By Ashley al-Saliby
How long has it been since anyone has really seen her?
I can’t help but wonder her name and her story as I navigate the sidewalk parallel to the one she’s traveling, both of us with market bags in hand. I’m new here, and by “here” I mean new to my neighborhood, new to this country, new to married life. Everything and everyone are being taken in with sometimes frantic, always curious, eyes and mind that are trying to understand, categorize, evaluate, and make sense of all the “newness.” And so, as I seek to absorb all the data, I can’t stop watching her.
By her I mean the countless migrant, domestic workers doing their chores or errands or childcare or pet care in my neighborhood and all over Beirut. Maybe I feel a connection with them, a desire to know them and understand their stories, because we have something important in common. They and I clearly aren’t from around here, and that’s a kind of significant sisterhood. But, most likely, my eyes keep following them because of the realities my husband has described about the plight many of them face. Not all, but too many, are mistreated by employers. Wages and passports are withheld. Physical and sexual abuse take place. The hopes that led them to migrate here for work quickly dissolve. Some reach a level of despair and desperation that lead to suicide. And so my heart wants to connect with theirs. I want to know their names, their fears, their dreams for the future.
From the beginnings of understanding I’m gathering, migrant domestic workers here seem too often to be victims not only of cruel abuse and injustice but, more pervasively, a widespread dismissal and disdain rooted in a timeless lie: the superiority any group ever feels towards any other group, with various invented criteria fueling the same ugly tendency the world over.
Sometimes it’s a baseless sense of superiority that causes one group of human beings to dismiss another, to deny the value of others, to deem them as less-than. But sometimes the response is stronger. Sometimes the reality is hatred, and the root is often fear. I believe this to be the case with another woman that I grieve to know is often unseen. In Texas I have a sweet friend, a veiled woman who taught me so much more than the language lessons that first brought us together, who has expressed that although she immigrated thirteen years ago from the part of the world I now call home to the place where I grew up, she has never had a friend there. People draw back from her, as she observes it. They don’t want to know her, to listen to her, or to understand.
And so, whether it’s a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, or a Muslim immigrant in Texas, I’m struck by the fact that prejudice and hatred always exist in broad strokes and generalizations, and usually from a fearful distance. Love, however, only really takes place up close. We love one heart and one story at a time.
Baseless superiority and fearful hatred come so naturally to human beings, though. It’s our default mode, our go-to attitude toward those who are different, those we don’t understand, or those we think might be a threat. What’s the remedy?
Let’s pause. There was a woman, millennia ago, who was seen. I love the story. It’s rich with truth revealed not only about her, but about the One who saw her. She was trembling, rejected, and alone after fleeing mistreatment. And after the encounter with our Maker that the Old Testament records, her response was a stunning, “I have seen the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). It’s similar to another encounter, between another invisible woman and “God-with-us,” Jesus of Nazareth. This woman, hesitant and desperate, likely expected the disapproval or at least the dismissal of Jesus that she would have been accustomed to receiving from others. But God-with-us stopped the crowd to see her, to know her, and to refer to her with an honoring title, “Daughter” (Mark 5:24-34).
In light of the beauty of these recorded encounters, we should ask some questions of ourselves. In cultures where it is so common (which is all of them), how does hatred become past tense in human hearts? How does our foolish sense of superiority become exposed and then eroded away?
The Bible makes unmistakeably clear that it isn’t through moral reform or positive peer pressure that the needed change will come. Our fears run too deep. The self-deception about our superiority has been too effective. The beginning of the end of our hatred and superiority comes as we, first, encounter the God who sees us, the Redeemer of individual broken ones, the Reconciler of individuals who are distant from Him. If it’s true that hatred and prejudice take place from a distance and with generalizations, but that love happens one human being at a time, we learn this best from God’s interactions with us. We can only be described as those who were “once… hating one another” when we first, transformatively encounter God in His unexpected “loving kindness” (Titus 3:3-5). We begin to “consider others better than ourselves,” those of another ethnic background, another socio-economic class, another religion we don’t understand or fear, when we first watch the One who stooped humbly to serve and save us (Philippians 2:3-5). The cause-and-effect pattern in these passages is clear. Encountering this “great love,” (Ephesians 2:4), hate-filled hearts are transformed, because love is finally enabled in us, by His grace, that is stronger than the fear that fuels hatred (Ephesians 5:1-2). Encountering the Humble Savior, haughty hearts like mine and yours learn to see ourselves and others as we are: individually made in the image of God, individually in need of redemption, individually sought by the Redeemer.
Where defaulting to condescending generalizations and broad-stroke, seething prejudice are the norm, let’s begin to look with love into one set of valuable, God-crafted eyes at a time, learn one name at a time, and hear one story at a time. I believe it will happen as, one by one, we first see the God who sees us. He is Jesus, God-with-us, who saw the invisible. His eyes are full of redemption. He redeems us from, among other things, the individual pride and fear that combine to create cultures plagued with them.
Ashley is married to Wissam al-Saliby, ABTS Partnerships Manager, and is a recent transplant to Beirut. Currently, she is prayerfully considering how to serve Jesus in the Arab world in this new season of life.