Alem Dechasa left Ethiopia in January to work as a maid in Lebanon, where she apparently killed herself. Her journey started in Burayu, a poor settlement outside Addis Ababa
|Alem's partner, Lemesa Ejeta, explains why he cannot bring himself to tell their two children that she is dead|
Lemesa Ejeta sniffed and cleared his throat but could not stop a tear from slipping down his cheek. His four-year-old daughter, Yabesira, had just run out of their mud-and-straw house to play, and it was as if he felt he could at last let go.
He struggled to describe the last time he saw his partner, Alem Dechasa Desisa, the 33-year-old mother of Yabesira and Tesfaye, 12. Alem left Ethiopia in January to work as a maid in Lebanon; she apparently hanged herself in a hospital room after she was beaten on a street in Beirut, allegedly by a man linked to the recruiting agency that took her there.
Alem's journey to a lonely death started in this one-room hut in Burayu, a bereft settlement outside Addis Ababa where mothers like her and fathers like Lemesa face a Herculean struggle to survive each day.
Alem was one of many women who defied an Ethiopian government ban to work as housemaids in Lebanon, hoping to make life better for their children. It was a heartbreaking choice to have to make.
"She was in a queue at the airport but after she entered the terminal she was told it's not time for her yet … and so she came back to see us," said Lemesa, tears flowing down his cheeks, as he described the day she left.
"Our daughter, Yabesira, said, 'If you're leaving, who is going to dress me for school?' and then she cried, and I cried and then Alem cried," he said, speaking through a translator.
Two of Alem's handbags hang from a nail on the wall. There are a few wooden chairs, a coffee table and two small mattresses leaning against another wall. In a corner is a straw basket made by Alem. Outside, the lean-to where she used to cook traditional, flat injera bread was cold and full of ashes.
Alem's case has lifted the lid on the plight of migrant workers in Lebanon, where human-rights groups say they are regularly abused. Human Rights Watch says one migrant worker dies each week in Lebanon from suicide or other causes. They have no legal protection, and this is why three years ago Ethiopia banned its nationals from travelling there to work.
Alem's beating, in late February, was broadcast by Lebanese TV in March and has been viewed by tens of thousands on YouTube. Newspapers and human-rights groups identified the man in the video as Ali Mahfouz, brother of the head of the recruiting agency. He has been charged with contributing to her suicide. He says the agency was trying to send her home because she had mental health problems.
The video showed Alem being dragged along the street outside the Ethiopian consulate. Her hair was pulled and she was bundled into a car. She was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital. A few days afterwards she apparently hanged herself.
In a statement , Human Rights Watch quoted a social worker with Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre as saying that Alem first worked with a Lebanese family for a month but was returned to her agency because of communication problems. She did not get paid. Her second job only lasted a few days.
Alem allegedly told the social worker that a recruitment agent had beaten her and threatened to send her home. The statement also said she had previously tried to kill herself by drinking a cleaning product and by jumping from a car.
The mystery surrounding Alem's life and death in Beirut hangs heavy over Burayu, where children in ripped clothes that are too thin for this rainy March day cluster around huts, as donkeys bray and hammers clank in a nearby quarry.
Lemesa has not yet told Yabesira – which means "work of God" – or Tesfaye that their mother is dead. "They are suspicious of something because people have been coming here, crying, but I am afraid to break the news to them," the 31-year-old said. "Sometimes the children see her photo and ask when she is coming back to Ethiopia. If I tell [Yabesira] she is dead, I am afraid of the questions she will ask me."
But when asked about reports that Alem killed herself, Lemesa, said: "I haven't heard anything about her committing suicide." Suicide is a taboo subject in Ethiopia, especially among Christians such as Lemesa.
Lemesa said he had heard only that before her death she was beaten. He later saw a newspaper article about the beating, but he has not seen the video, which prompted protests by Ethiopians.
A neighbour, Tadelu Negash, a 27-year-old mother of four with tight braids, was originally going to go to Lebanon with Alem but decided not to when she realised the process was illegal. But she has not dismissed the idea.
"We have no other option. We don't want our children to suffer like we did … When we see what happened to [Alem], we feel very sad … But when you see the reality here, there are problems after problems, so much suffering, so we think it's not such a bad idea," she said.
Alem and Lemesa lived in Addis Ababa for nine years but eventually could not afford the rent there and moved to Burayu. Things got no better, and they decided that Alem would go to Lebanon. "We got the idea from our neighbours … Almost everyone is going to work abroad … So if everyone is doing it, we thought we should give it a try … She said she would work very hard and return," said Lemesa.
It cost about 10,000 birr (£360) to send Alem to Beirut – about 4,500 of that went to the broker, a man who will only speak on condition of anonymity. He said a relative working in Beirut gave his number to an employment agency, which contacted him to ask if he could find workers.
He said he saw that Alem was struggling and suggested she go, claiming not to know about the government ban. "After what happened to Alem, I received information that it was banned … The agency hasn't asked me again, but I have quit," he said.
Ethiopia's consul general in Beirut estimates that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Ethiopians living in Lebanon, 43,000 of them legally. Tigist Mengistu is among them.
Tigist, who used to go to church with Alem, left in 2010. She has told her parents, Derebie Begi and Mengistu Birrie, that her job is easy but has not sent any money since repaying a loan from her father. "Since what happened to Alem, I worry the same may happen to my daughter," said Derebie.
"Alem never got any rest when she lived here," said Mengistu. "She was always cooking injera and trying to sell it on the streets. She went to the forest to collect wood and leaves for cooking."
Human Rights Watch and other groups have urged Lebanon to reform restrictive visa regulations and adopt a labour law on domestic work. "[Alem's] death is an outrage on two levels – the violent treatment she endured and the absence of safeguards that could have prevented this tragedy," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and north African director at Human Rights Watch.
Lemesa is now waiting for Alem's body. But he has another problem: Alem's parents say he was separated from Alem and that he has had a child with another woman. They say that is why she left. Lemesa has denied this, saying he and Alem were never legally married but had been together for 13 years.
Lemesa and Alem's brother Leta both want to be put in charge of Alem's estate, and any compensation. Lemesa has been to court to determine whether Alem's children or parents are her legal heirs. The court cannot rule until the body is returned.
The legal wrangling is understandable: for people with so little, it is a matter of survival. It was almost impossible to unravel the allegations of infidelity: about the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that Alem never seemed depressed.
"She was perfectly healthy when she was here," said Lemesa. Alem's mother and father, who had come from the countryside to fill in forms at the foreign ministry in Addis, agreed. They were dressed for official business: 75-year-old Dechasa Desisa wore a faded, striped suit with a purple shirt while his wife, Kafany Atomesa, had a black headscarf and a traditional white netela shawl.
Alem was the fifth of 11 children. Her parents had come from Gindeberet in Oromia and they were accompanied by Leta, who works as a truck driver's assistant. He translated from Oromiffa, the language spoken by his parents, to Amharic. When asked if Alem was ever depressed, Kafany shook her head – and at that moment the single bulb lighting Alem's hut gave out. "[Alem] was always laughing. She was always giving advice to people," she said into the dark.