In her feature film «Beirut», Rahel Zegeye, young domestic worker, tells the animated story of four Ethiopian domestic workers. An exceptional initiative in a country where the rights of migrant workers are too often spurned.
Rahel Zegeye is seemingly so fragile. Of small size, almost weak, her gestures are delicate and her voice very soft. But, it is enough to evoke the condition of her “domestic sisters”, to make the young woman morph herself. Her voice becomes apparent, harder and her gestures are more powerful. Of this anger, Beirut, a feature film was born. “With this film, I wanted to inform Ethiopians about the dangers they incur when they settle in Lebanon. I want to teach them what occurs here and not how to keep a house”, she explains in an elaborate mix of English and Arabic.
In this film, the director, 32 years old, denounces the state of the 200,000 domestic workers who currently live in Lebanon. This country, regularly pounded by the United Nations, has studied for three years a bill which shall control the work of these immigrants. Last October, Gulnara Shahinian, special rapporteur on the contemporary forms of slavery, once again, exhorted the authorities to introduce a legislation to protect them. But the politics do not seem to be in a hurry.
Threatened by servitude, subjected to a control and an absolute expenditure with respect to their employers, many are victims of exploitation, violence and sexual abuse. Despaired by their living conditions, certain domestic workers decide to flee from their torture. Overnight, these women end up on the street without identity papers. They often get into drugs, prostitution and sometimes even into prison. This course Rahel Zegeye describes in her film. “I want to show these women that escape is not a solution. They should be able to change their employer or to return into their country what today is not easily realizable”.
To write the scenario, Rahel Zegeye thus took true stories as a starting point, piled up at her meetings. In Beirut, she concentrates on the course of four Ethiopian young women: Hiwot, a servant who left her employers and, from now on, makes a living doing prostitution. Saba who wants to leave her “mistress” to be free and join Hiwot. And Misir and Hana, two other servants who try to bring Saba to terms. Wearied by hearing the same horrors, “I said myself that I needed to write them”. The catalyst? A mass, one Sunday morning. Since her arrival in Lebanon, 10 years ago, Rahel Zegeye went to the church once a week. The occasion to pray but also to find other domestic workers. That day, it was reported to her that a young girl was assassinated by a Lebanese. According to the Human Rights Watch organization, one domestic worker dies each week in Lebanon. Cited causes: suicides, accidents and murder.
Excited by the cinema since her childhood and graduate in arts, it is quite naturally that the domestic worker decides to carry out her own film. During two years, Rahel Zegeye dedicates all her economies and free time to this project. Each Sunday, migrant workers, in majority Ethiopians and Sudanese, are found in Beirut to play the actors. “I spent 5,000 Dollars in the film because I made a point of paying each person. The highest wage was 200 Euros”, she details while laughing.
Shooting begins in 2006. But at the beginning of July, Rahel Zegeye is forced to stop everything. The war with Israel has just started. She follows her employer to shelter in the mountain from the bombardments. For the young woman, it is the beginning of the ordeal. During two weeks, the Lebanese for whom she works, gives her neither to drink nor to eat. There are Sri Lankian workers, refugees in the same hotel, who offer parts of their meals to her. Weakened, Rahel Zegeye wants to return to Ethiopia. Her torturers refuse. They want to send her to a cousin in Beirut. “Without a dollar in the pockets, they forced me to return. After arriving, I slept during one week in the street. Although I worked six years for them, they did not have the least pity”, she tells with wet eyes.
Thanks to an encounter her ordeal ceases. A Lebanese lawyer takes her under his wing. Today, she works for him. “He supports me in all my projects, he believes in me and gives me force”, she says. From now on encouraged, Rahel Zegeye can continue her project. After shooting, she leaves for Ethiopia to assemble the film and especially to take steps so that it will be diffused in her country. The authorities receive this initiative with interest. But none too soon, they go into reverse. Still disappointed, Rahel Zegeye sorts once again the pages of her invaluable red sorter. It contains tens of written letters in Amharic, the language of its country. Evidence of her persistency with the Ethiopian authorities.
According to the director, “this decision is purely political”. “This country sells its women”, she accuses with hateful face. The young woman denounces the emigration business of domestic workers. As target, the taxation of the plane tickets and the passports, the activities of the recruitment agencies and the dollars sent to the families. For her, the domestic workers should be followed by their embassy, “but they answer us that they do not have sufficient budgets.”
It does not matter, Rahel Zegeye is not discouraged. A few weeks ago, Beirut was translated into English. A large project for a film which was almost never diffused for the lack of financial means.* “It is not for me that I do all that but for the new generation. I do not want that they are sacrificed.”
*To help Rahel Zegeye to carry out her projects, find here her e-mail address: r_zegeye [at] yahoo [dot] com
Read this article in French language.
Source: Blog of Fériel Alouti