Aline Deschamps tells the stories of women escaping the abusive modern slavery system of kafala

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A Life After Kafala © Aline Deschamps

This article is printed in the upcoming issue of British Journal of Photography: Money+Power. Sign up for an 1854 subscription to receive it at your door. 

Following those who have endured years of domestic servitude in the Middle East, A Life After Kafala unearths tales of strength and resilience as exploited workers return to their homeland and families

A Life After Kafala © Aline Deschamps

Standing in a field of tall grass, Lucy Turay holds her six-year-old son, Patou. Her expression is relaxed yet focused on the path ahead. Patou looks at the camera, but his face is in shadow, drawing our attention to the casual way he wraps his limbs around his mother’s hips. To an outsider, Patou’s body might look precarious – shoes dangling off his feet while he leans back, sitting low on Turay’s spine – but their bodies effortlessly coalesce. Despite a two-year separation, they return to each other, changed by events but not by the passage of time.

Like many of the images in Aline Deschamps’ latest series, A Life After Kafala (2022), the photograph lays bare the nuances of familial relationships – particularly the extremes a mother will endure in service of their child. Turay had just given birth to her second child when she was groomed by human traffickers who promised her a teaching role in Lebanon with double the salary if she signed up to kafala. Like many mothers caught in the system, Turay understood the opportunity to be a short-term sacrifice to grant her children a future of freedom and independence that would otherwise be out of reach.

For decades, kafala has propped up local economies in the Middle East by recruiting migrant workers and placing them in conditions that are woefully paid, unsafe and – in some cases – deadly. Extortion begins in the home country, where families rack up considerable debt for their wives and daughters to enter the system, assuming that kafala is an opportunity for professional growth and financial security. This fee, around $800, is just the beginning of a constant value chain where traffickers extract money from workers at multiple points until the women reach their destination.

Then, in the host country, the life of a migrant worker is tied to their kafeel (sponsor), who controls their legal residency status in exchange for wages, food and board. It is common for sponsors to withhold workers’ passports, even if the worker wants to leave their job, as a power play to keep the individual trapped in the system. If their relationship breaks down, access to justice is beyond reach for the worker, rendering them undocumented, homeless and unable to return home.

A Life After Kafala © Aline Deschamps

“These women were caught in limbo; they had no idea they could return home one day. Their only string of hope was their kids.”

Aline Deschamps

Once Turay arrived in Beirut, she was trapped in an endless cycle of domestic servitude. She went months unpaid, her phone was confiscated, leaving her with no way to communicate with her family. One of her employers even tried to electrocute her. When she returned to her sponsor, desperate for help, they sequestered her for days without food or water, eventually forcing her into another employer’s house before she escaped to live on the street. Simultaneously, her husband cut ties, losing hope after months of no communication that his wife would ever return. Turay had unknowingly entered a world of profound suffering and disempowerment, and the only thing keeping her alive was a duty to survive for the sake of her children.

Tragically, Turay’s story is not an isolated incident. Every woman Deschamps met had their own horror story under kafala. And yet, despite the growing pressure on governments to reform the system – described by critics as ‘modern slavery’ – it continues to be a financially lucrative industry that serves public and private interests. “In Lebanon, migrant domestic workers compensate for the lack of infrastructure – but it’s also a social status,” Deschamps explains. “It’s not just a luxury of the elite – it transcends all classes. Postwar, many Lebanese wanted to show their status with aspirational things, and migrant domestic workers were part of that.”   

Deschamps, who is French-Thai and lives in Beirut, first met Turay in spring 2020. They were introduced at a small safe house in Tariq el Jdide, a southern district of Beirut, where 15 Sierra Leonean women, who had all escaped abusive working conditions, were living together, grappling with varying mental and physical trauma. The situation was made more desperate by a global pandemic and Lebanon’s economic collapse. “Three years ago, many of these women were on the brink of suicide,” Deschamps explains about her early encounter with the group. “These women were caught in limbo; they had no idea they could return home one day. Their only string of hope was their kids.”

