Mary Grace Bongao worked for Ibtissam Alsaadi and her family for 11 months. In this time she was physically, psychologically and sexually abused by the family.
Left the Philippines to Support Her Family
Mother & Sons; Family of Abusers
See Mary Grace tell the story of the abuse by Ibtissam Alsaadi and her sons.
Mary Grace Bongao was 20 years old when she arrived in Lebanon on 6 January, 2006. She left behind her family in Manila, Philippines, to start a job as a domestic worker to help support them.
Mary Grace Bongao worked for Ibtissam Alsaadi and Ali AlKhatib for 11 months before escaping on the day they were moving house. She alleges that she was was sexually abused by her employer’s adult sons, Muhammad and Alaaddein. She worked day and night for Ibtissam Alsaadi, who locked her into her bedroom at night, and psychologically abused Mary Grace in multiple ways.
During her enslavement, Mary Grace considered suicide as a result of the abuse she suffered. Thirteen years later, she is still traumatised. The Alsaadi-AlKhatib family still owes Mary Grace five months salary.
Upon arrival in Lebanon, Mary Grace’s new employer Ibtissam Alsaadi met her at Beirut airport and took her to the employment agency where she stayed for one night. Ibtissam took away all her documents, including her passport and a copy of the contract Mary Grace had made for herself. In Manila, she had signed a contract agreeing to a salary of $200 per month. However, upon arrival in Beirut she was told to sign a new contract, stating her salary was $150. “They told me to sign it, but I’m thinking why is it different from the contract I read before,” she says. “I refused to sign, but they told me to sign it. I signed because I was afraid. Everything was confusing and I was scared about what would happen.”
The next day, Ibtissam took Mary Grace to her house to begin work. Her first impressions of Ibtissam were not favourable: “I am not comfortable when I first saw her. I don’t see her as friendly, she don’t even greet me in the airport. She just took me and let me ride in the car.”
The evening of her arrival at their home, Ibtissam gave Mary Grace some food, and then sent her to her room, which she locked until the morning. “She brought me in my room and locked me [inside]. And opened the next morning,” says Mary Grace. “I sleep in my little room, on the floor with only a blanket.
Mary Grace quickly realised that things were very wrong in the Alsaadi-AlKhatib household. “In my first month in their house, I feel uncomfortable because they are not treating me well and they always call me bad words without reason. They always call me in Arabic – stupid, khara [shit], khariye [piece of shit], behimey [a living creature without a brain]..”
Every day she was woken at 5.30am to begin work, with only coffee for breakfast, and lunch at 4.30pm. Sometimes she wasn’t given any dinner, and she worked until 11 or 12 at night. The only break she had was when she ate her lunch. “They gave me food twice a day, sometimes once. I’m taking bread because I’m hungry,” she says.
Every morning Ibtissam Alsaadi would make Lebanese coffee in separate pots for her husband Ali and for Mary Grace. This was only the beginning of what was to come for Mary Grace. She explains: “I saw her putting pink liquid into her husband’s pot of coffee. I asked what it was. She told me it’s for her husband because he has another girl from Sudan. And she cried, and asked me for sympathy.”
Mary Grace alleges that one day Ibtissam asked her to fetch something from the living room whilst she made Mary Grace’s coffee. She turned around to see Ibtissam pouring the same pink liquid into her own coffee cup. “She gave me a cup of coffee with this liquid, same as her husband. I poured it out directly in the sink. I stopped drinking the coffee she’s giving me.” She became very afraid to drink anything, suspecting that her employer was trying to poison her.
Ibtissam’s behaviour continued to get stranger and stranger. “The next thing, she’s telling me to scatter old ashes under the carpet, near the elevator by the front door,” says Mary Grace. One day whilst cleaning her room, Mary Grace found ashes under her own bed. Ibtissam would ask her to disperse ashes regularly under the carpet and near the elevator, adding to her already large workload. And presumably, it was yet another way to control Mary Grace and to ensure that she remained afraid, and submissive and obedient.
“I’m still holding the trauma of those 11 months” “I’m still not healed from now. I start shaking when they open the topic about it.” - Mary Grace
In July 2006, a 34-day war began between Lebanon and Israel. The Embassy of the Philippines assembled all Filipino nationals in Lebanon at the Embassy during this time. However, Ibtissam, whose family background was Syrian, took Mary grace to Syria. They stayed there for three months. According to Ibtissam’s Facebook profile, she has three siblings who live in Damascus.
Mary Grace’s life in Syria was harder than in Beirut. “In Syria, her house is three stories and I am cleaning it all by myself. I am cleaning her sister’s house and her son Muhammad’s house also.” She was not remunerated for all the additional work she was made to do. After the war, Ibtissam brought her back to Lebanon.
