Diaspora Diaries 4

Reunited after 12 years: Sajita Lama with her mother in her home in Nepal.

I first came to Lebanon when I was 18 years old. I lived in the country for 12 years as a domestic worker. Of the 12 years, I was only paid my salary for 1 year and 9 months.

My case is unique because unlike others, I did not realise that I was being cheated through most of my stay there. I got along well with the family that I worked for.

When they said they were saving up my wages in the bank, I believed them. Why would I not? They were like family, or so I thought. The idea of taking home a lump sum of money all at once was very appealing to me. After all, I had come to Lebanon to earn money to support my family back home in Nepal.

Now I realise that I was too trusting, and it was naive of me to believe that we were like family. They were just exploiting me, and trying to squeeze as much work from me as possible without paying for any of it.

Read also: Nepali in Saudi Arabia rescued after 12 years, Upasana Khadka and Marty Logan

It is easy to fall prey to such a trap like this if you believe, like I did, that people are decent. A kind word here, a pat there, and sometimes, a bakshish is all it takes to motivate you.

But all of that turned out to be just selfish actions by my employer to derive as much value out of me as I slaved for them. Everything was fine, and I was treated well as long as I was willing to be a domesticated domestic worker whom they could tame.

The minute they realised that I was also someone with a family that I had to care for back home, with my own feelings, opinions, preferences, they completely switched on me. This was in 2021, the minute they realised that I was determined to go back to Nepal after a decade in Lebanon, the trouble started.

For over a decade, I had patiently obeyed all their demands, even though I was technically working for two employers and should have been paid more. My employers and their parents lived separately, and I was made to work in both the homes.

Despite the double work, I realised I was not being paid even my basic wages let alone anything extra for the endless hours of work. I had to get up at five thirty every day, and it would usually be midnight by the time I got to bed. All day I would be busy with all kinds of household chores in both houses.

If I had not been too trusting, I would have figured out much earlier in just how much trouble I was in.

For over a decade, I believed my Madam's father was kind to me. He used to give me bakshish once in a while which I used for my personal expenses like toiletries and such, but also on food for the family or for clothes for her children.

It came naturally to me that this was the way families behaved. I genuinely had a soft corner for the elderly couple. I helped with their medications, cleaning, cooking etc, and even accompanied the old man’s wife to hospital when she had to stay overnight. But now, in retrospect, I realise that it was all just a put-on to use me.

I remember wanting to come home after my first three years of my stay in Lebanon. My Madam cried as the family at that time was wholly dependent on me. I took care of their ailing mother, of their little children.

Read also: Female migrant workers hold up half the sky, Sahina Shrestha

After five years, once again I said I wanted to return. The same thing happened. I relented because they were treating me well, and I trusted them that my salary was being deposited in the bank.

Finally in 2021, I realised I had had enough. It was time to come home. They tried to silence me by falsely assuring me that they would send me home as soon as they got a replacement.

Months passed, and they would not bring anyone. How many “next month, I promise” would I have to believe? As I got increasingly impatient and started voicing my desire to go home, they started behaving cruelly to me.

When it was evident that I was no longer willing to be their puppet and my longing for home was too strong this time, they showed me their true colours.

They said things like "I hope your plane crashes”, or "You are worth nothing”. These inhuman words ring in my ears to this day. Even then, they would not let me go no matter how much I insisted.

I started losing my appetite and getting depressed. I had a feeling of being trapped without any way out. I felt as if I was suffocating. I remember calling my sister and mother in Nepal out of desperation with the words: "Either get me out of here or be prepared to receive my dead body." This is exactly how I felt.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 1

My uncle managed to get hold of a Nepali in Lebanon, and requested him to help rescue me. That man put me in touch with the Nepal Consulate in Beirut, which tried to help me but couldn’t do anything for months.

I also lost my nerve. At the Consulate office, my employer's father shed tears and I felt so bad that I assured the people who were trying to help me that everything was okay. We agreed to give them a month or two after which they would send me back, but they did not do that. I felt like a fool falling for the tears of the old man.

On the side, the Nepali man my father introduced me to also reached out to the activist organisation This is Lebanon which helps migrant domestic workers like me in the country. It would turn out to be my saviour.

Screenshot of Sajita Lama’s phone where she was being helped by activists from This is Lebanon to geolocate her employer’s house.

