Lebanon: Sophia’s story

Cameroon –

After her husband died in 2000, Sophia found herself burdened with two newborn babies Kristie, Conny and her youngest sister Layanah, without any source of income. She had recently heard her neighbors whispering about their cousin who had migrated earlier this year to Lebanon and found a stable job with a good salary. Sophia played this dream over in her head, until it became a concrete goal.

She delved into research and after so many trials, finally managed to get in touch with her neighbor’s cousin Eileen. For a week Sophia and Eileen talked every day in order to prepare the needed documents. Eileen had promised Sophia that once her papers were ready, she would put her in touch with her agent. Sophia felt that this was taking too long. Soon she would be out of any resources or food for Kristie and Conny. She felt sad and anxious only about the thought of leaving them, and depriving them of her love and affection, even though she had arranged everything for Layanah to take care of the babies when she was away.

A week later, Sophia finally completed all her papers. Eileen told her then that she gave her number to the agent and that he would call her in the days to come. Sophia waited impatiently, for three days, doing nothing but sitting by her phone waiting for that ringtone—a call that would change her life and her family’s life forever.

At 9 a.m. on the fourth day, the phone rang. Sophia ran for the call. It was the agent! She is finally talking to him. They both agreed on the process and soon Sophia will be on her way to Lebanon to make her dream come true. Two weeks later, Sophia kissed Kristie and Conny goodbye, all dressed up and ready to head to the airport. Last, just before she moves ahead on her journey, she gives her sister Layanah a kiss on the forehead—a moment that captures her life story of migration and survival.

After long hours of travel, Sophia finally arrives at Beirut’s international airport to face a long process of general security checks, physical examinations, and a range of medical tests all required before she meets with her employer. Without any word spoken, Sophia and her agent head into the car and drive to her new employer’s home in silence. After arriving, an hour passes while Sophia waits for her employer to talk to her, look at her, or ask her anything. Then, she is told to put her luggage in the kitchen and to head directly to the shower.  As she is preparing, a few minutes later the door opens unexpectedly. It is her employer; she wanted to make sure if Sophia knows how to shower. Sophia stood there stunned, ashamed and frightened, her privacy has been invaded at the first point of meeting. She finishes her shower, thinking she will be now heading to her room. Yet she is surprised to learn that she will be sleeping in the kitchen on a small sofa, with no privacy at all.  Sofia did not know what to do and she had no one to talk to. To gain some support, she asks her employer if she can call her sister back home, but the answer is no.

After just a short period living and working in this new place, when everybody was out of her employer’s house, as Sophia was finishing her daily tasks, she suddenly heard footsteps approaching the kitchen. She turned to check if her employer and her children were back, yet she was surprised to see that her employer’s husband returned earlier than usual. He seemed to be admiring Sophia and then approached her in a strange way. When Sophia tried to step back, her male employer threatened her by saying he would accuse her of stealing his wife’s gold if she did not submit to his needs.  At this point, even though she was traumatized, Sophia had no capacity to refuse, without going to jail in a country where she knew nothing about the legal protections or labor system. After this first sexual abuse, her employer then offered Sofia his phone so that she could call her sister.  He promised her many phone calls to come if she remained silent and obedient. Throughout this traumatic first experience as a live-in domestic worker, Sophia was exposed to many types of abuse, yet she could not tell anyone, including her sister.  

A few weeks later, summer arrived in Lebanon. The family decided to go on a trip to the beach. When the kids were playing in the swimming pool, Sophia approached the pool, fetching the ball for them as she kept close eyes on the children in the water. As she gets closer to them, a voice screams at her and commands her to stay away from the pool. Sophia moves back to her seat and starts crying.  She recounts the scenes of violence, wondering what she has done wrong? At this moment she hears a soft voice comforting her. She looks up to find another domestic worker from Togo. Her name was Marie. She introduces herself to Sophia, listens to her story and shares her experience with the group she had joined a year ago when she was herself exposed to injustice. Marie writes her number on a piece of paper and tells Sophia to call her whenever she is ready to speak up and defend her rights.

Nights have passed, Sophia has not stopped thinking about all the suffering she has been through, and she decides to plan for her escape. Finally, it is time. She must place her own life above this job. Determined to leave this abusive employer, she spends the next few weeks collecting information on organizations that support domestic workers. Whenever she gets the chance, she calls Marie to help coordinate her escape.  Together, they crafted a plan to leave the prison of her daily abuse. Without hesitation, Sofia packed her bags and left to meet her friend Marie at the safe shelter.

As she left the daily confinement of an abusive employer, Sophia then faced an even larger prison, as an undocumented, jobless migrant in a strange country.  Her future was far from being known. Yet, Sophia managed to start working as a freelance domestic worker. She rents her own room and begins to earn a decent salary to support herself, along with her children and sister back home.  Things were going steady until October 2019, when the Lebanese revolution has escalated, bringing severe impacts on the political and economic situation. During this time, the exchange rate increased by 100%, dramatically affecting all the domestic workers’ income, which was once paid in US dollars and then subject to these enormous shifts in the Lebanese currency.  These conditions created massive shifts in unemployment, with a 70% unemployment rate in the rural areas.  As things get worse, Sophia finds herself jobless again with high risk of becoming homeless in a country where she has virtually no social support networks.

After enduring so many struggles as a Cameroonian migrant, and then working through a national economic crisis, Sophia must now face COVID-19. On Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the Lebanese government announces an official general emergency statement and mandates a national lockdown on the entire country. The struggle for Sophia and all the freelancer domestic workers has now become unbearable in this pandemic. Today Sophia is back to her small prison with her first employer, all alone far away from her family and her friends, and without access to food or medication. Soon she will most likely become homeless.

Ever since the total lockdown, migrant domestic workers and local organizations have come together to aid domestic workers most in need of support.  Sophia has received her first food box last week, and she will receive another one next month.  Yet, the question is, how long can Sophia count on this temporary assistance? Will she be able to receive the next delivery, as this temporary measure provides the only hope for survival in the devastating and encompassing impact of this pandemic.


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