Think of travelling to another country with a job awaiting you, hoping to support your family back home. Just, the job isn’t what you thought. Your passport gets taken away, and you become, in practice, another person’s property. Photographer Aline Deschamps met many women in Beirut who shared this same story.
Most of them were women from Sierra Leone, tricked into travelling to Lebanon thinking that the country needed their professional profiles, like teachers, or nurses. “They were recruited at random markets, or by acquaintances promising that they could earn the equivalent of $600 a month in Lebanon. The journey would cost them something from $500 to $1,500, and local recruiters normally take a cut of about 100$. It might sound low, but the average salary in Sierra Leone is $30 a month,” reveals the photographer.
Once they arrived in Lebanon, the curtain fell. They were forced into someone’s house to wash dishes, do chores, and sleep on the balcony, often without receiving any remuneration for months. When they called their agents to understand what happened, they were told: “work another two, three months, we are arranging things for you”. If they demanded to be moved to another employer or to be repatriated, they were threatened, beaten, raped.
At the heart of the mechanism that makes this kind of human trafficking possible is the Kafala, a guardianship system whose origins date back centuries ago, but is still legally active in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to control migrant workers. The Kafala sees a guardian or sponsor, called “kafeel”, responsible for the worker’s visa and legal status, establishing also his or her salary and working conditions. It allows guardians to take away their employees’ passports, confiscate their phones, and subject them to abuse with little or no legal repercussions. Over the years the system has come to the public attention and was criticized by human rights organizations especially for facilitating the exploitation of the migrants who build stadiums, museums, artificial islands and residential buildings, participating in the rapid growth of wealthy metropolises in the Gulf. The same happens to migrant domestic workers, most of whom are women.
“Basically your life depends on one individual,” explains Deschamps. “Maybe you’ll have a good employer who will pay you and won’t take away your day off, and won’t take away your passport, or maybe you’ll have someone who does it. And agents suggest they do that. ‘She’s not behaving well? just lock her up, take the passport’. It’s systematic.”
While the recruitment and smuggling from Sierra Leone and other countries are illegal, in Lebanon a potential employer can visit real agencies, with store windows proposing different salaries depending on the worker’s country of origin: “Let’s say you want to hire someone from a sub-Saharan African country, you’ll pay $250 a month. Asian workers are generally more expensive. Filipinos could cost about $500 because they’re supposedly better at doing electronic work. It’s all incredibly racist.”
When Aline Deschamps started her project in 2020, Lebanon was in the middle of an economic collapse that it still hasn’t recovered from, caused by years of political and economic instability. The pandemic exacerbated the situation, and domestic workers were often thrown out on the streets because their employers, or guardians, didn’t want to be responsible for them anymore.
A French organization reported to her that several migrant workers were stranded in an apartment, and that their number kept growing because they offered shelter to others who didn’t have a place to go. “They didn’t have anything to eat. They were picking food from the garbage. They had no money and no papers, because they were confiscated. In Lebanon there is no embassy for Sierra Leone to help them with legal representation, and consulates are run by Lebanese officials”.
Without documents, the women were terrified of getting sick, because if they ended up in a hospital they might be sent to jail, and deported. Some of them had lived through Ebola and lost relatives to it, and, Covid19 being another contagious illness, whose level of danger had yet to be established, the fear was strong enough to prevent them from walking out even for basic necessities.
As Aline Deschamps got to know them, the way they answered her questions unveiled a much darker scenario than the one she had initially envisioned. “In some households, domestic workers are seen as accessories, as “something to show off, and gain social status. A way to say ‘I’m not the one doing the dishes, I’m a madam.’” Continuous verbal and physical humiliation coming from the employers and even from their children had pushed the girls to desperation, and the phrase “I’m treated like an animal” came back often in the interviews.
The photographs are different from what we’re used to in the documentary tradition. If they don’t shy away from showing the women’s struggle, they also refuse to place any labels on them, seeing them as individuals first and offering the viewer the possibility to connect “over joy instead of pain”. They show the moments of light that brighten even the worst realities, the most powerful revenge over the hand that tries to break a person’s body and mind.
What helped the protagonists of the project survive their time in Lebanon, aside from the sisterhood they had established among them, was being in contact with their families, but even that relationship was under threat. Over time, some husbands lost hope to see them come back, and decided to cut ties. For the families, sending a daughter to work in the Middle East is a costly investment. They often get a loan or sell some land to pay for their journeys, becoming vulnerable to the pressure of their creditors.
“The women I met came back home with no money, and sometimes as a parent it is easier to say ‘okay, my daughter is a liar. She went to work for four years, but she kept the money for herself.’ It’s harder to accept than that your daughter has been abused and trafficked, and she went through such hardship.”
Women like Lucy Turay, a teacher who left to Lebanon shortly after giving birth and came back to Sierra Leone to meet a 3-year-old daughter who didn’t recognize her as her mom, founded an organization to prevent others from falling into the same trap. She gathered a group of women who walk the markets where recruitment usually happens, holding signs and loudspeakers to unmask the machine that enslaved them. Lucy and her allies also talk to the families of other women as soon as they come back from the Middle East, trying to explain to them what happened to their daughters, and spare them rejection.
Echoing the title of the documentary “I Am Not your Negro”, about the life of African American human rights activist and writer and James Baldwin, Aline Deschamps’ project “I Am Not your Animal” recalls that the implicit justification behind the current exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East and the Gulf is the same at the heart of the atrocities committed in the United States and Europe in recent history: if you consider someone less than human, that makes it ok for you to abuse, and even kill them.
The photographer reconnected in Sierra Leone with the women she had gotten to know in Lebanon, and met some others who had recently repatriated from Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Looking at the images of “A Life After Kafala”, the second part of her project, one wouldn’t know the protagonists of the project are domestic workers, nor that they’ve been trafficked, or raped. “ I wanted the photographs to be much softer and contemplative, in contrast with the harsh realities that they’ve endured,” says Aline Deschamps.
The photographs open a window on women’s psychology during various phases of their stories. The shock of being trafficked, the longing from home, the comfort of new friendships, the strength of fighting back and the effort of repairing relationships that were interrupted. They remind us that when we look at someone, we truly never know what they’ve been through.
You can learn more about Aline Deschamps’ work on her website.