staff noticed Alem was not in good shape at all. She was lying on her mattress in the migrant detention centre, mute. CLMC’s social worker transported her to the medical clinic of the Detention Centre. Because Alem showed obvious signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, crying non-stop, they contacted a doctor who prescribed her medicines. The next day, her behaviour in the cell worried them so much that they asked the General Security to transfer her to the Nawfal hospital, which was approved. The same day, Alem entered the hospital where she was taken care of.

On February 27, CLMC was informed by the General Security that Alem’s employer had brought her passport and was willing to pay her airfare to Ethiopia.

On February 29, CLMC received the hospital’s medical report informing that Alem needed to be transferred to a specialised hospital for psychiatric cases. CLMC collaborated with the General Security to organise her transfer to the Cross hospital where she entered on March 2. Prior to that, the General Security had contacted her agent who agreed to pay all related medical fees.

On March 5, Betty, CLMC’s Ethiopian staff member, went to visit her at the hospital and assisted the doctor and the nurse in translating. The doctor asked Alem why she had tried to commit suicide twice, as he had been told by the recruitment agency. Alem denied both stories, the one where she had allegedly thrown herself off the balcony and the one where she had allegedly tried to jump out of a moving car.

Alem was asked if she was taking any medicine for her thyroid and said she did not because she lacked money to pay for the treatment. The doctor made clear that she would have to stay as an in-patient until she felt better. He also explained she would have to do some tests to examine her thyroid out of the hospital, mentioning she would be accompanied by a social worker from CLMC.

During the interview, Alem informed CLMC that she had been recruited by an agency in Ethiopia and arrived in Lebanon in December 2011 to work as domestic migrant worker. She also mentioned that she had borrowed a lot of money that she had to pay back. She explained that the first employer she had worked for the first month upon her arrival was very nice. However, at the end of the first month, the family accused Alem’s clothes of being too “smelly” and, despite the fact that Alem washed her clothes, they took her back to the recruitment agency the day after the incident. Speaking neither English nor Arabic, she followed her employer thinking she would get her salary at the recruitment agency.

After this incident, the agent kicked her in the stomach and sent her to work to another employer’s house. Alem reported it was in a very cold and snowy place, far from Beirut, but she was not told where she had been brought to. She complained to the second employer about the cold and asked to return at her first employer’s house, where she was happy. A few days after, Alem was taken again back to the agency who said he wanted to send her back to Ethiopia. Shocked and afraid of going back home without the money to reimburse her debt, in addition to not having been paid, Alem acted in despair and drank bleach.

On March 6, CLMC’s social worker came to the hospital in order to accompany Alem for her medical test. However, Alem refused to follow CLMC’s social worker because she was very suspicious she would be sent back to Ethiopia. Thanks to our Ethiopian colleague who was able to gain her confidence, she agreed to leave the hospital to do the required tests.

On March 12, Betty visited Alem for the second time at the Cross Hospital and met with the doctors again to assist in the translation. During the consultation, the doctor asked Alem if she felt better. She said yes, and thanked him and CLMC for helping her and asked us to continue following-up her case. Then, the doctor explained her that the results of the tests had shown she would maybe have to have an operation and take medicine for her thyroid. However, he explained she would first have to feel better and stay at the hospital until she recovered.

Alem seemed very worried about her future and asked what would happen after she leaves the hospital. Indeed, she told CLMC she had dreamt of her eldest child saying to her: “Look, where you are, your plate is full of food. Where I am, my plate is empty and I have no pen, no book to go to school.”

The doctor said that, as per Lebanese law, she would have to travel. As she did not want to, he also suggested she could travel home and then come back.  Feeling she had reached a dead end, Alem asked the doctor if there was any possibility of getting out of this, since she had gotten into debt to come to Lebanon and knew perfectly well she could never be able to come back again. However, she also claimed that she would not harm herself anymore. Two days later, CLMC was informed that Alem had committed suicide by strangling herself with her bed sheet at the hospital.

The video resulted in a collective outcry from all of Lebanese society, including human rights defenders, activists, and ordinary Lebanese. Some ministers directly condemned the act and said this case should be investigated. Thanks to the power-of-attorney CLMC has collected, we will make sure these words will be followed by concrete steps:  an investigation and prosecution of the people who are responsible for the injustices Alem suffered.

Caritas Internationalis

President: Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle
Secretary General: Michel Roy

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