Whose Home Is It? The Workplace of Migrant Domestic Workers Under Kafala


In this text, former migrant domestic worker and organizer in Lebanon Gemma Justo and Lebanese writer and publisher Ghiwa Sayegh write a four-hand account of daily life and struggle of African and South and East Asian female domestic workers working under the dreadful Kafala system in Lebanon.

Poverty led me, Gemma, to Lebanon. Prior to my life overseas, I had been a daycare worker in my village in the Philippines. But my earnings were very humble and I had three children to support, so I came to Beirut in 1993 as a domestic worker to provide for my family. Having grown up doing household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of my siblings, I excelled in my profession. Despite trying to go back home many times, money kept me in Lebanon, where I spent 24 years of my life, until 2017. Unlike many other domestic workers, my employer gave me days off and allowed me to go on vacation to see my family every six months. Although I was satisfied with my working and living conditions, I longed to live in a place I could call home. The longing for home as political was the quest that drove me to initially volunteer at the Embassy of the Philippines in Lebanon as a community mobilizer. Part of my work consisted in acting as a bridge between distressed Filipino workers and the embassy. In 2006, during the war of Israel on Lebanon, I was part of the team that rescued migrant domestic workers and volunteered at the shelter. It was then that I witnessed how many migrant domestic workers were mistreated. Countless, regardless of where they came from, had been left behind by employers, locked in houses with no food or fresh water. This is when I realized that my political work had to expand beyond the Filipino community. I organized with other domestic workers, but also across movements, linking arms with the anti-racist feminist movement in Lebanon.

Justo Sayegh Funambulist 1
#AbolishKafala campaign in December 2020. / Courtesy of Egna Legna.

This was how we both met. I, Ghiwa, grew up in a middle class home that employed migrant domestic workers under Kafala up until my early adult years. My political journey was radically transformed by Gemma and her comrades at the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon. My positionality as a Lebanese “citizen” — rather than an “other” in opposition to which a national imaginary is built — makes it my political duty to expose the exploitative nature and dynamics of Lebanese nationalism at both the nuclear and state levels. I left Lebanon in 2020 because of the economic crisis. We both understand these systems as profiting off of the labor of migrant domestic workers and foreigners in order to sustain their racist borders, along patriarchal and classist lines. The only way one can become “Lebanese” (in the administrative sense validated by the state) is through the father line, except in extremely rare honorary or political cases of naturalization. As such, migrant workers and refugees, including those who have lived within the borders of Lebanon for decades, will always be foreigners administratively, and Lebanese “family lines” are preserved. Lebanese supremacy permeates in legislation, policies, and sociocultural codes; foreigners of color are considered workers, therefore inferior, a status they maintain regardless of how long they live in the same geographical borders as other “citizens.”

Home, to us, cannot be reduced to the privacy of a house. Women, trans, and gender-non-conforming people have long bore the brunt of violent structures in the private as well as the public spheres. Home, therefore, is the feeling of warmth, intimacy, and comfort that can be borne out of a space, because of who and what occupies the space, its corners and configurations. For me, Gemma, coming to Lebanon meant searching for a home that never is. As for me, Ghiwa, I left behind a home that no longer was. The resonance between these spatial disorientations and estrangement brought us together, the same way that being in collectivities could act as makeshift, homely reorientations.