Ibtissam commits more venomous acts to control her employee
Mary Grace recounts how one day Ibtissam took her to a male hairdresser in a bizarre act of spite, under the guise that she was taking her for a regular haircut. Upon arrival, she was surprised to arrive at a men’s hair salon. The barber made her stand on a chair, and he cut her waist-long hair into a short, man’s style. “I was so sad, even in this little thing which she steal from me,” she says. Ibtissam then told her: “It’s ok, because your hair is not good and we must make [cut] it.” Back at her employer’s house, all the children began to tease her about her new haircut. She began to question why her employer was trying to hurt her and control her. “She slapped me like she want to kill me,” says Mary Grace, in tears.
Mary Grace had limited contact with Ibtissam’s husband Ali AlKhatib. Once he asked her to prepare some food for him, but she was often told by one of the five children to avoid Ali. “Whenever he was coming, they told me, go to the balcony. I waited there, even in winter when it was freezing. I had to just wait there standing until they told me mister went away.”
Ibtissam’s sons sexually abuse Mary Grace
Ibtissam and Ali have five children: Muhammad, Alaaddein, Kinda, Sarah and Amir. Like their mother, they abused Mary Grace to different degrees. In her testimony, Mary Grace describes her suffering at their hands.
The eldest son, Muhammad, would frequently ask Mary Grace to bring tubs of water to the bathroom while he was showering. He would be fully naked. The first time it happened, he called her back to the bathroom after she had gone to the kitchen, in shock. “I’m scared, I don’t know what to do, I don't know what he will do to me and nobody is at home.” Kinda returned home and asked what the pot of water was for, and Mary Grace explained that Mohammad had asked her to bring the water to him while he showered.
Mary Grace says that Alaaddein, the second son, sexually and physically abused her. “Alaa is so cruel. He would ask me to find his glasses, quickly. And he would grab a wooden chair, gonna hit me [if she didn’t get them quickly enough].” Then one day, things took a turn for the worse. When the house was empty, he decided to prey on Mary Grace. “My madam, she is not around, he come out of the kitchen and he sees that nobody is in the house and he goes back to his room and shouts ‘Mary, come, bring me a glass of water.’ Then he told me to come near and lay on his bed. And he started to touch my body and told me ‘I will teach you how to make massage’. He touched my back and my private parts, and then I started to cry and I said, please, no sir.”
Mary Grace is visibly very distressed and crying as she recounts her abuse. She left the room but Alaaddein called her back in. “He told me to press his body, and he said ‘don’t ever write it down in a letter for your family in the Philippines’. After this incident, he continued to verbally abuse Mary Grace and threaten her. “He started to be cruel to me, like he wants to hit me, and he’s a very big guy. I was afraid he might hurt me or I might get paralysed,” she says. She describes how Alaaddein constantly bullied her, threw footballs at her and hit her with hangers.
Other Filipino workers in neighbouring houses would communicate with Mary Grace by passing her notes telling her about the family and its previous workers. The notes recounted how a former employee, Norcia, was also abused by the family. They also locked her inside the house, alone, or with Alaaddein. Whilst cleaning, Mary Grace once came across Norcia’s medical papers, and saw that she had had broken joints. Mary Grace was frightened; what had happened to Norcia whilst working for the family? Her thoughts turned to suicide as a way to escape her employers. “I thought about drinking medicine to die as quickly as possible, and heal this trauma,” she says.
Mary Grace’s parents would sometimes try to call her employer’s home. She says she wasn't allowed to contact her family and her employers didn’t send home her salary regularly. To this day, she is owed five months of her salary. She only realised after she left that her family had been writing her letters which her employers had prevented her from seeing. Mary Grace’s family had also not received any of the letters she had written them. It was yet another malicious act to ensure Mary Grace remained under their control.
Mary Grace escapes her enslavement
Mary Grace finally managed to escape the clutches of the Alsaadi-AlKhatib family on the day they were moving apartments. It was 10am, and Ibtissam was busy talking on the phone, and Alaaddein was asleep. She tried the main door, and for once it wasn’t locked. She quickly gathered her papers, her contract and a photocopy of her passport, and left the house. “I walked down the stairs from the fourth floor, and after that I ran.”
She flagged down a taxi, and begged the driver to help her get to the Embassy of the Philippines. She told him she was being abused by her employers. “He told me, come, we will find it for you. He asked every shop where the embassy was. When I saw the flag of the Philippines, I cried because I was so happy. When I tried to pay the driver with the coins I had in my pocket, he refused, and said ‘god will give it to me.’”
Two days later, Ibtissam came to the embassy to try to get her employee back. She even went so far as to hire a Filipno woman to attempt to lure Mary Grace back, with the promise of $500, a day off every weekend, a salary increase, and a new phone and sim card. Mary Grace refused flat out. The next day, Ibtissam’s husband Ali AlKhatib came to the embassy. “He told me, come back to me, come to our house. I’ll give you food from my hands to your mouth.” When Mary Grace refused to come back with him, he told her: “Hear me, you’re a hemara (donkey) and a fool.”
