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Beirut, Lebanon. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

"I wasn't planning on moving back to Ghana before the explosion happened. The explosion changed everything." Beirut, Lebanon. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

Surviving Karantina: The Long Way Home

Editor's Note: Shortly after the August 4, 2020, explosion at the Port of Beirut, journalist Zahra Hankir and photographer Lynn Chaya started documenting the impact of the blast on some of the people living in the vicinity. Hankir spoke with survivors in Karantina, a long-neglected working class neighborhood. They recounted the trauma that has been haunting them, the feelings of desperation and rage, and their ongoing struggle to rebuild their lives. These testimonies, edited only for brevity and clarity, are published in a series titled "Forgotten Quarter: The Survivors of Karantina." The Public Source commissioned one of these stories. 


"I prayed to God and said, if I die today, please take care of my daughter." Doris Agbakey, 33. 

[T]here are details that I want to add to my story, now that I am in Ghana.

I'm Ghanaian, and I've lived in Lebanon since December 10, 2018. I initially worked at the home of a woman who I did not get along with. I decided at the time to leave Lebanon and go back to Ghana, as I was unhappy. But then I told myself that I would not give up. I had to work to make money. And no one was going to make me give up on what I was here [in Lebanon] for.

That is why I moved to Karantina. I called my agency and informed them that I wanted to relocate to another family home, and so they moved me here. I am happy with this family. I've been with them for a year and four months now. 

When I moved in, they took me in as family. But after three months, I started to experience some funny things from the woman. She treated me poorly sometimes. Once, she threw the food I was about to eat into the garbage. I had spent the day before that working and I was so tired. I didn’t even have an official start and end time for my work days. Sometimes, even if I was very tired, I had to work. Because, she would say, I was getting paid, so I should be working. They were overusing me.

But, as a woman, sometimes you feel happy, and sometimes you feel sad. Sometimes people get along; at other times, they might argue with one another. Nobody is perfect: I'm not perfect, and my madame [employer] is not perfect. Sometimes she gets angry, and sometimes I get angry. Mostly, though, I have been okay here. There haven't been any problems. 

I told the man I didn’t want to work there anymore, and that I had to go. Even when I was tired and the woman asked me to do something, I would do it. I tried to do everything she wanted me to do, but she was never satisfied. And she also shouted at me. She never hit me. She did try once, but I didn't give her the chance to do so.

‘Back Home in Ghana’

I have a family back home in Ghana, but I'm not married. It's a long story. I was 14 when I lost my mother; she died following an illness. My father was lost without her. He couldn't take care of my brothers and me as she could. I was the only daughter in the family, and my mother left behind a two-year-old son when she died. So I took care of him like he was my child. I even took him with me to school. He cried a lot, but I didn't mind. If I didn't take care of him, no one else would have. 

As a young woman, I had to focus on raising my brother and also on completing my studies. I am not a privileged person. But, by the grace of God, I was an excellent student. My teachers knew how bright I was, so they moved me from class four to class six. It was a lot to handle. Unfortunately, I had to drop out of school to focus on my brother entirely. 

I would ordinarily go home straight after school. And when I wasn't studying, I would be with my brother. But when life became difficult for me, after I dropped out of school, I started going out with my friends, even though I am not the type of person who enjoys socializing.

I was just hanging out with my friends; I wasn't doing anything untoward. At the age of 18, however, I got pregnant by mistake. The man was my first ever partner; this was my first ever relationship. I was too scared to tell my family what was happening. I only told my auntie to begin with; I told my father afterward.

I've been through a lot, and my life has been difficult, but I thank God that I am okay. 

Four months after I gave birth, the baby girl's father, my partner, passed away unexpectedly. We don't know what happened to him. He went to play football one day, and he fell to the ground. They took him to the hospital, and he died. 

So from then on, I had to take care of my daughter, Priscilla, alone. I was a mother and a father at the same time. I had to work at various places to feed myself and my child. 

