“We are not racists, but”
This article was written by Farah Salka, director of the Anti Racim Movement (ARM) and of the Migrant Community Center. A shorter version appeared in L’Orient-Le Jour under the title of ‘Racisme : Libanais, il est temps de regarder notre barbarie en face!‘. It was originally published on Tuesday June 26th, 2018.
Update: since this article was written, one of the Kenyan women assaulted is now being threatened with deportation from Lebanon.
Lebanon was once known as a lovely, small country with much proximity between its snowy mountains and warm sea. Today, it is known for quite a longer list of things: hard xenophobia against Palestinian and Syrian refugees, a horrendous sponsorship (Kafala) system, a long history of mistreatment of hundreds of thousands of migrants, a spate of suicides among domestic workers and a knack for brushing off its racism problem like it doesn’t exist. Lebanon is currently also known for an almost-extinct ski season, and an irreversibly polluted sea. Given all the above, we are currently in a bad place, that’s for sure.
Last Sunday the 17th, in the afternoon, two Kenyan women were violently assaulted on the streets of Beirut by a mob of at least 20 men. Rose* had bought Shayla* shoes as a present and they planned to have fish for dinner so they met at a store in Bourj Hammoud, bought their stuff and headed home to celebrate, minding their very own business and only wishing for a happy and relaxing end of week. Shayla, could have expected everything on this birthday but not precisely that. As they walked home, a maniac car driver, who also happens to hold a military post, decided to play funny, with his family in the car, purposefully turned the steering wheel towards them acting as though he would hit them, and he did. So, one woman pushes the other, and they fall to the street with the bags and the shoes. Standing up, and requesting an explanation for why he would do that to them as they mind their own business on a peaceful Sunday, his arrogant reply would be that he is in his country and he gets to do whatever he feels like doing, without being questioned. Such profound Lebanese hospitality towards migrant women of color.
It didn’t take long before the driver got out of his vehicle and started hitting the two women, followed by support from the men in the street, and his wife too. The beating continued for two hours, people either watched, or participated in the street assault. One after the other, they took turns humiliating the two Kenyan bodies until the police arrived and took them to the police station. And by them, I mean the two women who were beaten. One week later, the women have been moved to the Adlieh General Security detention center, and they still have not seen a doctor, their bruises still intact, blood still boiling.
This is not the first time such an incident happens in Lebanon, but some incidents make it to the internet and the public and most others don’t. There is not enough space on the internet for all these incidents. And to think for a second, that we need to be grateful for this brave act from this bystander, who took a short video, as opposed to any other action on scene.
Let me add one thing: it is also common practice in Lebanon these days that footage of such importance is put on sale. You want it, you buy it. If friends of these women weren’t indirectly informed that this video existed, as mere minimal proof of the monstrosity they had endured in plain sight, and if they hadn’t paid for it by sending the guy a money transfer in order to receive it and post it online, none of us would have known about this at all and the women would most likely have been already forcibly deported back to Kenya.
Last year, a similar incident happened in Bourj Hammoud, where an African couple with a baby infant, where assaulted by their neighbors who didn’t want no Africans in their building, although they weren’t even the owners of the apartment. The Nigerian-Kenyan couple with their baby daughter endured a lot of bullying from their uncivilized neighbors, things like: not being allowed access to the shared kitchen on the ground floor, having dangerous material thrown onto their small balcony from the floor above, house door broken into, amongst a series of similar acts of intense violence. Then a day comes where the neighbors attack the baby girl, calling her all sort of unthinkable insults, hit the mother, and pull out the dreadlocks pieces from the hair of the father. Next comes the police which orders the victims to evacuate the house immediately. People on the street don’t take action, the police doesn’t take action, the apartment owner doesn’t take action, and the only clear action that was very much set in stone was that this small family had to leave the house immediately, with 48-hours’ notice, so as not to ‘risk any further danger’ on themselves. Thanks to the solidarity of many who read this story, the family was supported into relocating to a different house in the area, but justice wasn’t close to be found. They soon left Lebanon and this is the memory that will remain with them from this country.
Sudanese men often share their experiences waiting for an elevator, being there first, then a Lebanese person arrives and, without the blink of an eye, takes the elevator, on his own, and leave the Sudanese man out of it. Where have all our manners gone?
I have been working with migrant workers and domestic workers for several years now and I always worry when I have to introduce myself or explain my work to random strangers who are not my friends or from my close circles. It’s always the case that people don’t understand what I mean when I say I work with migrants in this country, with people with irregular status, or that we dream of improving the conditions for migrants, we tackle issues of discrimination, bullying, harassment and racism, and so on. It comes off to many as gibberish. Here comes the question, and here comes the same old blank face with it. I expect it each time and I am rarely proven wrong. Most people, as cool as they could be on so many levels, just don’t understand what I mean, or what I do, or why I do, or how I get my priorities straight. So why not fight for Lebanese people’s rights first? I cringe at this question and the emptiness it contains. Why is racism such a big deal anyway, how come it is a priority? Why don’t you focus on the important issues? They ask, I smile and hide a sob.
