Friday, March 16, 2012

Maid in Lebanon

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She screams, she begs, she cries. The man grabs her by the hair and drags her towards his car.

Passersby stop and watch. But no one protests. No one reacts. No one intervenes.

The scene takes place in broad daylight, in front of the Ethiopian Embassy in Beirut. The abused woman is Ethiopian. She’s a domestic worker. A maid.

One of the bystanders records the whole thing on his mobile phone. Then sends the video to a TV network. In the evening, the shocking scene makes the news. The next day, it’s all over the web, on Youtube, on Facebook, on Twitter. People are outraged. Everyone repeats the same words: shameful, unbearable, unacceptable. The government calls for an investigation. The code of silence is finally broken. The wound is now exposed for everyone to see.

There are nearly 200 000 domestic workers in Lebanon. They come from the Philippines, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, to clean our toilets, sweep our floors, iron our shirts, buy our groceries, and raise our kids.

Unfortunately, many of them never return home. Not because they enjoy Lebanon, its joie de vivre, its hummus and its tabbuleh, and dream of growing old under the blissful shade of its olive trees, but because they die.

A Human Rights Watch study shows that their mortality rate is alarming.

Some frightening numbers: out of the 95 domestic workers who died between January 1997 and August 1998, 40 committed suicide, 24 fell accidentally from the balconies of apartments they tried to flee, and 2 were plainly murdered.

The following years were not less terrible.

Given the situation, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Nepal and Madagascar, banned their citizens from working in Lebanon. But many keep on coming, fleeing the extreme poverty plaguing their country.

As did, perhaps, the young woman weeping on the sidewalk, beaten, bruised, humiliated.

On Saturday night, a local TV station organized a debate on the issue. The guest star was the "wakeel", the sponsor, the owner of the placement agency through which the Ethiopian woman was recruited.

Obviously, she was not there to testify, to share her version of events.

They said she had psychological problems. And the use of force was the only way to control her. But who made this decision? Based on what? Was she seen by a doctor? By a psychologist? By a psychiatrist? Where is she now? What’s her story? What’s her name?

At the end of the show, the presenter announced that the network received an overwhelming number of calls during the debate. He said that most of these calls denounced the mistreatment of Lebanese employers BY their foreign “maids”!

Visibly shocked by this obscene show of hypocrisy and lack of human decency, the presenter choked with shame.

Of course, one should never generalize. Not all Lebanese are pigs, and not all domestic workers are abused. But for those who are, those who can only see salvation in death, who have been denied the right to be treated like human beings, we have the duty to speak out. The duty to act.

Because if we don’t, can we honestly claim to defend human rights in Lebanon and in the Arab world?

The young woman committed suicide on March 14, 2012. Her name was Alem Dechasa.

She was 33.

© Claude El Khal, 2012