November 25, 2020
From The Public Source (Lebanon)

Editor’s Note: Shortly after the August 4, 2020, explosion at the Port of Beirut, journalist Zahra Hankir and photographer Lynn Chaya started documenting the impact of the blast on some of the people living in the vicinity. Hankir spoke with survivors in Karantina, a long-neglected working class neighborhood. They recounted the trauma that has been haunting them, the feelings of desperation and rage, and their ongoing struggle to rebuild their lives. These testimonies, edited only for brevity and clarity, are published in a series titled “Forgotten Quarter: The Survivors of Karantina.” The Public Source commissioned one of these stories. 

“I prayed to God and said, if I die today, please take care of my daughter.” Doris Agbakey, 33. 

[T]here are details that I want to add to my story, now that I am in Ghana.

I’m Ghanaian, and I’ve lived in Lebanon since December 10, 2018. I initially worked at the home of a woman who I did not get along with. I decided at the time to leave Lebanon and go back to Ghana, as I was unhappy. But then I told myself that I would not give up. I had to work to make money. And no one was going to make me give up on what I was here [in Lebanon] for.

That is why I moved to Karantina. I called my agency and informed them that I wanted to relocate to another family home, and so they moved me here. I am happy with this family. I’ve been with them for a year and four months now. 

When I moved in, they took me in as family. But after three months, I started to experience some funny things from the woman. She treated me poorly sometimes. Once, she threw the food I was about to eat into the garbage. I had spent the day before that working and I was so tired. I didn’t even have an official start and end time for my work days. Sometimes, even if I was very tired, I had to work. Because, she would say, I was getting paid, so I should be working. They were overusing me.

But, as a woman, sometimes you feel happy, and sometimes you feel sad. Sometimes people get along; at other times, they might argue with one another. Nobody is perfect: I’m not perfect, and my madame [employer] is not perfect. Sometimes she gets angry, and sometimes I get angry. Mostly, though, I have been okay here. There haven’t been any problems. 

I told the man I didn’t want to work there anymore, and that I had to go. Even when I was tired and the woman asked me to do something, I would do it. I tried to do everything she wanted me to do, but she was never satisfied. And she also shouted at me. She never hit me. She did try once, but I didn’t give her the chance to do so.

‘Back Home in Ghana’

I have a family back home in Ghana, but I’m not married. It’s a long story. I was 14 when I lost my mother; she died following an illness. My father was lost without her. He couldn’t take care of my brothers and me as she could. I was the only daughter in the family, and my mother left behind a two-year-old son when she died. So I took care of him like he was my child. I even took him with me to school. He cried a lot, but I didn’t mind. If I didn’t take care of him, no one else would have. 

As a young woman, I had to focus on raising my brother and also on completing my studies. I am not a privileged person. But, by the grace of God, I was an excellent student. My teachers knew how bright I was, so they moved me from class four to class six. It was a lot to handle. Unfortunately, I had to drop out of school to focus on my brother entirely. 

I would ordinarily go home straight after school. And when I wasn’t studying, I would be with my brother. But when life became difficult for me, after I dropped out of school, I started going out with my friends, even though I am not the type of person who enjoys socializing.

I was just hanging out with my friends; I wasn’t doing anything untoward. At the age of 18, however, I got pregnant by mistake. The man was my first ever partner; this was my first ever relationship. I was too scared to tell my family what was happening. I only told my auntie to begin with; I told my father afterward.

I’ve been through a lot, and my life has been difficult, but I thank God that I am okay. 

Four months after I gave birth, the baby girl’s father, my partner, passed away unexpectedly. We don’t know what happened to him. He went to play football one day, and he fell to the ground. They took him to the hospital, and he died. 

So from then on, I had to take care of my daughter, Priscilla, alone. I was a mother and a father at the same time. I had to work at various places to feed myself and my child. 

After my mother’s burial, my father got married to another woman. That woman cared for me and my brothers so much. She was very strong. She was perfectly healthy; nothing was wrong with her. I woke up one morning, and she asked me to make breakfast for her. So I made her breakfast, and when I took it to her, I found her dead in her bed. No one knew what happened to her, either. 

That all happened in 2005. In that one year, I gave birth to my daughter Priscilla and lost my stepmother and partner. My grandmother also passed away in 2005. 

I made a promise to myself that year: I decided that I had to leave the past behind and focus on the present. I’m a strong woman, and my priority is to take care of my family and myself.  

“The Explosion Changed Everything”

I wasn’t planning on moving back to Ghana before the explosion happened. The explosion changed everything.

One day, I woke up, and my tooth was very painful and bleeding. We cleaned the house together that day. We rearranged things, and we redecorated. The following day, I felt even more pain in my tooth. But I had to wake up early to prepare breakfast for the kids before they went to school. I woke up and I prepared breakfast, because I love the kids as if they are my own. So I had to wake up in severe pain to make breakfast for them. After the children left, I had nothing to do. As I had woken up at around 6:30 a.m, and the children left at about 7 a.m, I decided to go back to sleep until 9 a.m. This woman said, why are you going back to sleep again? I said, “oh please, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing for me to do right now, and I’m feeling pain as well.” This woman and her mother were against me. They asked me why I wanted to sleep, and said I was very lazy — that I am this, and I am that.  I tried talking to them. Besides, we had just tidied up the house the previous day; I didn’t even have any work to do. My madame’s mother came and threw my bags on the floor and said, “take your things and leave.” I said okay, because I realized maybe I would never feel comfortable there. So I agreed to go. I packed everything, but I needed the man to buy the plane ticket for me.

It was Tuesday, August 4. When I woke up that morning, I prepared breakfast and ate by myself. (My madame and the kids woke up at around 11). It was a typical day. Nothing was out of the ordinary. In the early afternoon, I prepared lunch for the family. I didn’t eat with them, as I usually have lunch by myself later in the day. So at 4:30 p.m., I ate, and then I got back to work. My madame told me to come downstairs to play with the kids once I had finished my chores.