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How the Kenyan consulate in Lebanon became feared by the women it was meant to help

Editor's Note: (CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series.)

Beirut, Lebanon — A deep sense of fear descended over Gloria as she stepped off the bustling street into her country's consulate. Weeks earlier, she said, she paid the honorary consul $1,500 saved up over five years laboring as a domestic worker to help her return to Kenya. He was asking for more money, she said, and she braced herself to confront him.

"Good morning, sir," she said. "I've come to take back my money."

A slap across the face is what Gloria said she received in response. Followed by a struggle. Between her and the consul.

"They started pushing me and beating me and I also pushed them," Gloria told her cousin in the immediate aftermath. "They called me a whore. They cursed my sister and they told me to eat sh*t."

A glass door panel shattered from the impact of her body hitting it and her face was soaked after the consul poured water from a plastic cup on her, she told CNN.

CNN compiled the details of Gloria's alleged assault from interviews with her, testimony from a source with knowledge of the consulate, voice memos she sent shortly after as well as an account from a family member she confided in following the confrontation at the consulate in November 2019.

Gloria, an undocumented migrant worker, is one of seven women who say they were exploited or physically assaulted by Kenya's Honorary Consul in Lebanon, Sayed Chalouhi, and his assistant Kassem Jaber, both Lebanese nationals.

Another domestic worker, Linda, told CNN that Chalouhi suggested she do sex work to save up for her repatriation fees -- and that when she instead turned to cleaning his office for money, he refused to pay her. Georgina said she was repeatedly pressured by the consul to pursue sex work -- and that she was exploited for cash.

Melinda, who also alleged physical abuse at the consulate, said she spent three years saving up over $1,000 in fees, only to have the funds withheld from her. When Tracy asked the consulate to facilitate her repatriation, they inflated the cost by $550 and refused to begin the process until she covered the payment. Two other domestic workers, Elizabeth and Lisa, also said they were overcharged.

Throughout this report, Kenyan women have been identified by pseudonyms for their security.

CNN has also seen details of other Kenyan domestic workers' cases compiled as part of an investigation by a Beirut-based migrant rights group, the Anti-Racism Movement, which allege exploitation at the consulate. Two local recruitment agents -- who work with domestic workers in the city -- told CNN they were aware of overcharging. One of them alleged that Chalouhi was "running the consulate like a business."

The accounts paint a picture of a Kenyan consulate in Lebanon that grossly neglects its country's largely female group of expats, regularly overcharging them for essential consular fees and acting with impunity as they physically and verbally punish women who try to call out their abuses of power.

Jaber, the assistant consul, denied all allegations of wrongdoing at the consulate.

"We never overcharge any girl," Jaber told CNN by phone, insisting that the consulate had helped hundreds of vulnerable Kenyan women in Lebanon.

"...everything is monitored by the consul himself so that no one will harm or insult any Kenyan girl, because we have a very good reputation here in Lebanon. No one will try to spoil our name," he said, adding that there were security cameras in the consulate, though he indicated that he did not have the tapes for the November 2019 incident.

He also sent CNN a number of videos by WhatsApp -- filmed on a cell phone -- of unidentified Kenyan women thanking him, Chalouhi and the consulate for helping them, as well as some screenshotted conversations of women expressing their gratitude by text message.

"(Kenyan women) are afraid from the consulate and I don't know why," he said. "When they reach the consulate, we can protect them. We are here to help them. We are not asking anything in return. We are ready to do whatever it takes to help them."

Chalouhi did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

Chalouhi is Kenya's official representative in Lebanon, though he is not a Kenyan citizen, nor a career diplomat. A Lebanese lawyer, he was appointed by Nairobi to lead the country's diplomatic mission.

The consulate is tasked with the protection of over 1,000 Kenyan domestic workers -- mostly women -- sponsored to be in the country under the controversial Kefala system, a form of indentured servitude which ties the woman's immigration/residency status to a live-in work contract.

An exterior view of the Kenyan consulate in Beirut.

Abuse is common in live-in contractual domestic work. Nearly every month, reports of a domestic worker's sexual assault, torture and sometimes suspected murder surface on Lebanon's social media and international media.

Abusive employers are almost never punished and women who opt to exit work contracts join the ranks of tens of thousands of "illegal" migrants, fending for themselves in an underground existence, rife with harassment and violence, rights group say.

These women rely heavily on their countries' diplomatic missions for protection from imprisonment and to open a path for them to return home. Many of these missions -- largely African and East and South Asian -- fall short.

In a studio apartment on the outskirts of Beirut, five Kenyan women gather around a plastic table. The rumble of an adjacent motorway reverberates through the room.