“Repatriation doesn’t mean reintegration or freedom at all. On the contrary, there are a lot of challenges”

-Aline Deschamps

Show of strength

Slow, nuanced storytelling that destabilises a single subject is the creative force of Deschamps’ work as a photographer. Her approach – which combines images and text made in collaboration with her sitters – brings multiple voices together, enabling many interpretations and perspectives to surface. In I Am Not Your Animal (2020), Deschamps’ previous body of work, she made intimate portraits of Turay and the group of women documenting their strength, resilience and newfound sisterhood. The images, presented with handwritten letters from the women to their families, offer a nuanced and reflective portrait of their lives – a sharp contrast to the one-dimensional victim narrative pervasive in the global news cycle.

A Life After Kafala continues to examine the consequences of human trafficking; this time Deschamps documents the women as they return home and attempt to reintegrate into society after years of entrapment. Contrary to their families’ expectations, the women come back penniless after much unspeakable abuse, only to encounter rejection from the loved ones they left behind. Escaping the kafala system and returning home should be the ultimate resolution for migrant domestic workers. Instead, for many women, it marks the beginning of a set of new challenges to regain the trust of their families.

“Repatriation doesn’t mean reintegration or freedom at all,” Deschamps says. “On the contrary, there are a lot of challenges. Over half the women coming back face some rejection. Suppose they don’t get a reintegration package [typically $1,500, skills training and emotional support]. In that case, some women don’t return to their village because of the weight of shame and guilt of returning empty-handed.” Even for women who secure support, the reality of coming home is bittersweet. “For some, their families don’t believe they were not paid for their labour, publicly branding them as liars. Others believe the women saved the money and didn’t want to share it. They are marginalised in the Middle East and come home and face it again.”

A Life After Kafala ©Aline Deschamps
A Life After Kafala © Aline Deschamps
A Life After Kafala ©Aline Deschamps

Turay, who now speaks out against human trafficking at conferences worldwide, is intent on helping women return home to their families and themselves. Upon her return, she founded Domestic Workers Advocacy Network (DoWAN), a support hub for survivors that includes group counselling and professional skill workshops, to help ease the transition back into the community.

“DoWAN is trying to make a home away from home for these women,” explains Deschamps, who visited the office in March 2022. “Turay also raises awareness of kafala by setting up anti-trafficking protests in the markets that brokers use to recruit. By gathering survivors together, standing up and raising their voices, they are reversing the power dynamic – refusing to live in fear of these men anymore. On the contrary, these brokers should be afraid of them as they are helping save other women from their brutal trap.”

While Turay is an outlier in all she has achieved since returning home, she still faces complex challenges in Sierra Leone. Her bond with her son Patou remains strong, but her daughter Ugyatu, who was one year old when she left, no longer recognises her and considers Turay’s auntie as her mother. This is a reality Turay has had to accept, with the knowledge that one day, when Ugyatu is older and can understand, she will share her story.

A Life After Kafala ©Aline Deschamps
A Life After Kafala © Aline Deschamps

“I want this project to be a message of hope that incredible support systems are emerging and important work is being done”

–  Aline Deschamps

The paradox of motherhood – the life-defining collision of extreme love and devotion with great desperation and compromise – underpins the entire project. Deschamps presents contemplative portraits of each woman, pictured alone or with their children, rerooting them in their community. Interspersed are moving letters written by the children to their mothers, unravelling their unseen struggle navigating life without knowing if or when their parents might return.

“Since starting this project, I wanted to document the latent violence we don’t see,” Deschamps says. “I always envisioned it as an epistolary exchange. By juxtaposing their family’s letters with images of their daily life, the project highlights their connection to their homeland, the resilience found in exile, and the incredible bond of motherhood which enabled sacrifices despite the distance.”

For many of the women Deschamps collaborated with, coming home is an opportunity to heal themselves and their relationships with loved ones. And yet, some women, mired in stigma, migrate again, holding on to the hope that the experience will be different this time. “I came to Sierra Leone with the expectation that this journey had come full circle – yet the reality is much harder,” says Deschamps, who is now planning to document these new roads of migration. “And yet, I want this project to be a message of hope that incredible support systems are emerging and important work is being done. There is life after kafala.” 

Gem Fletcher

Gem Fletcher is a freelance writer who contributes to publications such as Aperture, Foam, The Guardian, Creative Review, It’s Nice That and An0ther. She is the host of The Messy Truth podcast - a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today. You can follow her on Instagram @gemfletcher