I first came to Lebanon when I was 18 years old. I lived in the country for 12 years as a domestic worker. Of the 12 years, I was only paid my salary for 1 year and 9 months.
My case is unique because unlike others, I did not realise that I was being cheated through most of my stay there. I got along well with the family that I worked for.
When they said they were saving up my wages in the bank, I believed them. Why would I not? They were like family, or so I thought. The idea of taking home a lump sum of money all at once was very appealing to me. After all, I had come to Lebanon to earn money to support my family back home in Nepal.
Now I realise that I was too trusting, and it was naive of me to believe that we were like family. They were just exploiting me, and trying to squeeze as much work from me as possible without paying for any of it.
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It is easy to fall prey to such a trap like this if you believe, like I did, that people are decent. A kind word here, a pat there, and sometimes, a bakshish is all it takes to motivate you.
But all of that turned out to be just selfish actions by my employer to derive as much value out of me as I slaved for them. Everything was fine, and I was treated well as long as I was willing to be a domesticated domestic worker whom they could tame.
The minute they realised that I was also someone with a family that I had to care for back home, with my own feelings, opinions, preferences, they completely switched on me. This was in 2021, the minute they realised that I was determined to go back to Nepal after a decade in Lebanon, the trouble started.
For over a decade, I had patiently obeyed all their demands, even though I was technically working for two employers and should have been paid more. My employers and their parents lived separately, and I was made to work in both the homes.
Despite the double work, I realised I was not being paid even my basic wages let alone anything extra for the endless hours of work. I had to get up at five thirty every day, and it would usually be midnight by the time I got to bed. All day I would be busy with all kinds of household chores in both houses.
If I had not been too trusting, I would have figured out much earlier in just how much trouble I was in.
For over a decade, I believed my Madam’s father was kind to me. He used to give me bakshish once in a while which I used for my personal expenses like toiletries and such, but also on food for the family or for clothes for her children.
It came naturally to me that this was the way families behaved. I genuinely had a soft corner for the elderly couple. I helped with their medications, cleaning, cooking etc, and even accompanied the old man’s wife to hospital when she had to stay overnight. But now, in retrospect, I realise that it was all just a put-on to use me.
I remember wanting to come home after my first three years of my stay in Lebanon. My Madam cried as the family at that time was wholly dependent on me. I took care of their ailing mother, of their little children.
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After five years, once again I said I wanted to return. The same thing happened. I relented because they were treating me well, and I trusted them that my salary was being deposited in the bank.
Finally in 2021, I realised I had had enough. It was time to come home. They tried to silence me by falsely assuring me that they would send me home as soon as they got a replacement.
Months passed, and they would not bring anyone. How many “next month, I promise” would I have to believe? As I got increasingly impatient and started voicing my desire to go home, they started behaving cruelly to me.
When it was evident that I was no longer willing to be their puppet and my longing for home was too strong this time, they showed me their true colours.
They said things like “I hope your plane crashes”, or “You are worth nothing”. These inhuman words ring in my ears to this day. Even then, they would not let me go no matter how much I insisted.
I started losing my appetite and getting depressed. I had a feeling of being trapped without any way out. I felt as if I was suffocating. I remember calling my sister and mother in Nepal out of desperation with the words: “Either get me out of here or be prepared to receive my dead body.” This is exactly how I felt.
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My uncle managed to get hold of a Nepali in Lebanon, and requested him to help rescue me. That man put me in touch with the Nepal Consulate in Beirut, which tried to help me but couldn’t do anything for months.
I also lost my nerve. At the Consulate office, my employer’s father shed tears and I felt so bad that I assured the people who were trying to help me that everything was okay. We agreed to give them a month or two after which they would send me back, but they did not do that. I felt like a fool falling for the tears of the old man.
On the side, the Nepali man my father introduced me to also reached out to the activist organisation This is Lebanon which helps migrant domestic workers like me in the country. It would turn out to be my saviour.