When Dipendra Upreti from This is Lebanon first started reaching out to me, I would be scared and used to hang up on him. But slowly, he convinced me that he was there to help workers who were in trouble like me. Indeed, he had been in touch with my family in Nepal, the Consulate, the Nepali community in Lebanon to plan my rescue.

Back in the house of my employers, I was getting more and more paranoid. It felt like the employers were always plotting something to get me jailed so they could get out of the arrangement without paying the salary they owed me.

By this time, This is Lebanon had already reported my employers on my behalf and were naming and shaming my employers.

Finally the police rescued me from my employer's home after an order from the General Prosecutor. At the police station, the employer tried to come up with a settlement of $1,800, with a promise that he would send the rest later.

I did not agree. How could I trust them to send the salary they owed me, when I have already left the country? This time, I was not  going to budge unless they paid all my dues.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2

At the police station, they brought my clothes, my phone charger and earphones but not my phone. They knew how to mess with my head. But I kept quiet. The Consulate sent his driver to pick me up after which I was sent for quarantine and then to a shelter run by Caritas.

In both these places, I would not eat, I just could not stop crying. I was stressed beyond words, and all the memories of the past year would haunt me all the time. I was in such bad shape that they decided to send me home, and This is Lebanon bought my ticket to Kathmandu.

When I left Lebanon and landed in Kathmandu airport on 15 February, I did not have any money on me. I was relieved, but also very weak and tired. I felt like I would not make it. Perhaps I had returned to Nepal just to die, I thought.

Read also: Nepali migration in the 2020s, Upasana Khadka

Sajita Lama was enslaved by her employers for 12 years in Lebanon until she was rescued by an activist group. Screenshot from the homepage of This Is Lebanon that exposed the abuse.

How I got to Nepal is a blur, but the moment the plane landed I could not stop crying in the plane and in the arrival area of the terminal. It did not matter that people were staring at me as I wailed loudly, I was beyond being concerned about अरुले के भन्छन, what others would say.

At immigration and every step of the way through the airport, I would be weeping loudly, and the officials would just let me pass through. I had only one goal at that moment. I had made it this far, and if I was going to die, it would have to be after I finally saw my mother’s face.

I broke down when I finally saw my mother, and hugged her. Among all the emotions I felt, for some reason, as I held on to my mother, all I could say was “मैले केहि पनि ल्याउन सकिन आमा” I didn’t bring you anything....sorry Ama, I couldn’t bring anything for you."

As she held me tight in her embrace, I remember my mother telling me that she did not need anything, everything was okay and having me back was enough for her.

Read also: The loneliness of a long-distance driver, Diaspora Diaries 3

Twelve years is a long time to be away from home and family. My Nepali is not as fluent anymore because of my isolation, and I keep mixing Arabic with my Nepali when I speak, and I do not realise that I am confusing people. They have to correct me.

I have a lot to recover from. My physical, mental and emotional state is very fragile. I took a walk today around the neighbourhood, but quickly returned home. What if I faint along the way? I have so much to recover from.

I do not know what future awaits me in Nepal. For now, there are people who have been helping me and rallying for me, including financially. I appreciate all the help from the bottom of my heart. However, my fight will end when I get my employer to pay back salary he owes me.

It is my money that I earned by working from before dawn to midnight for 12 years. Only when I get hold of it, will I be able to feel that justice has been done. The thought of all those 12 years boiling down to nothing financially eats me up every waking moment of every day.

Sajita Lama with the Rs5 note that her sister-in-law gave her when she left Nepal, which she has brought back to Nepal.

When I had first left Nepal in 2010, I had a 5 rupee note with me given to me by my sister-in-law. I kept that red bank note with me throughout my time in Lebanon.

And that is all the money I brought home with me. I have now laminated the 5 rupee note. I will not forget this Nepali money because that is all I left with, and that is all I returned with.


Watch this video (above) prepared by the activist group This is Lebanon of Sajita Lama’s homecoming at Kathmandu airport and interviews with her Lebanese employers. Parts of this video may be distressing to some viewers. To help her get back on her feet: Sajita Lama, Mega Bank Woman Account 1980050018887.

Translated from a conversation in Nepali with Sajita Lama. Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform for Nepalis to share their experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with ‘Diaspora Diaries’ in the subject line.

  • Most read