Ethiopian air crash shines light on lives of migrant workers


The woman from the small Ethiopian village of Nazareth was never content to toil in the shadows as a maid or nanny, one of the thousands of poor migrant workers who make their way to Lebanon from Asia or Africa.

Over the last decade, Tigist Tadess Woldemariam tried hard to set down roots here, winning the adoration of the family that hired her, becoming a respected member of her church and earning the loyalty of her friends.

And it was that love and unflinching trust of friends that compounded the tragedy of her death when her jetliner crashed into the Mediterranean Sea last week on her first trip back to Ethiopia in seven years.

Aboard the doomed Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409, the 41-year-old carried not only her belongings, but also the labors and dreams of fellow Ethiopians who had entrusted her with envelopes full of cash, precious bundles of jewelry and carefully wrapped gifts to take back home.

“She was like a sister, more than that even,” said Genet Ylimia, a 26-year-old Ethiopian who shared a room with Woldemariam. “She cared about everyone. Whatever you needed, she helped you out with.”

The crash of Flight 409 during a ferocious storm has sent shock waves of grief throughout this small country of 4 million. More than 50 of the 90 passengers and crew were Lebanese.

But also among the passengers were Woldemariam and 22 other Ethiopians on their way to their homeland. Their deaths shined a brief light on the often anonymous lives of African and Asian migrant workers in the Middle East, many of whom live in cramped quarters, lack basic legal rights and face economic exploitation.

Friends say Woldemariam tried to forge a different path for herself in Lebanon. She cultivated ties to the Ethiopians in her community and to the country where she worked.

At a teary ceremony Sunday at her evangelical Christian church, friends and her employers, the Talhouk family, mourned her amid her portraits placed along the walls.

Woldemariam came from humble origins in Nazareth, 60 miles from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Her relatives worked for a small shop belonging to the Talhouks’ previous maid, who recommended her to the French-Lebanese family about 10 years ago.

She immediately connected with the Talhouks. Their Francophonic daughter, 13-year-old Lea, practiced her English with Woldemariam, who also taught her words and songs in Amharic, the official Ethiopian language.

As a cook, she tried to invent new dishes for the Talhouks, who are vegetarians. “When she cooked and cleaned, she put her whole heart into it,” said Sandrine Talhouk, the family matron.

At the Ethiopian Evangelical Church in the Badaro district of Beirut, Woldemariam served as a mentor to the younger domestic workers. “She was soft, kind . . . a lovely person,” said pastor Elias Wolde. “She had a kind heart. She always gave people advice on life and spirituality.”

Not only did Woldemariam send money home to her family, but she also gave donations to orphanages and charities in Ethiopia, despite her circumstances.

And she had a dream, said Lidet Tadese, 27, another of her friends. She was one of a group of Ethiopian women in Beirut saving money to launch a farming project in her homeland to provide jobs for fellow Ethiopians and a future for herself.

Her friends and employers said Woldemariam was thrilled to be going back to Ethiopia on a two-month visit for her brother’s wedding. “She lived her last 10 days in total joy,” Sandrine Talhouk said.

Friends at the church entrusted her with thousands of dollars in cash and valuables to take to their families. One gave her an envelope with $1,200, a year’s savings for a migrant domestic worker. Another handed her gold she had bought during her years abroad.

Hours before the Talhouks’ driver took her to the terminal, Woldemariam made one last batch of vegetarian lasagna for the family, which they ate together.

“We cried even then,” Sandrine Talhouk said.

Addis Ababa-bound Flight 409 crashed into the sea minutes after it took off from Beirut’s international airport about 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 25. All passengers aboard are presumed to have perished.

As of Tuesday, the flight data and voice recorders had yet to be recovered.

Tadese said she had planned to call her friend once Woldemariam landed in Addis Ababa.

“I wanted to talk to her to see if she got home safely,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Now I make special prayers for her.”

Sandels is a special correspondent.