Why you should care

Because this sponsorship system can be a form of modern-day slavery.

When Sanjaya Bholan heard about the organization This Is Lebanon, he sent a message to its Facebook page pleading for help. Dipendra Uprety answered back the same day in August 2017.

Bholan explained that his niece Sonam Maktan had left her remote village in Nepal in 2007 to work as a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon. Her employers locked her in a house in the mountains and told her they had lost her passport. When Maktan was home alone, she would secretly call Bholan and tell him she wanted to return to Nepal.

Uprety, a fellow Nepal native, promised to contact Maktan’s employers and lobby for her release. He tried to persuade them for weeks, but they didn’t give in until he called them out publicly on Facebook. The pressure worked. On Oct. 26, 2017, Maktan boarded a plane back to Nepal.

“This Is Lebanon is very powerful,” says Bholan, speaking from Nepal in broken English. “Our government couldn’t help us rescue Sonam, but Uprety did.”

As the face of This Is Lebanon, Uprety has named and shamed powerful Lebanese families and negotiated the release of 41 women in the past two years. The 39-year-old says he coordinates with a network of anonymous activists — in Lebanon and abroad — to rescue migrant domestic workers who are trapped in their employers’ homes. He also seeks financial reparations on their behalf.

I don’t want revenge. I want justice.

Dipendra Uprety

Migrant workers in Lebanon are recruited under a system known in Arabic as kafala (sponsorship). This system allows low-skilled workers from surrounding regions to work in Arab countries for higher wages than they would have earned back home. But kafala also ties the legal status of migrant workers to their employers, who have total control over their employees. Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers, with most coming from the Philippines, Bangladesh and Ethiopia.

Rights campaigners say the kafala system amounts to modern-day slavery. It enables such systemic and harrowing abuse that Lebanese authorities estimate that two migrant workers die each week from “unnatural causes” — probably murder or suicide.

Uprety, a former migrant worker, has personally experienced the restrictions of the kafala system. He first left Nepal for Lebanon in 1998 so that he could afford to put his two younger siblings in school. He arrived in Beirut through a recruiter who was also his legal sponsor. But after his first three months in Beirut, Uprety’s recruiter forced him to cough up all his earnings to renew his visa.

The extortion continued until Uprety decided to approach the police for help in 2002. But when he entered the station, he was arrested for not having legal papers. Uprety stayed six months in a detention center. He wasn’t released until a Lebanese pastor from his church bribed the recruiter to drop the charges before finding another person to sponsor Uprety.

When he was released, Uprety began working as a chef in Beirut’s prestigious Phoenicia Hotel. He also became a high-profile activist in the migrant community and an honorary assistant to the Nepalese consul. He was tasked with alerting the consulate of Nepalese domestic workers who were trapped and abused in their employers’ homes.

The work put Uprety’s family in danger. In August 2012, traffickers called and threatened his wife, who is also a Nepalese activist. The incident compelled Uprety to use his status at the Nepalese Embassy to secure tourist visas to Canada. He, his wife and their one-year-old child applied for protection in Canada in 2012, which they were finally granted in August 2018.

By then, This Is Lebanon had already been operating for more than a year. Uprety and other activists launched the site in May 2017 after concluding that neither embassies nor law enforcement could rescue migrant domestic workers. The only alternative was to take matters into their own hands.

Uprety and his wife continue to help migrant domestic workers from afar in Toronto — where Uprety works in a restaurant — but not everyone agrees with their tactics. Gino Raidy, a Lebanese activist and blogger, says while the goals of This Is Lebanon are admirable, it shouldn’t demand money from abusive employers. “It opens them up to accusations of extortion,” Raidy says. “If money is owed, there are some NGOs in Lebanon that can help out.”

Farah Salka, co-founder of the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon, on the other hand, says that without fair alternatives, naming and shaming employers is the only way to get justice, accountability and compensation for workers. “This Is Lebanon has succeeded in raising the visibility and voice of migrant domestic workers more in one year than all other NGOs have in 10 years,” she says. “For that, it earns my respect.”

Uprety, a stocky and cheerful man, insists that if employers claim to have paid what they owe, he requests receipts of the remittances that the employee has sent back home. He adds that he resorts to public shaming only as a last resort. In most cases, he negotiates the release of women who are working beyond the length of their contract and without pay. “I don’t want revenge,” he says calmly. “I want justice.”

For years, the Lebanese government defended kafala. But Lebanon’s new labor minister, Camille Abousleiman, vowed in March to get rid of the system. Critics still blast This Is Lebanon for smearing the reputation of Lebanese people, but Uprety says employers always claim to be the victim — yet he’s never heard of any Lebanese being jailed for abusing migrant workers. He will not take down his site, he says, until Lebanon takes down kafala.

OZY’s 5 Questions With Dipendra Uprety

  • What’s the last book you read? Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.
  • What do you worry about? I am always worrying about vulnerable people because money, power and status allow certain people to commit injustice with impunity.
  • What can’t you live without? We can’t live without air and water.
  • Who is your hero? My wife.
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To create an awareness campaign among vulnerable people so that their inalienable rights will not be taken away by the human traffickers.

Read more: She’s bringing Mexico City’s domestic workers out of the shadows.

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