By Wissam al-Saliby*
In the spate of 12 days in October 2009, I read in the newspapers of the death – presumed suicide – of four migrant domestic workers. The workers were either Nepalese or Ethiopian.
Upon the fourth death, I went online and opened a blog that I depressingly (and without much thinking) titled: Ethiopian Suicides. I wanted it to sound like a necrology, with the purpose of highlighting the intolerable situation that many migrant domestic workers face. With time, my posts did not only cover cases of deaths or attempted or presumed suicides that I read in media. I relayed articles and news on the racism and slavery-like practices of which migrant domestic workers suffered, and on the work and role of various governmental bodies and non-governmental organizations. My blog equally relayed news of activism and advocacy for the rights of migrant domestic workers, and to reflect as much as possible the social life of migrant communities in Lebanon.
There is an estimate of 200,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. The sponsorship system controls their entry and residency. It legally ties each of them to their employer. This system was enacted by decision of the Lebanese General Security Office, and not by legislation in parliament. It is prone to abuse, gives too much power to the employer and to employment agencies, and is cited as a primary cause for human rights violations of migrant domestic workers.
In the past 3 years, my blogging mainly addressed the work of human rights and grassroots activist organizations, including my own activism. During this period, I grew to understand the important role of the Church in supporting migrant workers in Lebanon.
Every Sunday, domestic workers from many nationalities are spotted on the streets and in taxis going to church, moving in small groups, some covered in a white cloth. Churches are evangelical, catholic or orthodox, and are usually exclusive to their respective nationalities. Earlier this month in my own church, we shared the bread and wine in communion together with a group of Sri Lankan workers. But, we only convened for communion at the end of each of our respective services. In summer 2012, both Lebanese and Sri Lankans were baptized together. Aimée, the Malagasy actor in a short YouTube advocacy film I made in 2010, was studying theology in Beirut and leading church services for Malagasy domestic workers.
In years of activism, I grew to see the church as the only space where Lebanese and migrant workers are truly reconciled – where Lebanese demonstrate the brotherly love that is in Christ. No matter how many citizen organizations attempt to put an end to Lebanese racism, the Bible stands out with a towering message: “You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
On a practical level, churches present a sustainable institution for supporting the migrant worker community, whereas non-governmental organizations rely on project based donor funding. Churches offer their premises for meetings and large gatherings of migrant community members. In the aftermath of the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane in January 2010, the mass attended by hundreds of Ethiopian women in the Catholic Church in Badaro (Beirut) was a moment of recollection and an opportunity for the Ethiopian consul to address his citizens. Furthermore, Caritas, the Catholic relief and development organization, has a big migrant assistance program, and runs safe houses in coordination with the Lebanese General Security Office.
This said, I would say that the picture is not at all perfect. Brotherly love needs additional effort that not all Christians are making, or are even aware that they should be making. Strong cultural and social-behavioral differences between Lebanese and the domestic worker, especially those from African countries, often lead to conflict in households hosting domestic workers. One illustration is the difference in interpersonal communication between Lebanese and African, namely Ethiopian. When I met with the Ethiopian consul in Beirut several years ago, he said that in his briefing to newcomer Ethiopian domestic workers he explains that that Lebanese are vocal and their high voices should not be interpreted as a sign of aggressiveness, as in Ethiopian culture. But the fact that Ethiopians and other African nationalities would interpret common Lebanese communication (gestures, facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice) as hostile and aggressive is not common knowledge among Lebanese.
Middle East Conference 2013
In June 2013, the Institute of Middle East Studies will hold its 10th annual conference titled “Your Rights & My Responsibilities: Biblical and Islamic Perspectives on Human Rights”. The conference will include panels on human trafficking and on the situation facing domestic workers in Lebanon and the Middle East. I look forward to the debates during this conference, and to answering the following question: What behavioral obligations do Islam and Christianity impose on families hosting domestic workers? And consequently, how should the sponsorship system be reformed – i.e. how do we turn values and faith obligations into government policies? Beyond brotherly love, would Biblical and Islamic values be able to draw common policies respectful of human rights for migrant workers? Would Biblical and Islamic values be able to find common ground to address freedom of movement, freedom to quit work, working hours, monthly pay and working conditions of migrant domestic workers?
* Wissam al-Saliby is the new Development and Partner Relations Manager at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) and is actively involved with IMES. He has significant experience as a trainer and advocate for human rights and humanitarian causes in Lebanon and the Middle East, and runs a blog titled “Ethiopian Suicides” on migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.