“Change starts in your mind”: How Tsehay Berhane found an alternative to migration

May 8, 2018

Migrants – mostly women – account for more than 80 per cent of domestic workers in the Arab states, which is the highest percentage globally.


Tsehay Berhane*, 31, is the proud owner of two hair salons in Ethiopia’s capital. She is constantly on the move looking around for towels to fold, hair rollers to fix and litter to dispose of.

She is one of nearly 1,400 former migrant domestic workers, trained by an EU-funded ILO programme on re-integration of returnees.

However, her radiant smile hides the ordeal she suffered when she decided to migrate for work to Beirut 14 years ago. “I decided to leave when I was still a high school student. Most of my friends at the time left for work in Arab countries. I wanted to follow their example and support my family,” she explains.

An agency put the then 17-year-old girl in touch with a family who hired her as a domestic worker. She gradually picked up some Arabic and ended up speaking the language well. As she developed more skills and learned to cook, her salary increased from US$100 at the start to US$300 a month. So she could make her dream of supporting her family come true by sending back home as much as she could save.

When the conflict between Israel and Lebanon worsened, displacing many people, things also changed for Berhane. She had to leave the family for whom she had been working for five years and return to Ethiopia. She had to take a bus to Syria since Beirut airport was prone to bomb attacks. Along with many others, she spent three nights on the Syrian border before she was able to return to her home country.

Back in Ethiopia, she stayed with her family for two months before she decided to migrate for work again. She found an agent who sent her to Dubai, where she worked for a large family.

“Every time I took the trash out, I would come across Ethiopian domestic workers. They would call on me from the buildings and tell me they were hungry. I packed leftover food and hid it in the trash to give it to those women. Since their employers locked them in, I asked them to throw a rope to which I would tie the bag of food. So they pulled up the rope and took the food,” she recalls. After a year, worn out by the workload, Berhane escaped from her employers.

She joined other Ethiopian domestic workers who had also managed to flee from their employers who were living in flats rented by a fellow Ethiopian, each of them paying their share of the rent.

Eventually, she found a new and better paid job. Berhane even enjoyed time off every two weeks.

The only challenge she faced was having to play hide and seek with the police, as she did not have legal documentation. Once she had a chance to rent her own flat, she started taking in Ethiopian women who had nowhere to go. In the end, Berhane had 60 women living under her roof. She quit her job as a domestic worker and lived from her earnings as a “landlord” while ensuring that her tenants found jobs.

“I would take them to potential employers and pretend to be an agent. I would inform the employers that I would follow up if any problem arose,” she remembers. Things went on like this for three years when police raided the house to arrest Berhane and 20 other Ethiopian migrants living with her.

“The women who were at work that night were spared. The rest of us were taken to jail,” she remembers. After being released, she decided to return to Ethiopia once and for all. When she arrived at Addis Abeba airport, she had nothing but the clothes she wore. So she had to ask her family to pay for the taxi that picked her up from the airport.

The turning point

Back home, she learned about an ILO training programme providing support to migrant returnees through a local NGO named Women in Self Employment (WISE) . The training was part of a wider ILO programme financed by the European Union. “At first, the training did not seem to be of use. Some of my friends who registered with me quit the training and attempted to go to Sudan. Sadly, the bus they were on had an accident and they lost their lives.” After a pause, she continues: “I did not take the trainers seriously when they told us that any progress depends on your mindset. But, I continued with the skills and entrepreneurship training.”

She took another training course to become a hairdresser and finally opened a small hair salon. Not long after, Berhane won two contests for entrepreneurship and creativity launched by the ILO-supported project and used the prize money to invest in her business. Today, she owns two salons employing four people. The next step for the ambitious young entrepreneur is to take a loan and open up a bakery.

“They were right, change starts in your mind. Nothing compares to working in your own country. Now I can put money aside and I know which way I am headed.”

According to Aida Awel, Chief Technical Advisor, the final independent evaluation of the first phase of the programme which has now entered phase two, highlighted a number of major achievements:

“The programme not only changed the mindset and awareness of government officials and communities. Among others, it has led to the strengthening of anti-trafficking measures, the establishment of standardized employment contracts for migrant workers, the creation of six Migrant Resource Centres which help potential migrants to make an informed decision on whether to migrate or not, and the development of a web-based Ethiopian Migrants Data Management System which will help to better administer records on workers leaving the country and on returning migrants.”

Berhane is one of 1,062 returnees who now earn an income from self-or wage employment – the programme originally targeted 1,397 migrants returning from the Middle East and Sudan.


*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the migrant worker.