Lemesa Ejeta sniffed and cleared his throat but could not stop a tear from slipping down his cheek. His four-year-old daughter, Yabesira, had just run out of their mud-and-straw house to play, and it was as if he felt he could at last let go.
He struggled to describe the last time he saw his partner, Alem Dechasa Desisa, the 33-year-old mother of Yabesira and Tesfaye, 12. Alem left Ethiopia
in January to work as a maid in Lebanon; she apparently hanged herself in a hospital room after she was beaten on a street in Beirut, allegedly by a man linked to the recruiting agency that took her there
Alem's journey to a lonely death started in this one-room hut in Burayu, a bereft settlement outside Addis Ababa where mothers like her and fathers like Lemesa face a Herculean struggle to survive each day.
Alem was one of many women who defied an Ethiopian government ban to work as housemaids in Lebanon, hoping to make life better for their children. It was a heartbreaking choice to have to make.
Alem's case has lifted the lid on the plight of migrant workers in Lebanon, where human-rights groups say they are regularly abused. Human Rights Watch says one migrant worker dies each week in Lebanon from suicide or other causes. They have no legal protection, and this is why three years ago Ethiopia banned its nationals from travelling there to work.
Alem's beating, in late February, was broadcast by Lebanese TV in March and has been viewed by tens of thousands on YouTube. Newspapers and human-rights groups identified the man in the video as Ali Mahfouz, brother of the head of the recruiting agency. He has been charged with contributing to her suicide. He says the agency was trying to send her home because she had mental health problems.
The video showed Alem being dragged along the street outside the Ethiopian consulate. Her hair was pulled and she was bundled into a car. She was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital. A few days afterwards she apparently hanged herself.
In a statement
, Human Rights Watch quoted a social worker with Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre as saying that Alem first worked with a Lebanese family for a month but was returned to her agency because of communication problems. She did not get paid. Her second job only lasted a few days.
Alem allegedly told the social worker that a recruitment agent had beaten her and threatened to send her home. The statement also said she had previously tried to kill herself by drinking a cleaning product and by jumping from a car.
Ethiopia's consul general in Beirut estimates that there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Ethiopians living in Lebanon, 43,000 of them legally. Tigist Mengistu is among them.
"Alem never got any rest when she lived here," said Mengistu. "She was always cooking injera and trying to sell it on the streets. She went to the forest to collect wood and leaves for cooking."
Human Rights Watch and other groups have urged Lebanon to reform restrictive visa regulations and adopt a labour law on domestic work
. "[Alem's] death is an outrage on two levels – the violent treatment she endured and the absence of safeguards that could have prevented this tragedy," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and north African director at Human Rights Watch.