Temperatures in the city have been boosted by a heatwave. Inside the 9 by 9 ft room, it's blisteringly hot.

"My phone rings 24/7 with calls from Kenyan women," said Linda, a Kenyan domestic worker community organizer. "They need food. They need answers."

"I tell you we are passing through hell here," said another Kenyan woman, Beth, in a deadpan voice. She holds up a medical mask smudged with lipstick. "I've been wearing this for days because I can't afford to buy another one."

Linda can't offer her friends food -- she doesn't have any to give -- so they fill up glasses at the water dispenser every few minutes. The women say they are becoming accustomed to pangs of hunger.

"On the outside, I look healthy, but on the inside I'm burning slowly," said Linda. "All I want is tea, but I can't afford milk."

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been in the throes of one of the worst economic meltdowns in its history. Food prices have soared and unemployment has ballooned. Poverty rates have risen to over 50%

Many Lebanese families have deserted their live-in domestic workers, leaving them homeless and hungry.

Related: Thousands of women are trapped in Lebanon. They risk jail time to leave

Those domestic workers who continue to be employed struggle to send money to their families back home because the country's currency has tanked, losing most of its value. Covid-19 has compounded the effects of the crisis.

Plummeting earnings have prompted migrant workers -- many of whom previously endured abuse in order to financially support their families with remittances -- to seek repatriation in droves.

Diplomatic missions act as key intermediaries in this process by clearing legal hurdles for the women with the country's main security agency. It's a position the consulate of Kenya is accused of exploiting, exacerbating the Kenyan community's hardship by inflating payments made to clear legal hurdles on their path to return.

Rights group ARM said it has been told about alleged exploitation at the consulate by at least 50 Kenyans.

"For many years, we've received reports from Kenyan women about their experiences in facing exploitation from the consul and the consulate," said a caseworker leading the probe into the consulate at ARM.

"I have not seen such systemic reports of exploitation, of cajoling people to do sex work and of physical abuse at this level," added the caseworker, who did not want to be named for security reasons.

Gloria -- who confronted the honorary consul -- alleges that during her encounter with him and amid a barrage of insults, the consul suggested she "go outside and find money ... find a man."

"He told me, if you are saying you don't have money, you are a woman, you can go outside and find money," Gloria said. "He told me you can get money. You can find a man."

"I say what? You are a lawyer ... why are you telling me this?" Gloria recalled. "I said or maybe he's joking. And no, he wasn't joking."

CNN has spoken to four other women who say they witnessed Chalouhi encourage Kenyan women to pursue sex in order to cover their repatriation expenses.

Those expenses, which cover flight fees and the Lebanese penalties incurred during time spent as undocumented workers, appear to be systematically inflated, according to evidence and testimony seen by ARM and CNN.

Commenting on Gloria's case, the Beirut assistant consul Jaber claimed that the Kenyan domestic worker was "screaming" in the consulate after being denied a refund for money which had already paid at the country's immigration services, allowing for her repatriation.

In denying allegations of overcharging women for their repatriation, Jaber said that the consulate adheres to Lebanon's standard repatriation procedures. The diplomatic mission, he said, receives money from Kenyan women while the women and Kenyan diplomats are at Lebanon's immigration services, giving the sums directly to the country's authorities.

Immigration officials receive money for a migrant worker's penalties only after they have cleared legal hurdles for her repatriation. This normally happens days before the migrant departs to their country.

That process, Jaber said, meant that the women could not have been overcharged by the consulate.

However, CNN has seen receipts in the names of Kenyan women for money they say was paid to the consulate. Gloria's $1,500 sum was paid in two installments in September 2019, according to the receipts, two months before the confrontation at the consulate.

Kenya's Honorary Consul Sayed Chalouhi.

Jaber said that Kenyan women sometimes "ask the consul to keep the money in the consulate."

"They come and they have their salaries and they don't want to send it back home so ask the consul to keep the money in the consulate," said Jaber. "When they want to travel or they want to send it back to Kenya, they will come and they will withdraw it from the consulate."

"But for repatriation now, no one has even paid a penny. No one," said Jaber.

The testimony CNN has heard paints a different picture.

More than ten women CNN spoke to said the consulate regularly refused to begin a woman's repatriation process until the consulate had received a fee. Consulate officials say the fees cover legal penalties and flight expenses.

They allege that payments to the consulate have been withheld and are based on incorrect calculations.

The consulate fees significantly delay Kenyan women's repatriations to their home country, sometimes by years, because of the excess money allegedly sought.

Kenyan women rarely report the alleged overcharging to police, fearing harassment or arrest because of their undocumented status.

