Within three months, she was dead, the victim of an apparent suicide.
Even before her death, Alem had become something of a cause célèbre in some parts of Lebanese society and her case drew international attention.
Abused outside her own consulate in a videotaped incident, Alem was forced by a man later identified as Ali Mahfouz into a car as she lay screaming on the ground outside a place that was supposed to keep her safe.
At 33, Alem was one of 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. That her case has garnered notice makes it an anomaly, but what happened to her is not.
Nearly every step of her journey from Burayu, her home outside Addis Ababa, to her eventual death in a psychiatric hospital in the Lebanese mountains is indicative of a failure in the haphazard Lebanese system that deals with the women who come to work in the homes and care for the children of many in this country.
Alem’s husband, Lamesa, told The Daily Star that he and his wife borrowed more than 4,500 Ethiopian Birr, around $260, to facilitate her travel. That’s about three months salary of the country’s average national income, and most of it went to a local broker.
He also said she was expected to pay the first two months of her salary to agents in Ethiopia.
Three years ago, Ethiopia imposed a ban on its citizens going to Lebanon to work as domestics. So Alem went through Yemen.
Ethiopia’s consul general in Lebanon, Asaminew Debelie Bonssa, has estimated that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Ethiopians in Lebanon, only 43,000 legally, having come before the ban.
That makes women like her especially vulnerable to human trafficking.
Ghada Jabbour, head of KAFA’s Trafficking and Exploitation Unit, said that Alem was
“seemingly a victim of trafficking. Not only had she incurred debts to come to Lebanon, but also she was smuggled outside Ethiopia because of the current ban. In addition, the sponsorship system in Lebanon tied her to a specific employer and did not grant her the freedom to decide her future.”
Trafficking is a tough crime to prove, and despite an anti-trafficking law passed in Lebanon last summer, not much has been done in the way of implementation. And women continue to come, trafficked or otherwise. In large part, this is due to financial imbalances.
Even paltry salaries – several workers told The Daily Star of wages around $200 a month for fulltime work – can amount to a great deal in struggling home countries.
Lebanese authorities still grant visas to people from countries with deployment bans, and so Alem arrived, technically “undocumented” but very much part of the Lebanese “kafala” (sponsorship) system where work and residency is tied to a specific employer, even before she made it to the airport.
Because she was in the country illegally, Bonssa said she and others like her are hard to keep track of. Activists say even documented women are often afraid or unable to contact their embassies if they need help.
According to Hicham Borji, president of the union of workers’ recruitment agencies, there are around 450 licensed agencies in Lebanon. An optimistic estimate, he says, is that 100 of these agencies – that act as go-betweens between workers and employers – actually conform to the terms of their licenses.
These include a stable location, a land line and a so-called “safe room” for domestic workers who may need to stay at the agency.
Alem’s agency – which was supposed to care for her when she was not with an employer, sent her to two homes. Both sent her back. Chadi Mahfouz, the agency’s director, delegated his brother Ali Mahfouz to deal with Alem after she returned from the second house.
Chadi Mahfouz told The Daily Star that his brother, now charged with contributing to and causing Alem’s death, is not an employee of the agency he directs. This means the agency was acting illegally – but it has not lost its license, in fact it has since become a member of the union.
After what he said were two suicide attempts – both after her removal from the second house – Ali Mahfouz brought Alem to the consulate, where he told staff she was mentally ill. Bonssa, who has since expressed regret at trusting Mahfouz, told him to take her to a hospital. It was outside the consulate, a place that ought to have been a refuge, that the beating took place.
At the hospital where she was later brought, according to a forensic report leaked to The Daily Star, Alem was treated as “a patient suffering from severe depression.” She was on five medications, and according to the doctor who was sent by the General Prosecutor, she had no visible bruises or abrasions. “But she said she has pain in her scalp and made us understand that she had been grabbed by her hair,” the report continued.
Indeed, in the video Mahfouz is seen dragging Alem by her hair.
The police arrived at the consulate the day of the incident, in late February. The government-ordered physician was not sent to see Alem until March 10 – two days after the video went viral and two weeks after she was abused – and she died on March 14. According to a leaked indictment, charges were pressed against Ali Mahfouz March 20, around a month after she was beaten.
“If [the abuse of Alem Dechasa-Desisa] was not broadcast [by a local television station], there would be no attention from the Justice and Labor ministries,” said Ghada Jabbour, head of KAFA’s Trafficking and Exploitation Unit. Migrant worker suicides are frequent in Lebanon, she added, and “usually there is not a complete and serious investigation about the death of the worker and the case is closed quickly.”
Why Alem killed herself remains an unknown. Although some members of her family reported that she and her common law husband were having marital problems, he denied this. Lamesa said he spoke to her some five times during her short time in Lebanon, and she reported no troubles. “We lived together for 13 years and she had no mental problems,” he said.
Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch shares Jabbour’s concerns. He said that Mahfouz’s prosecution, which is not unheard of but extremely rare, “will be an important precedent to follow. But every week there are employers who lock in domestic workers, every other week there is a suicide, are we going to see prosecution for forced confinement and other abuses?”
Both Jabbour and Houry argue that ultimately the sponsorship system itself needs to be changed, with Houry calling it “the root cause of many of these violations.” But there are other issues that should be addressed, Houry added, including orientations for employers and employees. And, he said, “they need to start researching the role of agencies ... frankly that industry is deeply problematic.”
Borji of the agencies’ union agrees his sector does need to change. Admitting Mahfouz’ agency into the union, he argued, will help it improve.
But while he “hates” the sponsorship system, Borji does not see a viable alternative. In theory, he believes it ensures transportation to Lebanon and medical care are covered by sponsors. Instead, he said there should be real punishment for abusive employers and those who withhold salaries.
Lebanon failed Alem – as it does so many other workers. And now, in a final indignity, her body still lies in the very hospital where she took her own life a month ago. Her husband said he cannot work, as her family has come from another village to wait and mourn.
Chadi Mahfouz has said he’s ready to facilitate her repatriation – but there appear to be some bureaucratic hitches.
Now Lamesa has one modest request: “I just want her body back.”