I once was attending an activity at the Migrant Community Center and a friend was dropping me my phone as I had forgotten it with her the day before. I go down to pick it up from her as she parked in front of our building, and I see her sitting in front, right seat empty, and an Ethiopian worker, ‘her’ domestic worker, sitting in the back. If on her way to see me, meeting me at none other than the Migrant Community Center, knowing clearly what that space is and what it represents, she couldn’t fake the effort of having ‘her’ domestic worker sit in that empty seat in front, what more can one say? I look at her and then look back, it took her a long pause to realize what I am staring at, and then she tells me, ‘oh, I didn’t realize she sat in the back’. For twenty five long minutes of drive, she failed to realize where the only other person with her in the car was seated?
A story sparked headlines when a black toddler was denied entry to a day care because the parents of the other Lebanese children refused to have their children be in a class with him. The administration of this day care returned the enrollment money to the father after it had been already paid and asked him to find another place for his son. This was in June 2018, only 2 weeks ago, and the boy inflicted in this case is less than 2 years old.
A Sudanese friend, now re-settled in France, once told us of how her son came home with a broken tooth because he got bullied and beaten by other kids in the elementary school playground since he was the only non-Lebanese between them. She met with the principal of their private Beiruti school the day after, asking for immediate action, only to hear him say, with utmost apathy, this is not a matter for adults to interfere in. ‘It’s only children playing together’. She moved him to another school but often he would still return home and ask his parents how he could pull his skin off. Children of color, and especially poor children of color, learn one thing very well in Lebanese schools and that is to hate themselves.
I was once at Beirut Souks with my Ethiopian friends’ children. They’re 4 and 5 years old. A Lebanese madame with two kids of around the same age and a domestic worker of course, runs up to me, barely makes eye contact, almost whimpers a ‘hi’, grabs the two children from my hands and forces them into a picture with her children. ‘Yalla mama w’afo haddon’ (come on stand next to them). She didn’t ask for permission, she didn’t even ask for their names. She didn’t care to do any ice-breaking and she wasn’t interested in any interaction between her children and those that I was accompanying. She just wanted that special photo. Then she carried on with her life like that utterly revolting scene didn’t happen.
Local mainstream media, mostly only pushed by international media coverage, have only recently picked up on these issues, but their coverage falls short from serious on these matters. Sensationalism and covering things from the wrong end is the norm. You see programs inviting two polar sides of an issue, as they frame it, to debate basics.
‘Are Lebanese people racist?’
‘Are crimes mostly committed by madams or maids?’
‘Do you mind if you swim in the same waters with a black person?’
They pride in getting two groups of people, madames and workers, Lebanese and non-Lebanese, racism apologists and anti-racism activists, and getting them to scream and shout at each other in the studio, never addressing the real issues, because the wrong questions are asked all together. If the reasoning of the program manager and the tv presenter are mostly skewed in the first place, what added value do we expect to get out of these programs? Claiming to be representing issues while putting two different groups at the literal opposite sides in a studio, turning them against each other, creating pointless agitation, enjoying watching this like it’s a football match, and pretending like you’re doing good to anything, that’s not how journalism works. How about a topic for you?
For years domestic workers have been dying at shameful peaking rates of 1 to 2 per week. We have yet to see one journalist take on a serious investigation task to track the story of any of these women. No names, no faces, no pictures, sometimes initials. Do we ever ask care to know how these women actually die? Were they dangling from high floors, cleaning a window? Were they trying to escape from the only possible accessible exit? Was the house door really locked? Was the fridge locked too? Did the neighbors ever notice there was a domestic worker on that specific floor or have they never seen one? Did they ever ignore those weeping sounds of sorrow or beating and decided to let it go so they avoid an uncomfortable confrontation with acquaintances in their building? Were they forced to over-stay their contract? When was the last time they sent money home? Have they ever been out? Was it a defined work contract or were they enslaved? And if it was really a suicide, how much hell, depression, home-sickness, anxiety and hopelessness have they been put through to drive them to make that decision and act on it? Do you know of any country where more than 70 Lebanese doing one specific type of job, have died in about a year? Wouldn’t it be news? Wouldn’t it be scandalous?
I have had the opportunity to read a report on the death of a worker a few years ago. I remember very clearly, it had said, that the victim was from Nepal and then in the content description of the report it was said that she was from an African nationality. We can’t distinguish between countries, continents and nationalities, we don’t know where things fall on the map and we have faith that these institutions can be entrusted with getting any sort of justice to these dying women. So much for an official police report.
