Unseen Lives: Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon

Theresa Seda (on the right in sleeveless shirt) with two of her sisters at their family's home in the Philippines two years before she came to work in Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of the Seda family)

For anyone in Lebanon, witnessing the mistreatment of foreign domestic workers is unavoidable. With more than 200,000 foreign women working in the country, many Lebanese families hire live-in maids to take care of household duties. These women, excluded from Lebanon’s labor law, are often overworked, their wages withheld, and are subject to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Despite this, and after more than two years in Beirut covering the consequences of war and politics in the region, I was not involved in the issue. However, after 4 January 2010, the choice to remain silent was no longer an option.

On that day, as I worked from my home in Beirut, a crowd gathered in the street below around the body of a Filipino woman who had fallen from the seventh floor balcony of her employer’s home. Theresa Seda was 28 years old and had lived in Lebanon for only two months after leaving the Philippines in search of work so that she could provide her three young children with an education. As her body lay in the street for hours before medical workers arrived, I described the scene on my website and posted pictures. Later that day I was contacted by her sister living in Europe. Theresa’s sister provided text messages sent by her sister before her death that showed Theresa faced both physical and psychological abuse by her employers and was denied even the slightest break away from her work.

It was Theresa’s death that made me first pick up my camera to highlight the abuse of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon — I have not put it down since.

Titled “Unseen Lives,” this body of photographs shows a glimpse into the lives of Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Madagascan, Nigerian, Nepalese, and women of other nationalities employed as domestic workers in Lebanon. However, this work is in no way an accurate representation of the general situation in which most migrant domestic workers are living. With many workers literally locked away inside their employers’ homes, photographing them is impossible. These photographs document the lives and culture of many foreign women working in Lebanon to show their strength in overcoming the many hardships they’re forced to contend with.

This project was done in partnership with the Lebanese nongovernmental organization KAFA (enough) Violence & Exploitation.

A slideshow of the exhibit:


Unseen Lives: Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon – Images by Matthew Cassel

Miss Ethiopia in Lebanon

image: matthew cassel

There was a beauty pageant on Sunday, in fact there was more than one. But those of you reading this post probably only heard about one. In Las Vegas, 51 women competed for the Miss USA award. In the end, Rima Fakih, a Lebanese woman who immigrated to the US as a child took home the prize.

I’ve never paid much attention to such awards which I feel promote sexist ideas about women and a shallow definition of “beauty.” Had this year’s Miss USA not been a Lebanese-American, I probably wouldn’t have even heard about the award on Monday morning when I opened my computer in Beirut. I had known about a completely different beauty pageant that took place on Sunday.

As part of my ongoing photo project documenting the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon, I attended my first ever beauty pageant. However, this one was not in Las Vegas, but in the working class Ouzai district of Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburbs. There 11 Ethiopian women, all who came to Lebanon in past years in search of work, held their own beauty pageant that closely resembled the Donald Trump owned Miss USA pageant.

The contestants had been preparing for months. Coming together each Sunday (their only day off), they practiced everything from walking in high heels to smiling for the cameras. On Sunday they wore a number of different outfits including traditional Ethiopian clothes, swimsuits and evening gowns, as they strutted up and down the catwalk in front of four Lebanese judges and dozens of cheering spectators, mostly other Ethiopian women working in Lebanon.

One of the event’s emcees, a Nigerian man working in Lebanon, made it clear that the competition was not merely to celebrate the most “beautiful” Ethiopian woman in Lebanon, but to present a different image of Ethiopian women in a country where they face daily discrimination.

After almost four hours of intense competition and a brief Q&A session where contestants were asked about Ethiopian and Lebanese culture, one woman* who works at a health club in Beirut was crowned Miss Ethiopia in Lebanon.

*To protect their identities all women are kept anonymous.

Getting ready backstage (image: matthew cassel)

Getting ready backstage (image: matthew cassel)

Preparing Ethiopian coffee (image: matthew cassel)

Round 1: Contestants dress in the same outfit which resembles the Ethiopian flag (image: matthew cassel)

Round 2: Traditional wear (image: matthew cassel)

In between rounds, a woman performs traditional Ethiopian dance (image: matthew cassel)

Preparing for round 3 (image: matthew cassel)

Round 3: The swimsuit competition (image: matthew cassel)l

Putting on the finishing touches for the final round (image: matthew cassel)

Round 4: The evening gown (image: matthew cassel)

The Q&A session (image: matthew cassel)

Miss Ethiopia poses for with the other 10 contestants (image: matthew cassel)

Teddy Afro came to Lebanon

image: matthew cassel

Before yesterday, many Ethiopian friends who I’ve come to know recently through a photography project I’m working on documenting the lives of foreign domestic workers in Lebanon found it hard to believe that their country’s top musical icon would perform in Beirut.

One male Ethiopian friend who manages a shop and is savvy about Lebanese culture called him Ethiopia’s George Wassouf, while most Ethiopian women who I’ve talked to said he is their country’s Michael Jackson.

