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Maid in Lebanon: Ethiopian and Lebanese Reactions to the Death of Alem, and Slavery in Lebanon

"It has been empowering to see the international outcry against the death of Alem Dechassa. This is the right response to the stories that we have been hearing from Lebanon and the Gulf for years. But more needs to be done, and the time is now."
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This piece is a memorialized discussion between two activists -- one Ethiopian and one Lebanese -- brought together by the recent suicide of Alem Dechesa-Desisa. Kumera Genet is an Ethiopian American from Austin, while Khaled Beydoun is an attorney from Detroit, Michigan -- home of the United States most concentrated Lebanese American community. Both reside, and live, in Washington, D.C. -- which boasts the nation's most populous Ethiopian community.

Alem was a 33-year-old Ethiopian domestic worker in Lebanon, who committed suicide on March 14. A video showing her employer, Ali Mahfouz, brutally beating her outside of Beirut's Lebanese Consulate, went viral on March 9 -- five days before her death.

Below are Genet's and Beydoun's immediate responses to the video and Alem's death, and a discussion about how these events impacted their respective worlds as Ethiopian and Lebanese Americans.

Kumera Genet:

The small Ethiopian Community in Austin, Texas where I grew up was integrated into and respected by the predominately Lebanese congregation of the only Eastern Orthodox Church in the city. At church events, we listened to the music of Tilahun Gessesse and Aster Aweke in addition to Umm Kulthum and Fairouz.

In this spirit I reached out the Arab-American community in Washington, D.C. and was connected to Khaled, who I learned has worked on modern slavery in Lebanon since 2005.

It is the duty of the diasporas, Ethiopian and Lebanese, to use our professionals, resources, churches, mosques, and civic organizations to ruthlessly tackle this issue. It has been empowering to see the international outcry against the death of Alem Dechassa. This is the right response to visual documentation of the stories that we have been hearing from Lebanon and the Gulf for years. But more needs to be done, and the time is now.

Khaled Beydoun:

Lebanon is the home of my father, where I lived for two years as a child. I fondly recall the warmth of being around family, reflect in horror about air-strikes and hiding in underground shelters during the civil war, and the light Mediterranean breeze as I clenched onto my mother's hand while we walked along the winding Corniche.

I also remember the scattered community of voiceless Ethiopian maids, who did not look like my family and friends, and spoke in rudimentary Arabic and seemed segregated from everyday Lebanese life. They were ghosts in a foreign land, I thought, and treated like invisibles without names, rights, or lives beyond serving families that were not their own.


Amharic evokes memories of Sunday morning coffee with my family, jokes that those of us born in the United States can never seem to fully understand, and of playing soccer on the street in Addis Abeba as a child. Yet, after witnessing the video of Alem Dechesa-Desisa's subjugation, Amharic was the language of a desperation that I could never understand.

It was jarring to see a woman who looked like me treated so brutally. Alem could have been a cousin of mine, a family member, or a friend of family.

I was angered, outraged, and felt powerless, but was not shocked. It is hard to care about what I personally felt; Alem was alone, in Lebanon, and not protected.


Ali Mahfouz shared my skin tone, spoke the Lebanese dialect that sounded like the Arabic that came from my mouth. He resembled a cousin, an uncle, or could have been a visitor in the Beirut apartment I called home as a child.

The 1:34 video, scored with the cries of the late Alem Dechesa-Desisa, and the familiar Lebanese banter of Mahfouz and other men, brought to the fore images that previously existed exclusively within the confines of private homes. I walked down that very sidewalk, outside of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut, where Mahfouz savagely scolded, beat, and dragged Alem.

Some onlookers demanded that Mahfouz "let her be and leave her alone," and he responded that, oblivious to Alem's humanity or concerned exclusively with his property, that "his integrity would not allow him to do so."


Apparently, he did not recognize Alem's integrity or dignity. Was he deaf to her pleas for help?