Take a quick look at any conversational space online, comments on videos, or links or stories, and you’d cry your heart out in and from despair. Lebanese women (wives, mothers, employers) for instance, on the multiple support groups they communicate through on facebook have a lot to say. The ‘madame’ discourse is real. They speak of domestic workers as the utmost threat to their families, husbands and children but they never refer to their utmost dependency on their daily (hourly?) labor and support. They encourage each other not to grant her any rights and confiscate papers and freedoms to the maximum of their ability from the beginning of the process so as not to lose control over her as time passes by. The language and rationale is so harsh you almost feel like they are speaking about a different species of people, non-humans, machine, robots. Many Lebanese employers do perceive themselves as the victims in this relationship and that’s really scary. They constantly absolve themselves and this society and the systems in place of any responsibility in relation to the daily tragedies befalling workers. All they repeat are arguments on how stupid, lazy, slow and backwards Ethiopian women and others are. They categorize them in rigid boxes of racist stereotypes and believe the fallacies they say. They change their names, patronise them, treat them as invisibles, and talk about them in their presence in mockery and sarcasm- while at same time maintaining the belief that they treat her as family, and that’s why they force her to go with them on Sundays to their own very Lebanese outings, where she knows no one, speaks to no one, sits on a separate table on her own and eats food that means nothing to her If that’s not a Sunday well spent off, then what is?
We can also speak about the correlation between what happens at Lebanese beaches where there are shameless bans on specific people entering as dignified customers, and the dozens of municipalities that have audaciously posted illegal banners, one after the other, threatening and banning Syrians from walking on the streets at certain hours of the day. In the first case, domestic workers and ‘servants’ as they are often called are conflated with any women of color (and/or women from African and South Asian countries) and in the second case, Syrians are assumed to be a ‘breed’ of people that is recognizable through a quick look at the forehead.
Please bare with me for a second here as you explain to me how anyone can ever tell who is domestic worker and who isn’t, who is a migrant worker, who is Syrian, who is Lebanese, and what do you do about people who are both Syrian and Lebanese for instance? What surreal levels of indecency does one have to have to feel they could decide who gets to hang out at pool versus who gets to hang out at the sea versus doesn’t get to hang out at either? There are certain places that even forbid migrant workers, or people who are assumed to be so, from swimming at the sea as well. The assumption is still, as was the case in historically segregated pools, that black people are dirtier than white people, Lebanon assuming (and wishing?) it is white in this formula. Now these are people who aren’t half joking about performing their racism. They’re doing it full on.
I remember once going through the brochure of one of the 5-star private beach resorts in Beirut and it had two consecutive articles written down, one saying that dogs are not allowed and the one right below it, says that nannies are not allowed. Right after each other.
The list is long and sad. We can refer to what happens in court cases with migrant workers, daily sights of dozens of women seated on the corners of Beirut airport, the infamous ‘isolation room’ through which first time arriving domestic workers are forced to pass until they are received by the sponsor, semi-treatment at hospitals by some doctors and nurses, and of course, the infinite stories that happen in our houses with the thousands of domestic workers who are at the purely randomized mercy of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ employers with the sponsorship system in place and the absence of any legal protection mechanisms to govern their stays.
Nothing speaks racism louder than the apathy and impotence of the current state and systems in bringing any justice to Halima and Lensa. I encourage you to check ‘This is Lebanon’ blog and read about these two stories, watch the Halima video and reflect on what we could possibly do to stop failing the test and leaving all these women in miserable slave-like situations like the ones TIL reports on.
It is my feeling that many Lebanese people believe that we speak about racism too much, that we exaggerate, that most these incidents are one-off and not resembling patterns of violence, abuse and exploitation. I believe that we actually do not say the word (racism) enough. There isn’t enough anger and there isn’t enough questioning of what we have taken for granted for far too long in this country, our homes, our habits, our relationships to others, our perceptions and prejudices, our silences, our lack of action, our forgetfulness.
What will we do about our racism problem? When will we start looking it straight in the eye and confront the weight of work we have to do to get ourselves out of this deep pit we are in? One should only google the terms racism and Lebanon together and scroll through pages of debates and discussions, concerns and questions by a wide range of people who want to visit or have to visit and are worried about the things they’ve heard about Lebanon and seeking support and advice from others on whether they should make it or not. Lebanon and its racism are actual topics of discussion on forums these days. Can we please let that sink in for a minute? We have work to do, a lot of it, on so many levels, with so many people, first and foremost with our own selves, our own families, our own neighbourhoods and our very own spaces. Let’s get serious.
If you support the content published on Hummus For Thought, please consider donating $1 per month on Patreon to help the site become self-sufficient.