Lebanon is arguably one of the most captivating countries in the world. Its blend of modern and ancient architecture juxtaposed against the rugged terrain makes it a fascinating tourist destination. But beneath this allure, lies untold stories of horrific modern day slavery and mistreatment meted out on foreigners seeking employment. In July 2014, 26-year-old Florence Wambui boarded a Lebanon bound flight in search of greener pastures. Seven months later, she would return home with nothing but bruises all over her body. She recounts her macabre experience in the hands of her employer to WANGARI MWANGI.
On a typical day at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, an airplane from Middle East is landing. A good number of its passengers are Kenyan women who had gone in search of greener pastures, but come back home with scars and a resolve never to return to slavery. A few hours later, the same plane will be carrying a new bunch of Kenyan women seeking employment in the Middle East with the hope that their voyage will be different from those who preceded them. And that was the same conviction that Florence had when she left Kenya for Lebanon to work as a housekeeper.
The allure of a better pay that would enable her secure the future of her four-year-old son topped the list of reasons for signing up for the job. Florence, a web and graphic designer by training, had previously tried her hands on a number of jobs. However, the jobs were short-lived and hence she was desperate for a stable source of income.
Just when she had thought of giving up, an opportunity to work in Lebanon presented itself. Florence says that she had never heard of the country up until then. An agency was to take care of all the travelling plans and she was not expected to pay even a single dime. The offer sounded lucrative and with money out of the equation, Florence immediately ran with the idea and even mobilised some of her friends, including her elder sister, to take up the opportunity.
“My mother’s friend mentioned in passing that there were sales job opportunities in Lebanon. An agent was to link the girls with their potential employers. I took interest since it was a sales job as opposed to housekeeping,” she says.
In June 2014, Florence and her sister met with the Kenyan agent in his office along Kirinyaga Road. He had a lean list of requirements for their passports to be processed and they were to undergo HIV/AIDs test as well as a pregnancy test, which the agency would pay for. He also informed them before hand that they were applying for a housekeeping job. These developments were not reason enough for Florence and her sister to falter. They applied.
“I had never heard of any report on the mistreatment of housekeepers in Lebanon. Our contract would expire after two years after which the agency would pay for our flight back to Kenya. For my sister and I, that was reassurance that this was a clean deal,” explains Florence.
Their passports were processed in Embu County. The agent had paid the Kshs 9,000 required and footed for their transport to Embu. Florence says that although her father was adamant about their departure, he eventually allowed only one of them to try their luck.
“He would hear none of it because of the many cases of torture from Saudi Arabia he had heard of. In the end, he allowed me to go. My sister would follow later if the working conditions were humane. He also softened his stance because I had a son to take care of and getting a stable job locally had proven to be a challenge,” says Florence.
Florence left for Lebanon on July 29, 2014 to start a new life in an unfamiliar territory. She had made arrangements with her family to be sending money home for her son’s upkeep as well as his school fees. She was to frequently communicate with her family to update them about her welfare.
Her employer received her when she landed in Beirut International Airport the following day. The Lebanese couple had four daughters aged between 10 and 22 years. Florence admits that they were very welcoming and they treated her like one of their own. In the house, she found an elderly Bangladesh nanny from whom she would take over.
“That for me was the game changer and that was when I realised that I had been duped. The agent in Kenya had told me that every Lebanese house had two to three nannies. I was shocked to learn that I would be the only one. During my orientation, I also discovered that I was to work for more than the eight hours stipulated in the contract. The nanny also told me that there are days I would go without food. Before she left, she taught me how to cook food in the toilet and tricks on how to hide food in the washing machine,” says Florence.
Soon after the Bangladesh nanny left, the true colours of her employers started to show. Florence says she was presented with a new three-year contract written in Arabic, which she refused to sign. Sensing trouble, she contacted her elder brother in Kenya who in turn informed the Kenyan agent. Florence says that a Lebanese agent, a Mr Haisam, contacted her and ironed out the issue by confirming that she would renew her contract every year until the expiry of her contract in 2016.
Her strained relationship with the employer became evident in January this year when the lady of the house kicked her out on allegations of rudeness. According to Florence, her employer was always moody and she was not happy with Florence’ constant communication with her brother in Kenya.
“My employer was a government agent and whenever I sent out a distress call to my brother, he would be summoned by the Kenyan Consulate in Lebanon to solve the matter. This did not augur well with him or his wife. As such, they sent me to the Lebanese agent on January 8 on allegations that I was disrespectful. They also accused me of picking a fight with the watchman,” says Florence.
It was Mr Haisam who convinced her to go back to her employer. He made it clear to Florence that the agency was not in a position to pay for her ticket to Kenya before her two year contract had expired and she risked ill treatment in the event that she was transferred to a different household. Knowing all to well that she did not have a coin to her name, Florence complied and went back to her employer. However, her stay after her return was short-lived. Her relationship with the family became more strained but she still soldiered on until all hell broke loose on February 14 this year.
On that day, the lady of the house woke up with a new set of instructions regarding how the house was to be cleaned. Besides that, she had also brought in a new nanny who was busy in the kitchen helping around with the chores. Florence says that as she went on with her cleaning, she noticed that her employer’s daughters kept moving in and out of the corridor where she slept. She became suspicious. The girls together with their mother were instructed by their father to go to a hotel in Beirut where they would spend their afternoon. Florence was left in the company of her employer and two policemen who had come to visit.
“The three men summoned me to the sitting area and told me they had resolved to fly me back to Kenya but before they could escort me to the airport, they asked to frisk my suitcases. I was very confident that they would find nothing save for my personal effects, one US Dollar and 200,000 Lebanese Pounds as I had recently sent money to Kenya. To my surprise, they found $200 bearing my employer’s signature,” says Florence.
The three men claimed that she had stolen $900 from her employer, which they wanted her to account for. She was hand cuffed and the two policemen started raining slaps and blows on her. Florence says that she was beaten and dragged from the kitchen to the sitting area with the two men smashing her body against the walls and scalding her shoulder with a hot knife. This went on for six hours. The house was insulated thus barring her screams from being heard by the neighbours. Soon, the Lebanese agent, Mr Haisam came and joined the other three men, but still, she did not confess to stealing as they had anticipated.
“They wanted me to confess that I had stolen the $900. At some point, one of the policemen asked me to take $500 that he was holding and admit that I had stolen the $900, which I then sent to my brother in Kenya. I knew it was a ploy to make me confess. My confession would be recorded and used in court as evidence and that would warrant me three years in prison. By sending me to prison, they would have dodged the cost of paying for my flight back home, as I would be deported after serving the sentence. I stuck to my guns and endured the beating,” explains Florence.
The beating stopped when the men sensed that she was not going to change her mind. Her employer decided to send her back to Kenya on the very same night. “I think he realised that being a government agent, he would land in trouble if I reported him to the authorities. After splashing cold water on me, he asked me to clean up the blood spots on the floor and pack my belongings. I also had to clean the dishes that had been lying in the sink before we left for the airport. I was not even allowed to change my bloodied clothes,” says Florence.
She was abandoned at the airport with her passport and ticket in hand. Before boarding her flight that evening, she made a phone call to Kenya informing her family that she was coming home battered and badly bruised, but very happy to be alive. She has since recovered from the psychological and physical torture that she underwent in Lebanon. Her shoulder has also healed but the scar remains embossed to remind her of her near encounter with death and true slavery in a foreign land.
Her advice to those still determined to venture into the Middle East as housekeepers: “Those people don’t seem to understand the difference between working for a pay and slavery, so I would urge the women who hope to have a better future in Middle East to look for opportunities locally,” she says.