Image Credit: Anti-Racism Movement

The Disillusionment of Kafala: Collectivize to Escape

It is in collectives that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.

Angela Y. Davis, Freedom is a Constant Struggle

The Kafala System has been a part of Lebanon since the early 1950s. As the country continues to go through economic and political fluctuations, migrant workers are often discriminated against and sidelined from conversations around a better future. 

Although there are 250,000+ migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, their rights under the Kafala System are marginalized and considered of lesser priority. But within collectives and communities built by several anti-racism movements, there is hope to be found.

Rampant Racism

“We face racism on a daily basis in Lebanon, with taxis maybe or when you are walking on the road, you will meet white people that will cross the road when you are [walking] close to them. Or maybe you entered an elevator with them, you’ll see them grabbing their bags very tightly thinking that maybe you are a thief, and you will take it from them,” said Noel, a Kenyan migrant worker who has spent the past seven years in Lebanon, on the “Women of the Blame” podcast. In this episode, Noel described, in details, the rampant racism she has experienced in the country.

“So, we face this on a daily basis and it is affecting us badly, in a way that this can cause stress, you will end up asking yourself so many questions that you don’t have answers to, and you end up being traumatized,” she added. 

Another migrant worker, Mariam, who comes from Sierra Leone, shares her own experience after spending eight years in Lebanon.

“I face a lot of racism, [and] it affects my mental health in a great way. If I’m at work and I want to drink from a cup, because I am black, I am not allowed to use that cup. Or maybe I want to go to a salon to do my hair, and they will say, no you can find an African salon to do your hair. Or when I go shopping at a mall, I’m always afraid what their reaction will be, because I’m a migrant worker, are they going to accept that I try on the clothes or are they just going to increase the prices… that’s what I face most of the time,” she said.

Collectives such as the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) organize with migrant workers against the Kafala System, by taking on legal cases, running campaigns, providing provisions of services, but most prominently, enabling spaces where they can collectivize and vocalize their strife, especially in a country that shuns them out of public spaces and excludes them from the legal system. 

In fact, any attempts at cultural fusion cause moral panic in Lebanese society.

Found Communities 

“Being here [at the Migrant Community Center (MCC)], we’ve met so many people from different nationalities and communities. You have friends who will encourage you if you feel that maybe your own people, from your own country, will discriminate [against] you or look down upon you or no one will believe you, said Noel.

Migrant workers find relief in these communities. In difficult times, migrant workers have often voiced that when recounting their troubles to family and friends back in their home country, they are oftentimes not met with encouragement or sympathy. 

But these found communities have bred strong interpersonal relationships between the migrant workers, who have come to create a safe space together.

The System of Threat and Gamble

Most migrant workers find returning to their home countries a difficult step to take, because of the expectations family members and relatives impose on them. 

Unaware of employment conditions in the country, relatives back home are promised large amounts of money. This then creates a fear that migrant workers will come back home empty handed after years abroad. 

These fears have only been amplified in recent years. The economic collapse in Lebanon has destabilized and threatened the lives of many who abandoned their families to earn their livelihood. 

Employers under the Kafala System often take measures to avoid accountability by withholding salaries or cutting off contact between the workers and their families. This renders the domestic workers helpless, desperate and isolated, and threatens their families’ wellbeing, as many are dependent for day to day expenses.

When lies are the only way to convince, there is trafficking.

Where there is slavery, there is trafficking

Where there is exploitation, there is trafficking

Where there is fraud, there is trafficking.

“I am afraid” by Viany De Marceau

The Kafala System is a form of human trafficking, as the Ministry of Labor and The Lebanese General Security motivate the unregulated practices of agencies, supporting the circulation of undocumented statuses, ultimately holding migrant workers captive after the end of their contract. 

Awareness Against Myth

Egna Legna Besident is one of the organizations that believes that spreading awareness against Kafala abroad can limit chain migration and shake workers to the horrid reality they are about to face, rather than the promised dream by the employer.

Banchi Yimer founded Egna Legna in 2017, and has worked in Lebanon for seven years. She used to take English lessons at MCC, where she met many Ethiopians. Within the collective, she found an opportunity to create sustainable support and a long-term solution for the increasing number of Kafala victims. 

They are raising awareness in Ethiopia to stop women from coming to Lebanon for work because of the abusive conditions the Kafala System sets up. The system is in favor of the employer, where the migrant workers are under their mercy.