Mahfouz was only emboldened by Alem's cries, and the cacophony of pleas and encouragement from the onlookers amplified his anger. The video conveyed -- very vividly -- the highest pitch of dehumanization Ethiopian domestic workers endure.

Mahfouz beating Alem, dragging her by her hair, and stuffing her into his BMW 3-Series illustrated the pervasive positions that maids, like Alem, not only deserve basic human dignity, but are also the property of their owners whose purpose is to serve their interests. Seeking another end, or desperately fighting for a non-existent humanity in a foreign land where supporters are scarce, results in scolding, beating, and death.


The reoccurring thought that Alem would never visit family again haunted me while watching the video. She would never set foot at Bole Airport, find solace in the familiar embrace of her family, or finally find save haven from Mahfouz. The same images Khaled and I viewed, and millions of viewers around the world, would be the last sight Alem's family would have of her.


Alem's death, and the video showing her enduring Mahfouz unbridled violence, was a crime finally captured on tape and accessible for the world to see. Yet, this was not the first nor the last tragedy endured by Ethiopian domestic workers in Lebanon.


No, and the video reminded me of another recent tragedy that spurred a similar reaction to Alem's death. In late January 2010, word quickly spread through international news that Ethiopian Airlines Flight #409 had crashed in a storm and there were no survivors. The reporting accurately covered the scope of the tragedy in Lebanon, but the impact of the news was different among Ethiopians. A list of the names of Ethiopian citizens who died in the crash was published days later and confirmed our community's suspicions and fears.

This was a flight from Beirut to Addis, and all but a few of the Ethiopian passengers were women. There had not been much information published about the identities of the Ethiopian victims in the crash, but I began wondering how many were domestic workers who were returning home to Ethiopia to visit their families.

Any Ethiopian who has returned home to visit knows that arrival at Bole International Airport is a cathartic experience. The families of these passengers were waiting in terminals on the outskirts of Addis for a celebration that never occurred. The mothers, daughters and sisters returning from Lebanon would never be able to enjoy the vindication of their sacrifice.

I brought up the idea at dinner with Ethiopian-American friends weeks later. The response from the dinner table was common -- silence. We looked away from one another and then sucked our teeth (a sign of empathy in our culture). This was the same reaction family and friends displayed when they received news of Alem's death, and viewed the video.


I was shaken to my core when I watched Alem's last stand. While taking in the video, my mind was interrupted by the unapologetic defenses of slavery I heard from family members -- in a language that sounded like home, from lips I kissed since I was a child.

I also knew that the violence Alem endured off camera, before and especially after the video clip, was far worse than what was captured outside of the Lebanese Consulate.

I witnessed grown women scolded by Lebanese children one-third their age, physically abused by owners who believed their maids to be of a lower, sub-human racial caste, and referred to as "slaves," or 'abeed in Arabic, from people tied to me by name and culture.


Sometimes death is more than death and a tragedy is more than a tragedy. It can be hard to continuously dwell on events thousands of miles away and not simply say "beka" (enough) as a coping mechanism. After a short, silent, collective remembrance at dinner, we woke up the next morning to return to our own individual realities.

I can no longer easily wake up the next morning and return to my reality with the knowledge that Alem chose to leave hers behind.


"How can a country, which has endured so much recent pain through war, civil strife, and foreign incursion, not recognize the humanity of domestic workers like Alem?" I pondered while watching Mahfouz force her into the car, while she kicked, pleaded and cried for help.

I could not understand her words, but her cries were familiar -- they sounded like our Lebanese neighbors' when she received news of her son's death in 1987 during the civil war; or the sobs and whimpers of orphaned children whose parents were massacred in Sabra and Shatila.

Yet this time, we were the villains not the victims, which compelled me to face-off with racism within my community, expose the systemic dehumanization of domestic workers in Lebanon, and find avenues with members of the Ethiopian community committed to fighting modern slavery and pursuing justice for Alem.

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