I went with a friend and journalist today to cover a service at an Ethiopian church outside Beirut to remember one its members, Hany Gebre, along with 89 other people, mostly Lebanese and Ethiopians, killed on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after takeoff last Monday. Hany was employed as a domestic worker in Lebanon and was on the way to visit her family for the first time since she came to Lebanon three years ago when the plane went down. The community of Ethiopian women at the church is tightly knit, and most women said they knew Hany well. We entered to a roomful of sobbing women listening to the animated preacher singing prayers in Amharic.
It was an awkward experience for me to again take pictures of a room full of people letting their tears flow, and like I told my friend in the church, I hate taking pictures in these situations but I know that I should so others can see. As he sat there with his notebook I thought of a quote by Lewis Wickes Hine, one of my favorite photographers who once said, “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” Even though my Canon isn’t quite as obtrusive as the cameras were in Hine’s day, the act itself will always be obtrusive in a situation like this and make me wish that I could remain unseen in a corner capturing the scene by jotting down notes in a small notebook.
At one point I had to leave the emotional scene in the church and get some “fresh air” by smoking a cigarette across the street. Outside, I sat staring at the Lebanese passersby. I wondered what a society that many have increasingly called “racist” thinks of the hundreds of black women who gather in their neighborhood each Sunday.
I noticed an older Lebanese woman walk past with her Ethiopian “helper.” In the standard contract that all employers must sign, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are allowed to take at least one day off per week (usually Sunday), but many employers prevent them from doing so. I assume this was an example of that. The Ethiopian worker, arm-in-arm with her employer, glanced inside the church as they walked past and immediately started crying on the street. The Lebanese woman seemed not to notice (or not to care) as she asked the worker for help while she rummaged through her oversized handbag.
Since the death of Theresa Seda across the street from my home, I’ve been increasingly involved in the plight of foreign workers in Lebanon. Previously, I hadn’t focused on this issue because my reason for being in the Middle East is to combat a highly inaccurate image of this region and its people being portrayed in much of the Western media. If I was going to cover the exploitation of workers, I wouldn’t need to travel half the globe to do so. And I distrust many Western journalists who come here critical of everything Arab while ignoring their own government’s role in shaping this war-torn and unstable part of the world. But the abuse of workers in this country is unavoidable. Every time I leave the house I see a foreign woman carrying a bratty child, picking up dog shit or staring out the window of her “madame’s” car in envy at those of us walking around with relatively few cares in the world. There is a common expression shared by oppressed peoples. Its one that screams of a yearning to spend time with family, swim in the sea, relax on a nice chair, meet friends, have money to purchase goods, travel, be free. And as someone concerned with social justice, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the abuse in Lebanon that is happening all around me.
Now, the big question: are Lebanese racists? Some Western journalists feel they’re in a position to say yes, but not this one. Surely there are many racist Lebanese, and it is a serious problem affecting the whole of society — nearly everyone refers to migrant domestic workers as “Sirlankiin” (Sri Lankans) regardless of what country they actually come from. But, for example, is the Ethiopian worker and her Lebanese employer an example of this racism? It’s hard to say. Before making generalizations and pointing the finger solely at Lebanese, I would take a step back and look at the question on a global scale — how many societies existing today don’t contain elements of racism? If these Ethiopian and other workers were to travel elsewhere (or stay in Ethiopia), would that solve the problem?
I thought about all of this before I heard the music sounding (seen in the video below) through the church doors and out into the street. I quickly put out my cigarette and ran back inside lugging my camera along to help me tell a story we don’t often hear.