The Kafala System limits the conversation between the agency and the employers, dispensing the migrant workers rights, but still exposing them to legal repercussions and crackdowns. In conversation with ARM, they explain how migrant workers are excluded from labor laws, limiting their career mobility. Agencies continue to monetize off live-in domestic workers, and live-out conditions, including ghost sponsors and legally fake sponsors in their schemes. Under these conditions, can migrant workers really escape the Kafala System? Does this system need to be regulated, dismantled, or abolished? 

“They brainwashed people from villages that lack information. They are not aware of what’s going on in Lebanon, and I think that’s the main reason why they [migrant workers] are still coming,” warns Banchi against recruitment agencies that promise what goes against the bleak reality.

Abroad, efforts to raise awareness against the atrocities of the Kafala System in the Middle East are led by firsthand survivors, such as Lucy Turay. Lucy is a Sierra Leonean activist, former migrant domestic worker in Lebanon and founder of Domestic Workers Advocacy Network (DoWAN). 

She was tricked into getting enslaved by the system, but now, she is back in her country collectivizing around alternative economic solutions for Sierra Leonean women, so that they would not put themselves in danger in the Middle East.

Similarly, in Lebanon, Mariam from Sierra Leon, believes that her activism work in the country is a reason for her to stay, as she is a spokesperson for many that continue to suffer from the system.  

Dreaming of Freer Realities

Viany De Marceau writes about Kafala, and utilizes feminism to deconstruct the oppression, describing it as follows: “the patriarchal system is regularly spoken about in parables, but never given a distinct identity with a face, name, and deeds. Hence it may occasionally seem unreal, a myth.”

Viany is from Cameroon, and she was in her first year of college when she got lured to travel to Lebanon. She was promised a limited time of six months, in exchange for enough salary that she could save up to pursue her studies in France in fashion design. 

Instead, Viany got stuck in the Kafala System for four years. At 29 years old, she is currently residing in Lebanon, pursuing her passion in fashion design, and cleaning houses to survive. She has launched her own fashion collections, all of which are sewn by hand, with colorful, geometric, and floral patterns.

“Because of what I experienced in Lebanon under the Kafala System, the need to be an activist came to me as a calling. My mouth was shut, my fists were tied, and my eyes were full of tears. I had no other choice but to cry out my suffering,” Viany confesses a newfound purpose in her article “The Dark Passages of Feminism For A Migrant Domestic Worker” for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

It is very difficult for domestic migrant workers to move past their trauma to begin dreaming of freer realities. Many go along their paths hoping to overcome and surpass their victimhood.

“Many feminists who happen to be migrant domestic workers in the Arab world brood, just like I do. They sustain war wounds, and reserve endless sources of inspiration from their experiences. But before all that, they must reclaim the humanity their employers stole from them. This phase may seem difficult or even impossible for some, because throughout, others will constantly try to remind you that you are less than human,” shares Viany.

If they escape the Kafala System, much of their journey is spent rebuilding their emotional wellbeing, establishing their individuality while relying on community support for survival.

Sustained Efforts Despite Government Negligence 

In conversation with ARM, the organization reveals the legal inhibitions of the system, and how it halts any potential for career progression for the domestic migrant worker community. Although they spend an abundant amount of time in Lebanon past their inhouse contracts, attempts to acknowledge their presence within the Lebanese work-scape are nonexistent.

For example, the Ministry of Labor and the employers do not ensure that there are language programs that can equip migrant workers with the knowledge they need to navigate life in Lebanon. To supplement the several gaps in aiding migrant workers to support themselves financially, community centers such as MCC’s and Egna Legna’s decentralized work, host workshops ranging from language courses, media and tech literacy, to crafts. Beyond these considerations, migrant workers are at an unequal standpoint with their employers, and the fight is still stuck at acquiring their basic rights.

Organizing protests, awareness campaigns, and finding communities brings migrant workers closer to liberation, despite the legal and economic conditions that hold them captive. 

Migrant-led initiatives and communities continue to suspend damage created by the Kafala System, while the Lebanese government absolves itself from any responsibility to regulate operations, or culturally integrate migrant workers. Recently, Egna Legna released a graphic novel, titled “Traumatized for Life.” 

The illustrations by Aude Nasr allow readers to recognize the abnormal working environments domestic workers are forced to tolerate. Efforts to have migrant workers lead the discourse on their employment conditions are sustained. It is revolutionary to hear their stories, where the personal reveals the legal faults and cultural prejudice that the Lebanese people are yet to confront.