After my mother's burial, my father got married to another woman. That woman cared for me and my brothers so much. She was very strong. She was perfectly healthy; nothing was wrong with her. I woke up one morning, and she asked me to make breakfast for her. So I made her breakfast, and when I took it to her, I found her dead in her bed. No one knew what happened to her, either. 

That all happened in 2005. In that one year, I gave birth to my daughter Priscilla and lost my stepmother and partner. My grandmother also passed away in 2005. 

I made a promise to myself that year: I decided that I had to leave the past behind and focus on the present. I'm a strong woman, and my priority is to take care of my family and myself.  

"The Explosion Changed Everything"

I wasn't planning on moving back to Ghana before the explosion happened. The explosion changed everything.

One day, I woke up, and my tooth was very painful and bleeding. We cleaned the house together that day. We rearranged things, and we redecorated. The following day, I felt even more pain in my tooth. But I had to wake up early to prepare breakfast for the kids before they went to school. I woke up and I prepared breakfast, because I love the kids as if they are my own. So I had to wake up in severe pain to make breakfast for them. After the children left, I had nothing to do. As I had woken up at around 6:30 a.m, and the children left at about 7 a.m, I decided to go back to sleep until 9 a.m. This woman said, why are you going back to sleep again? I said, “oh please, I'm sorry, but there's nothing for me to do right now, and I'm feeling pain as well.” This woman and her mother were against me. They asked me why I wanted to sleep, and said I was very lazy -- that I am this, and I am that.  I tried talking to them. Besides, we had just tidied up the house the previous day; I didn’t even have any work to do. My madame’s mother came and threw my bags on the floor and said, “take your things and leave.” I said okay, because I realized maybe I would never feel comfortable there. So I agreed to go. I packed everything, but I needed the man to buy the plane ticket for me.

It was Tuesday, August 4. When I woke up that morning, I prepared breakfast and ate by myself. (My madame and the kids woke up at around 11). It was a typical day. Nothing was out of the ordinary. In the early afternoon, I prepared lunch for the family. I didn't eat with them, as I usually have lunch by myself later in the day. So at 4:30 p.m., I ate, and then I got back to work. My madame told me to come downstairs to play with the kids once I had finished my chores.

Agbakey says she loved her long hair, but doctors had to shave her head to stitch it. Karantina, Lebanon. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

Agbakey says she loved her long hair, but doctors had to shave her head to stitch it. Karantina, Lebanon. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

After cleaning the house, I headed to the balcony and put the mop there. While I was on the balcony, I heard an unfamiliar noise. I sensed something strange was happening, but I wasn't sure what. My madame started telling the kids to come inside. I was confused by the sounds. My mind didn't jump to any serious conclusions, though; I thought maybe a car was having a problem or something.  

Within minutes, everything started to shake. I had moved to the dining room at that point. Before I even realized what had happened, I fell to the ground. I couldn't move. Everything was shaking; the floor was shaking. But I couldn't move. I couldn't talk. I couldn't shout. I couldn't do anything. I was frozen. My head was spinning. I was thinking, what is happening? What is happening? My mind left my head and started drifting away from me. I forgot who I was. I was completely inert. 

When I came back to my senses, I realized I was bleeding from my head and hands. I could see blood everywhere, all over my clothes. I looked at my chest, which was also bleeding, and I was thinking, what on earth is happening? Every part of my body was bleeding. My eyes were swollen, and I couldn't see through one of them. 

The door and glass had broken on me. The force of the blast had also thrown a couch onto my body. While I was on the ground, I was pinned down by the couch. That is why I couldn't move. I had to remove the debris and wrangle my way out from under the couch, while every part of my body was bleeding. I was so confused. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to say or where to go. 

I started to shout, "madame! madame! Where are you?’ I made my way downstairs. Everyone was injured and crying. They were shocked when they saw me.

I couldn't talk at that moment. I was shedding blood and tears. I wasn't even wearing shoes; I was walking on glass. Everything was shattered; everywhere was destroyed. 

