Song of sorrow brings smiles back to abandoned maids in Lebanon

Lucie's lament helped to create a path home for herself and other women from Sierra Leone

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Lucie arrived in Lebanon 16 months ago believing she was going to take up a new job as a teacher and earn enough to make life comfortable for the newborn daughter and young son she had left behind in Sierra Leone. Instead, she endured months of ill-treatment as a domestic worker before finally fleeing her employer's home.

"I came here to work as a teacher, I was promised I was coming to work as a teacher, but when I came I found myself stuck as a domestic worker," Lucie, 28, told The National.

“For seven months it was like I was living in hell. I had no freedom. I wasn’t allowed to eat at my own time, they wouldn’t let me speak to my family on the phone. One day they beat me up because I was singing while I worked. I love singing,” she said.

“They wouldn’t even pay my salary, so I ran away. They threatened to kill me. Why should I work without money? I’d be better off at home looking after my little kids. I only came here to make money for them.”

But under the kafala system under which migrant workers in Lebanon are employed, Lucie's legal residence in the country was tied to her employer. So when she ran away from the family that the employment agency had placed her with, she was left with no legal status, no rights, and nowhere to go.

Lucie found herself living on the streets of Beirut until she met several other women from Sierra Leone who had had similar experiences. They lived together in a small flat, paying for rent and food with money sent by relatives back home. Some families even had to sell their land to raise the money.

The women said they had been begging the Sierra Leone consulate in Beirut to help them return home, but like thousands of other women in the same position from other African and Asian countries, they were not receiving any help.

Lebanon’s General Security Directorate estimates there are more than 200,000 people in the country who are in the same position. Raising the money for a flight home is almost impossible for most.

But it was Lucie’s love of singing that turned out to be her salvation, paving the way for not only her own return to Sierra Leone, but also for dozens of other women from her country.

“I was sat on the railings one night while I was on the streets and I started to write a song,” she recalled. “I was singing to myself about how there was no hope and how I would never see my children again.”

That song, Bye and Bye, was later turned into a music video with the help of a French photojournalist who was writing about the plight of domestic workers in Lebanon. Recorded with 29 other women from Sierra Leone who were desperately trying to get home, the video accompanied a fundraising appeal that brought in donations of more $62,000.

Half of the money was set aside to pay for the group's living expenses in Beirut, although the women tried to save as much as possible for a reintegration programme to help them find jobs once they returned home. The other half was given to the Lebanese NGO Anti-Racism Movement to continue the work of supporting and repatriating women from Sierra Leone.

After the video’s release, Lucie found herself at the forefront of efforts to get her compatriots home. She led protests outside the consulate to demand a meeting with the officials, then sat on a committee liaising with the consulate and the UN on repatriation. She also ended up taking more people into her shared home.

“I don’t know where any of these people got my number, but once they saw the music video, they would all call me and say that they are in trouble in Beirut. So they came to live here. Now, we’re not stopping until all of us are able to go home,” she said.

A bout of illness put her in hospital but the calls for assistance did not stop. “I was in the hospital when the consulate called and told me they would start repatriating women. I was supposed to be resting and not working but they needed my help.”

Like many foreign workers who have run away or been abandoned, the women didn’t have any official documents to get them home.

“We needed everyone’s date of birth. The doctors kept telling me to rest, but I needed to work. I was immediately in contact with all of the girls,” Lucie said.

According to the manager of the Consulate for Sierra Leone, Dalal Chouman, 130 women are going to be repatriated by the end of October at the government’s cost.

"We will keep working on the rest who want to go back home," said Ms Chouman. "We hope to put an end to the misery of our people in Lebanon."

When The National visited Lucie at the small one-bedroom flat that more than two dozen women called home, the place was filled with euphoria. No longer feeling hopeless and stranded, the women danced and sang, tossing clothes around as they helped each other to pack.

“They made a promise that we will all be repatriated,” Lucie said. “I am so happy I’ll be able to see my two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, but I’m also a bit sad to be leaving some of the girls behind who are due to leave after me - I am pushing for them all to be given definite dates before I leave.”