In Lebanon, women from African countries who work as maids are often abused, raped, and essentially treated like slaves by their employers. Under a sponsorship system called kafala, in which maids are legally tied to the people who hire them, this abuse goes unpunished and under-reported.
But Lisa Khoury, an investigative freelance reporter who lives in Buffalo but has close family ties in Lebanon, thought about this abusive system and the women whose lives are ruined by it, for seven years before she had the opportunity to bring it to light.
A recent article published by Washington Monthly shares their stories and the efforts to make a change.
“This one has been on my mind for seven years, since my first adult trip,” Khoury says. “I noticed that there are these Black and Asian maids who are treated incredibly poorly. I thought it was too hard a story to do because there were so many barriers in the way.”
During her last trip to Lebanon, in 2019, she explained her seemingly far-fetched story idea to a family friend, who then introduced her to their maid, Josephine, originally from Ghana.
“She opened up to me for two hours. She was crying, telling me about her past employers who starved her, made her sleep on the kitchen floor, attempted to rape her, verbally abused her, didn’t let her speak to their children because they said she would infect them with African diseases. At the end of the conversation, Josephine took a deep breath, like a sigh of relief,” Khoury says. “The next day she told me that for the first time in years, she slept, because she felt like she got it off her chest.”
From there, Khoury contacted Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which have been publishing reports and calling on the Lebanese government for decades to end kafala. She was also introduced to a Facebook group called This Is Lebanon, founded by former migrant domestic workers who had been abused themselves.
“Because the Lebanese government is so negligent, not just on maids but on its own people, there’s no reliable justice system or police enforcement or rules or laws that protect maids,” she says. “They go to this Facebook group. It gets thousands of messages a year from women saying can you help me, I haven’t been paid in months, can you please help me, I’ve been sexually assaulted, can you help me convince my boss to let me go home. There are people behind the Facebook group that then contact these employers and say if you don’t let this person go, we will do X, Y, Z. It’s kind of bizarre, but when you live in a country where there are no rules and no proper system in place, this is what they have to do.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell is joined by freelance journalist Lisa Khoury to discuss her new investigative piece, The Real Housemaids of Beirut. She reports on the disturbing abuse of domestic workers and maids in Lebanon who have very little protection or recourse against their employers.