My injuries were severe. People were shouting, looking for a car to take us to the hospital, but it was utter chaos. My madame’s daughter and son had also been hurt, so she had to focus on taking them to hospital. 

When they left me during the explosion, I was standing in a pool of my own blood. They didn't take care of me. They were supposed to take me to the hospital with them. But at that moment, they couldn't care less about me, even though it was a life or death situation. They cared about themselves alone, and about their young daughter, of course. Yes, I agree that their daughter was hurt. But I was dying; I was dying. And they took themselves to the hospital without taking me with them. I was lying there bleeding at the roadside before an ambulance picked me up by chance. When the ambulance arrived, it took me to the hospital. Before I realized it, the medics gave me oxygen. But I don't know what would have happened if the ambulance didn’t pass by at that moment. 

Everybody was thinking about him or herself. They were thinking about themselves alone, even though I was the person who was severely injured. Look at my head, my face, my eyes, every part of my body was injured. I was in a pool of blood, and they couldn't help me or take me to the hospital. So my question is, if the ambulance did not come at that moment, what would have happened to me then? I would have died. I would have died.

At one point, I realized I was standing in a pool of my own blood. I could barely move. But I slowly walked to the roadside, and I lay down on the floor. I thought I was going to die and leave my daughter alone in this world. So I prayed to God. I said, if I die today, please take care of my daughter.

I was thirsty, so I shouted out for water. My madame's mother came to me. She was also injured, and she was crying. I always call her mama. So I said, "mama, mama, bring me mai. [water].” She said she would. She couldn't come back to me, though, because she was helping another person in the neighborhood who was dying. 

I started to think the end was near. I kept telling myself, "I am dying, it's over, this is the end of my life." The next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance. After I was treated at the hospital, the nurses asked who brought me there. I said I didn't know. I didn't have my phone on me; it was lost in the explosion. And I didn't even know who I was. I said, "I don't know who brought me, I don't know who I am, and I don't know where I'm going." So they had no idea how to help me. I asked them to let me stay.

A man at the hospital had brought his injured uncle there to be treated for wounds he sustained in the explosion. He offered to take care of me until my employer could find me. The Lebanese man, Osama, was very kind. He took me to his sister's place, and I spent the night there. They took care of me. The next day, on Wednesday, when I woke up, I realized I was still bleeding from my head. The woman who was hosting me called a doctor from a non-governmental organization; they took me to another hospital. While I was there, the medics also treated the wounds on my legs and feet.  

As we were leaving, I recalled a sign on a building that said "Unit for Living." I told Osama, and he managed to find the location on Google. But when we arrived, no one was in the area because of the sheer destruction. Eventually, though, my boss passed by the house, and I met him with an embrace. I told him, "I was dying; where were you?" I started to cry. He said, "Doris, thank God you are home, we looked for you, and you were nowhere to be found."

Though she’s leaving, Agbakey’s body will always bear the scars of the Beirut blast. Karantina, Beirut. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

Though she’s leaving, Agbakey’s body will always bear the scars of the Beirut blast. Karantina, Beirut. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

I didn't regain my memory fully until the third day after the explosion. I started to feel more and more uncomfortable as I remembered more and more details. Sitting here with you, with this construction work going on around us, I feel uncomfortable, because all of the noise makes me think it's going to happen again, at any moment. Sometimes I find it hard to sleep, because as I drift off, I remember what happened.

"Why Should I Stay?"

That is why I'm headed back home to Ghana. My boss lost his job during the economic crisis. The explosion destroyed his family business and his home. So why would I stay? What would the point be? There is nothing here. My family in Ghana think I'm working and getting paid every month. Meanwhile, my boss has no money to pay me. And now there isn't even any work to do; there is no house. When I decided to leave, a kind Lebanese woman offered to buy my plane ticket for me and a suitcase and other items I needed. 