After her stay at the embassy, Mary Grace was taken to NGO Caritas. Yet again, Ibtissam attempted to get her slave back. This time she came alone. “She wanted to take me. She told me, I can let you work for another family but you need to pay me $5,000.” Mary Grace was advised by the embassy that she had two options: be deported to the Philippines, or find a new employer. She decided on the latter, and worked part time for UN workers. “They treat me well, they are helpful and kind. I work for Swiss, Croatian and Portuguese, Spanish, Irish..”
Each time the embassy and Caritas contacted Ibtissam Alsaadi, she insisted that her former employee had to pay her $5,000 before she could release her from the contract. Mary Grace continued to work in Lebanon, and in 2013 she filed a complaint through Caritas, and was allocated a lawyer who contacted Ibtissam Alsaadi on her behalf. But Ibtissam was still asking for $5,000.
Meanwhile, Mary Grace was following the case of Halima, her successor who was enslaved and abused by Ibtissam Alsaadi and her family for a decade. She questioned why the staff of the Embassy of the Philippines had met the Alsaadi-AlKhatib family in a restaurant in Raouche, and not at the embassy.
In April 2017, Mary Grace heard that staff changes had taken place at the Embassy of the Philippines, so she decided to try her luck once more. She filed a second complaint, and requested to return home to the Philippines. Mary Grace paid a $2,200 penalty to Ibtissam Alsaadi in return for her papers. At the embassy, she says she encountered many women in similar situations to her own. “There were a lot of other runaways, same as me with different employers but nearly the same experience as me. Maltreatment, lack of food, no salary, even lack of room in the house. They’re asking also for justice.”
She ends her testimony with thanks, and a warning: “I invite you, please don’t go to Lebanon. I know there is still good employers there but I heard a lot of people who are still there and suffering. You are lucky if you survive. You need to be strong. If you still continue [to go to Lebanon], please be brave and don’t let anyone put you down. We are human and we are the ones who can stop human slavery and trafficking.
“I want justice for the Alsaadi-AlKhatib family. I want them to be in jail and be punished by law, and be banned from taking any house maid from any country. I want justice for the damage they did to me and Halima.”
These are the abusers and those who looked onto Mary Grace's abuse and chose to participate or help Ibtisaam Saadi cover it up.
“I’m still holding the trauma of those 11 months” - Mary Grace
A serial abuser, slave owner and psychopath. Psychologically and physically abused her employees. Kept Halima as a slave for ten years.
Of Syrian origin, with at least three family members still in Damascus. Has tried, unsuccessfully, to run as a member of parliament in Lebanon since 2004, for the Sunni parliamentary seat in the district of Baalbek and Hermel. Ibtissam Alsaadi is known for being closely connected to Lebanon’s political elite. She has previously been photographed with President Michel Aoun, as well as high-ranking leaders of the Maronite church.
She has a degree and background in political science, and has been active in social work for the past two decades. She has previously expressed that she believes that women should participate in elections and democratic battles in order to reach their representation in the best way.
Despite her alleged extensive abuse of her own employees, Ibtissam’s name was put forward as a potential Minister for Women in the new Lebanese government, formed in early 2019.
“My career in charity work continues without greed for a high position” - from Ibtissam's campaign poster.
"Entering the political arena should not be limited to men; men and women share all life decisions, so why not extend the sharing to political decisions, developmental work and services."
THE REST OF THE GROUP
The eldest son. Sexually harassed Mary Grace by exposing himself naked to her whilst in the shower, and asking her to bring him tubs of water. His former employee Teplaits, an Ethiopian national, died under suspicious circumstances whilst working for him. Halima alleges that Muhammad abused Teplaits and that she died at the hands of her employer. Muhammed allegedly brought Halima to his house so she could act as a false witness, if necessary, in the police investigation.
The second son. Sexually and physically abused Mary Grace. “He told me to come near and lay on his bed. And he started to touch my body and told me ‘I will teach you how to make massage’. He touched my back and my private parts, and then I started to cry and I said, please, no sir.” Former employee Halima also alleges that he physically abused her. She says he fractured her arm when he hit her with a piece of wood.
The youngest son. He sent This Is Lebanon abusive messages after we exposed the family as slave owners. “You are a big son of a bitch bc your [sic] a big fucking lieyer [sic]. I swear to god if you’re beside me right I would tear u into ashes u big lieyer [sic].” Has previously posted photos of himself on social media, depicted with guns.
Ibtissam’s husband. Mary Grace saw him infrequently. According to Mary Grace, Ibtissam told her that she was essentially estranged from her husband due to his extra marital affair with a Sudanese girl. When Mary Grace took refuge at the Embassy of the Philippines, Ali came back to try to convince her to return as a slave to the household. “Hear me, you’re a hemara (donkey) and a fool,” he told her.