Like Gloria, Kenyan domestic worker Melinda said she was abused at the consulate. Melinda told CNN that assistant consul Jaber physically pushed her out of the consulate office suite onto the building's corridor on one visit in January when she accused him of withholding over $1,000 which she had paid in repatriation fees.

Jaber denies ever physically assaulting a Kenyan woman at the consulate.

Melinda said she had been saving the money for three years. She remains in Lebanon at the time of writing, earning less than $15 a week.

"(Jaber) pushed me by the neck to the door," Melinda told CNN. "Every time I went to the office he fought with me. Now I don't go to the office because I'm afraid of him."

This April, a group of Kenyan migrants wrote a letter to the country's embassy in Kuwait accusing the honorary consul of abuse, gross neglect and coercion to perform sex work and overcharging for consular services.

"Over the past ten years, Honorary Consul Mr. Sayed El Chalouhi has encouraged a culture of exploitation and extortion at the Kenyan consulate in Lebanon," the letter stated.

"We call for ... the removal of Honorary Consul Mr. Sayed El Chalouhi from his post and replacement with a diplomatic representative who will honestly, effectively, and respectfully represent the needs of Kenyans in Lebanon, specifically migrant domestic workers."

In its response to the letter, dated May 18 and seen by CNN, Kenya's embassy in Kuwait said the complaints "have been noted and propose that as the (coronavirus) lockdown is lifted and airports resume operations, the Ambassador and her team will visit Lebanon and hold a meeting with the Kenya community to resolve some of the issues."

In a statement to CNN, Kenya's Ambassador to Kuwait, Halima Mohamud said: "The Embassy is in constant communication with the Consulate in Beirut as well as Kenyans in Lebanon. The two institutions work committedly and tirelessly to enhance the welfare of Kenyans in Lebanon.

"Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have affected economies including job losses. I am aware that some Kenyans in Beirut have lost their livelihoods but the Embassy and the Consulate, within their operational mandate, are doing their best to assist.

"The Honorary Consul diligently attends to a variety of consular matters related to Kenyans in Beirut."

For nearly all of Lebanon's migrant communities, the path to repatriation is difficult. Many of these communities also claim to suffer neglect from their consulates.

This month, scores of Ethiopian migrant women camped outside the Ethiopian consulate after they said they were deserted by employers who refused to pay their salaries or pay for their flight back home. For weeks, the Ethiopian consulate refused to let them through their doors. The consulate came under pressure from activists and media attention and eventually registered hundreds for repatriation.

The Ethiopian consulate has not responded to CNN's request for comment.

Meanwhile, rights groups are piling pressure on diplomatic missions and their home countries.

"Countries of origin must place oversight on their embassies and consulates to make sure their citizens aren't treated as cash cows for remittance, but are treated as human beings," said ARM's caseworker. "With the exception of a few countries, they're seen as cash cows."

Gloria's confrontation at the consulate eventually led to her being detained. Gloria said Chalouhi called law enforcement to arrest her which Jaber denied.

"(The police) came to the consulate and unfortunately we couldn't do anything," Jaber told CNN.

"(The police) found out that she's illegal and she was accused for prostitution and she has two cases against her, one was a runaway (from her employer) case and the other was stealing."

However, a police source who reviewed Gloria's case file told CNN that the Kenyan woman did not face prostitution, theft or runaway charges. They said she was transferred to an immigration detention center because of her undocumented status and later deported.

It is also unlikely that police would have entered the consulate without the consul's permission. According to the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, state authorities cannot enter a consulate or embassy unless the head of the diplomatic mission has given them permission to do so.

"For sure the police cannot go into a consulate without the agreement of the consul. We have no right to do so," said the police source. "Of course we did not force ourselves in (to the Kenyan consulate). What was it, a terrorist act?"

"We don't want to cause an international problem," said the source. International law considers consular premises "inviolable."

Gloria had spent years saving money to avoid jail-time, but after her alleged assault, she felt none of the suffering that captivity had in store could compare to the abuse she already endured.

"I just want to go to prison and then go home," she said, her voice choked with tears in the voice memos she sent her cousin before she was jailed. "I don't want to go back to the consulate or go outside and start suffering again."

"I'm tired of Lebanon."

She was deported from Lebanon after three weeks in detention. Since then, Gloria has secured another job in an Arab Gulf country. But she said she still thinks about the altercation at the embassy.

"I was thinking about it too much when I left Lebanon," Gloria said. "I thought, what happened to me? What happened to this man?"

"He is our consul. He should help us when we go there."

CNN's Bethlehem Feleke in Nairobi and Blathnaid Healy contributed to this report.