Just before I left, after the explosion, generous people were donating things to my employers. Believe you me, they did not even introduce me to one person who might have been able to help me, to someone who might take pity on me or offer me assistance. They were not offering me anything that was donated to them.

I haven't yet told my daughter that I was injured. We usually video call. The first time we spoke since the explosion was just four days ago, and it was a phone call rather than a video call. She's only 15. When we spoke, she said she misses me and asked me when I would be coming back. My dad and my brothers already know this happened to me and that I’m returning to Ghana. But my daughter is a very emotional person. If I told her what I'm going through now, she wouldn’t handle it well. Maybe once I get home, and she sees me, she will be upset that this happened to me, but she will also be thankful that I am still alive.  

Before the explosion, I was comfortable in Lebanon. The coronavirus situation was challenging but still tolerable. But then the explosion happened. I frequently find myself thinking about the people who experienced tremendous loss. So many people are homeless now. So many people are helpless. Many are in the hospital. Many lost their loved ones. I have been thinking about all these things regularly. I pray that it will take Beirut only a few months to rise again. I pray that God will have mercy on Beirut, so that she can stand on her feet again, and so that everyone can move on smoothly.

I'm sad that I'm leaving Lebanon because I love the kids [I used to look after] so much. I wish I could be with them. When I first arrived at their home, I promised them that I would be here for five years before leaving for Ghana. I haven't even been with them for two years. So I am very, very sad that I'm going to leave them. The little girl said she wanted to come with me [to Ghana]. I told her, “don't worry, I will come back, I will come back in three or four months when everything calms down,” because I didn't want her to cry. I have lovely memories of the children. Sometimes, when I felt sad here in Lebanon, and when I missed my daughter, I would play with them, and they would make me feel better. They reminded me of my daughter. I felt comfortable with them. I love them. I love them so much.

Sometimes I felt I wasn't treated well. We're all human. When I make mistakes, I like to be told that what I did was not right. But I don't like to be shouted at. I'm the type of person who seeks harmony. If I hurt you somehow, I'd want you to tell me that I hurt you. Then I would apologize. I'd rather that, than be shouted at. When my madame yelled at me, I would lose my temper. I told her twice that if she yells at me again, I will leave this home. I wish she could speak to me like you are speaking to me now. I wish she could have spoken to me, one-on-one, as a woman, as the human being that I am. I prefer to be spoken to with respect to understand my mistakes and learn from them.

I wouldn't say I experienced racism here. I ate with the family: we sat together, talked together, and took pictures together. No one treated me like I was any different from them. It's not the same for everyone, I know that. I have friends who have told me stories about their terrible experiences here. But mine is different. The only problem I have experienced here in Lebanon, besides the explosion, is the shouting. 

The truth is they didn't treat me well, especially the woman. At one point, I thought she was racist, yes, but at others, I didn't. As a human, you sometimes think positive and you sometimes think negative. Before coming back home to Ghana, I was so upset, I wasn't very happy. When I remember everything that happened in Beirut, I ask myself what would have happened had I died at that moment? 

"Come Home; We'll Take Care of You"

I did struggle financially, though. I was only paid $200 a month, and that was not enough. I would save the money up and send it to Ghana every three to four months. But I haven't been paid for the past six months. That's $1,200 of unpaid wages. So I don't have any money now. I spoke to my employer (my madame’s husband), and he said he would try his best to give me $300 before I leave, and that he would send the rest later, when the situation calms down. I trust him. My employer does not see me as a helper. He told me I am like a sister to him. I understand that he is in a difficult financial situation because he lost his job and home. He is a friend to me. And we have a positive relationship. I have no problem with him sending me the money later. If it were anyone else, I would have asked to be paid before I leave.

