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Interview with Ethiopian Migrant & Filmmaker Rahel Zegeye

On October 2, 2011

Rahel Zegeye is a domestic worker in Lebanon, but that is not all she is: this is precisely the filmmaker's message in her rising film "Beirut," which delves into the personal lives of six fictional Ethiopian migrants. While Zegeye does not shy away from denunciating the severe mistreatment of migrant workers, her film approaches employer abuse as an issue within the broader female Ethiopian experience. As Rahel explains to the African Women in Cinema Blog, she presents migrant workers as individuals who encounter exploitation, but whose experiences reach beyond abuse - into love, moral challenges, and other life decisions.

Zegeye's approach humanizes the horrific experiences of domestic workers, transforming disenfranchised migrants from mere statistics into individuals who face remarkably relatable daily challenges. The characters in her film embody the totality of Ethiopian experiences in Lebanon, offering Ethiopians and Lebanese alike a new, comprehensive understanding of female migrant workers.

Rahel's own struggles as a domestic servant inspired "Beirut," which she wrote and filmed herself over a nine year period. She tells us more about herself and her film in our interview below. Special thanks to Alex from the Migrant Worker's Task Force for introducing Migrant-Rights to Rahel.

Could you please briefly introduce yourself to the audience of

My name is Rahel Zegeye, I am almost 32 years old. I was born in Ethopia, in a village called Faransay.

I studied Drama with the Save Your Generation group -a group fighting against the spreading of HIV-and also through participating in plays on the Ethiopian television, but this had to stop when I came to Lebanon to start working and helping hence my family financially. I have been in Lebanon for 10 years now.

What was your childhood like?

I had a normal childhood, but a poor one, as both my parents were unemployed. I grew in a big family with five sisters and four brothers; I was the fifth to come.

How did you manage to become a film maker and at the same time an activist for migrant workers in Lebanon? What was your driving power?

I started writing the script at night, seven years ago, and started filming only on Sundays -my days off- and this is why the filming took two years. I was driven by all the true stories I have witnessed, and still witnessing.

What has been your greatest challenge?

My biggest challenge is the lack of support from my own embassy. I tried showing the movie twice, to the old and the new responsibles, but with no reply whatsoever from their part.

Who is your film targeting?

The Ethiopian community. I want to teach them about what happens in Lebanon, and not teach them how to clean and mop. They need to be more aware of what is waiting for them when they decide to leave their countries. I want them to be careful. I am not addressing the Lebanese community, nor do I want to; no one listens anyway, and I am not here to change them.

Do you hear about migrant worker struggles in the Gulf region? If so, what is your typical resource for such news?

Rarely, if something huge is happening, I would hear about it on the TV. Always though, the bad actions of migrant workers are exaggerated, and the abuse the migrant workers face is not so publicized.

What are the solutions, in your opinion, to end migrant worker suffering? What are the roles of NGOs, online media and the workers themselves?

The NGOs and such should lobby within governments to impose strict laws. Many times, recruiting agencies bring people from Ethiopia through indirect routes (through Sudan, Yemen and such) and that has many consequences on them like sickness, rape and pregnancy. The Middle Eastern and Ethiopian governments should not issue visas to anyone, unless they know they are heading directly from Ethiopia to the other country. The Ethiopian government should also follow up on everyone leaving.

This work is not easy, and to accomplish that, working NGOs should have at least two people from each of the countries where Migrant Workers come from, to help them keep track of all of what is happening to the workers and to ensure all is going well.

What is the largest obstacle for migrant workers? The ignorance, absence of their home countries' presence, lack of effective laws, their sponsors and sponsorship system, recruiting agencies, or the disinterest of local governments and societies?

All of the above, sadly, have a hand in the misery of migrant workers. They often come, with no knowledge of Arabic nor English, being sold from an employer to another by the recruiting offices. The recruiting offices could not care less about the workers, and only care about making profit over our backs.

Many employers treat their employees very badly, denying them from their basic rights of salary, rest and days off. The embassy, to top it all, turns a blind eye to the community. They should keep track of all the workers and keep checking regularly -every six months maybe- on them, making sure they are well treated and getting paid.

Another big problem, is that when a Consulate is present instead of an embassy (like in the case of the Ethiopian consulate in Lebanon,) they keep running away from their responsibilities, under the pretext that they do not have such or such authority as a Consulate, and cannot do anything about anything.

What is the film's status now? We know of some of the circumstances involved with the film's distribution, could you tell us more about this issue? And is it available to buy/watch online?

We will soon start translating the movie "Beirut" into English, for it to hit a wider public. I am thinking of selling the movie soon, maybe it will have a chance in better publicity. I am starting on a new film now, working still on the script.

Who has inspired you in your life and influenced your work?

My dad has been a great influence and a role model in my life, he is a strong good-hearted man who has taught me the meaning of life and how to be kind to others. He has helped me a lot with my script, correcting and editing.

As for a famous character, I see Oprah as my role model, and I wish I can be an influential person like her. She is a very rich woman who wouldn't think twice before helping the people in need