Abused and arrested in Lebanon, domestic worker arrives in Nigeria and urges others not to travel there.
Beirut, Lebanon – A Nigerian domestic worker who documented her abuse by former employers in Lebanon has arrived back home following a months-long ordeal that saw her arrested and accused of attempted murder.
Ariwolo Olamide Temitope, 31, arrived in Abuja late on Saturday night after spending six weeks detained in Lebanon on charges of theft and attempted murder that were filed by her former employers.
Temitope in late April escaped the home of Mahmoud Zahran and Feyzeh Diab after they accused her of stealing a phone and, according to Temitope, Zahran punched her in the face.
Temitope said her employers had treated her well until she refused sexual advances by Zahran.
Diab denied the allegation on behalf of her husband and said he “pushed” Temitope out of “self-defence” rather than punching her. Lebanon’s labour ministry blacklisted the family, meaning they will not be allowed to hire any more domestic workers.
Temitope had shared a video of her bloodied mouth with Al Jazeera in late April that gained attention in Nigeria and Lebanon, where the abuse of mostly African and Southeast Asian domestic workers under the notorious kafala system has been in the spotlight.
Million of migrants in the Middle East are employed under this system, which has facilitated widespread abuse by employers because they hold the rights to renew or terminate contracts, leading many to liken it to modern-day slavery.
After speaking to Temitope in April, Al Jazeera had informed Julie Okah-Donli, the head of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, of her case, and the agency intervened to get her home.
Temitope said the Nigerian government bought her a ticket on a flight from Beirut to Abuja, leaving on May 25. But she never made it on board.
“I was at the gate when the police told me I could not go – they pulled me aside and took me to detention,” she told Al Jazeera on Monday over the phone from Abuja.
Temitope was taken to a prison run by General Security, which manages immigration in Lebanon, and said she was kept there for nearly three weeks before being informed of the charges against her – theft of $5,000 and the attempted murder of her employer.
“I could not believe it,” she said. “After I escaped their home I had filed a police report about the abuse. I think they did this to try and get me into trouble instead.”
Diab had told Al Jazeera in April that Temitope previously pulled a knife on her. Temitope denied these allegations. “If I had pulled a knife on her before, would she really have kept me at the house?”
In General Security detention, Temitope said she felt “completely alone. I thought that my employers would have their way because they have money and I don’t.”
She said she contemplated suicide, but instead decided to put her faith in God.
Outside, meanwhile, Nigerian authorities and a Lebanese NGO were working to secure her release.
‘Rise up, rescue and protect’
“We cannot abandon Temitope at this time, we must join hands to fight for this cause,” Tolulope Akande-Sadipe, head of Nigeria’s House Committee on the Diaspora, said during a hearing in mid-June.
“We need to rise up, rescue, protect and defend our fellow citizens in difficulties in other nations,” he said.
The committee pressured Nigeria’s government to contact Lebanese authorities over the matter and called in Houssam Diab, the Lebanese ambassador to Nigeria, to question him on the case and the status of other Nigerian women in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Temitope’s lawyer Mohanna Ishak, who works with women’s rights group Kafa, submitted a request for her release to the presiding judge in Beirut.
“The judge ruled in our favour and ordered she be released pending the outcome of the trial. It’s a sign of the judge’s impression that there is something unjust about the charges against her,” Ishak told Al Jazeera.
Ishak said she will follow Temitope’s case until its conclusion in order to prove her innocence.
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Last Wednesday, Temitope was released to a Kafa shelter. She returned home on Saturday, roughly nine months after she first arrived in Lebanon, on a flight organised by the Nigerian Embassy with some two-dozen other Nigerian women on board.
Nigerian media reported that Peace Busari, a domestic worker who in April was offered up for sale on a Facebook group used to trade household items, was also on the flight.
Several thousand domestic workers have returned home from Lebanon as the country’s deep economic crisis left many employers unable to pay their salaries. Many for years were paid late or not at all, a chronic issue under the kafala system that both local groups and the international community have said must be abolished.
Now a few days into a mandatory 14-day coronavirus quarantine in Abuja, Temitope warned other women against travelling to work in Lebanon.
“I suffered so much. I believe now that it’s better for us to stay in our country and manage with what we have, even if it is difficult,” she said.
“To leave Lebanon is to be happy, very, very happy. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”
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