I am now here in Ghana, with no money, and things are tough for me and my family. I am supposed to work and take care of them. My employers did not pay me my wages by the time I left. Out of $1,200 they owed me, they only gave me $300. And I used that $300 for a scan on my head, three days ago. [They found glass in my head]. I still have to pay a lot for other treatments. My legs are swollen. I can't even walk properly. My family needs to take care of me. Where am I going to get that kind of money for surgery? I don't know if my former employers will send the rest [of my wages]. They might have said that they will, but they still might not send it. I don’t know if they changed their minds. I don't know. Because I haven’t heard from him [my former boss] for a few days now. When I sent him “hi” [via text message], he did not reply even though I can see that he saw the message. And the woman didn't respond to a message I sent, either. So I think that they don't care about me.

Beirut, Lebanon. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

"I used to work as a chef in Ghana. I loved it. I love to cook. I used to make such good food." Karantina, Beirut. August 31, 2020. (Lynn Chaya/The Public Source)

I'm not sure what I will do when I get back to Ghana. When things turn around in Lebanon, I might come back for the children, but I might not. I have learned two things [with this family]: how to live with them, and how to cope with them. People can say they love you, but at times that love will turn to hatred. So I am not very sure. 

Regarding whether or not I’ll come back to Lebanon: hell no, I will not come back. I will never go back to Lebanon. I won't go back because that woman mistreated me. Even if I went to another house, there’s no way to know how they might treat me there, whether they will mistreat me or whether they will treat me like family. In one minute, they might be happy to laugh with me, in another, they might make me sad. Or they might be angry, or shout at me, whatever. When people are happy with me, I am happy with them. When they are not happy with me, I am alone. 

Before becoming a helper, I used to work as a chef in Ghana. I loved it. I love to cook. I used to make such good food. Banku with okra soup was my specialty. If I had the opportunity to go back to cooking for a living, I would, because that is what I love to do. I tried to like Lebanese food but it’s not as good as Ghanaian food! [laughs]. I might even open my own Ghanaian food business here in Lebanon, you never know! 

After arriving in Ghana, I will be staying in Accra for a while. I need to take care of my health before I head to my hometown, Tefle, to reunite with my daughter and father. I am still in pain. I need to continue treatment at a better hospital.

One of my brothers lives in Accra, so I will stay with him. His wife is amazing. She said, "come home; we will take care of you." So I am going home. She even asked me what time I'll be arriving at the airport so she can prepare a big meal for me. I can't wait.

Revision: On September 17, 2020, one of our readers, a friend of Doris Agbakey, brought to our attention that Agbakey's oral testimony given in Lebanon after the explosion, while faithfully transcribed by journalist Zahra Hankir, was not entirely representative of her experience. The sponsorship system (kafala) is designed to hold migrant domestic workers hostage and, in turn, their lives and livelihoods are reliant on the whims of their sponsor-employers. For many, their escape from Lebanon is dependent not only on the cooperation of their sponsors, but also their permission. Accordingly, these workers are forced, in an act of self-preservation, to do whatever is necessary to ensure a prompt and safe return home. When The Public Source learned of the new information, new ethical considerations surfaced and were immediately raised with journalist Zahra Hankir who tackled them head-on by promptly conducting a second interview with Agbakey. We debated whether to retract the already published testimony, or revise it with Agbakey's permission. We opted for the latter because we did not want to repeat the historical erasure of these experiences, and because our editorial decision-making process is collaborative and guided by the communities whose struggles we support. In this instance, Agbakey asked us explicitly to maintain her first testimony. This revision is an extension of our commitment to agitate against kafala; foreground the voices of political organizers and domestic workers; and critically expose the racist and social reproductive structures governing migrant labor. The following oral testimony remains as originally published. In red highlight, however, we added excerpts from a second testimony that Agbakey related to Hankir from the safety of her home in Ghana on September 17. The reader can perceive the discrepancies between the initial recounting of the story — by a woman chained by the sponsorship system — and a different recounting of the same story by the same woman after settling back in her country. We believe that, read side-by-side, these two layers convey the profound precarity and systematic violence exercised on the non-Lebanese working class in general and on migrant domestic workers in particular.


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