In the decades that foreign women from outside the Arab world have come to work in Lebanon, this is the first time that a major Ethiopian pop star has performed here. With tens of thousands of Ethiopian women currently working in Lebanon, the Lebanese promoter who brought Teddy knew that he could bring out a crowd. For the past few weeks, posters in both Amharic and English have gone up across the city and not one Ethiopian who I’ve talked to was unaware that the concert was happening.

Even though many women are not allowed a day off by their employers, and with tickets at $40 a pop (around 25% of an average monthly salary for an Ethiopian domestic worker), thousands of Ethiopian women, along with a few handfuls of their Lebanese employers, boyfriends and others made it to see Teddy.

It felt like I boarded a plane and flew somewhere far away from Lebanon when I arrived at the Sports City concert hall near central Beirut yesterday afternoon. Apart from the Lebanese attendees, security and concert organizers, there were few non-black faces lining up outside. Women were dressed in T-shirts with images of Teddy Afro, Bob Marley, Haile Selassie and other designs celebrating Ethiopian and African culture.

For the few police officers checking bags at the door, there would be no whistling, flirting, or any other kind of harassment like I’ve seen and heard happen often in Beirut. Yesterday, the authority was greatly outnumbered. Thousands of Ethiopian women passed them one by one, walking all over the boys in black and white camouflage. Nothing was going to stop these workers from celebrating the place that they’ve had to leave in search of a better life.

The concert began at around 4:30pm, and until it ended nearly four hours later, the ground underneath Sports City shook to the dance steps of nearly everyone in the arena, including this white American photographer. Another American who has long lived in Lebanon, told me that the concert was the best event he’s ever been to in Lebanon, right alongside celebrations in the south in 2000 after Israel withdrew nearly all of its 22 year long occupation.

If it felt like Liberation Day for many of these Ethiopian workers who have been subject to exploitation and abuse over the years, it was only temporary. Today, the women return to their lives inside of families’ homes no doubt thinking back to those few hours yesterday evening.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

Ethiopians mourn in Beirut

Hany Gebre who was killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight on 25 January. (image: matthew cassel)

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.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

Plane crashes off Beirut coast

An Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean Sea just minutes after taking off in Beirut early this morning. Ninety people (including seven crew) were aboard the flight bound for Addis Ababa that included 54 Lebanese and 22 Ethiopians as well as passengers of other nationalities. Early reports indicate that most of the Lebanese passengers were probably either traveling to Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa where many Lebanese citizens work and live. The Ethiopians passengers were most likely migrant domestic workers returning from their jobs in Lebanon back to their homes. It’s also been reported that the wife of the French Ambassador in Lebanon was a passenger on the flight. As of now, a couple dozen bodies have been recovered from the sea and there is little hope of finding any survivors.

Samira Hossein mourns the loss of her sister, Mikia, who was a passenger on the Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed off the coast of Beirut this morning. The two sisters came to Lebanon to be employed as domestic workers for Lebanese families. (image: matthew cassel)

A Lebanese flag flies at half mast outside Beirut's airport. (image: matthew cassel)

Suicide in Lebanon

Theresa Seda worked in a home on the 7th floor of the building. Her body lies on the street below. (image: matthew cassel)

While working at my house in the Sanayeh neighborhood of Beirut I noticed some commotion in the street below. I saw a bunch of people and police gathered pointing up at the building. I knew already what had happened. Suicide by domestic workers in this country is not a rare occurrence.

As I went down I stopped the first two people I saw, they were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I asked them what happened. One of the men replied, “A Sri Lankan woman (“Sirlankia” in Arabic) died.”

Of course, she was not Sri Lankan, but this is the general term used to describe domestic workers in Lebanon. As I spoke with people at the scene I found a man and woman from the Filipino Embassy in Beirut who told me that she was 28-year-old Theresa Seda of the Philipines. Like many women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, she had come to Beirut to be employed as a domestic worker in a family’s home. Most middle and upper class families in Beirut and elsewhere around Lebanon have domestic workers who they pay a small salary to live with them and take care of all the household chores.

There have been countless stories of abuse over recent years. In 2006, it was widely known that as families escaped the indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Beirut and went to the mountains, they locked the workers inside their homes preventing them from also fleeing the attacks. I was surprised to hear that during the war an animal rights groups in Lebanon went around rescuing household pets who were abandoned in similar circumstances, yet no group bothered to do the same for the human workers. Now, only the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar regularly reports on deaths and abuse of domestic workers, but the abuse is known to be widespread and I hear stories of suicide nearly every other week.

Theresa’s body has laid on the street for over an hour. In the same building where she jumped from I could see other foreign workers continue with their duties washing windows as they paused every few moments to see what was happening below on the street. As I write this now Theresa’s body is still below, cars and people pass just inches away, few stop to inquire as to what happened. Business as usual. I heard from the police that she cut herself on the balcony with a knife before jumping to her death, there is no question about it: this was a suicide.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

UPDATE 15 NOVEMBER 2010:

I regret the certainty in which I originally wrote that Theresa’s death was in fact a suicide. After months of investigating this case and meeting her sister in Holland recently, it is impossible to deduce how Theresa died exactly. The only ones capable of conducting a proper investigation into her death, the Lebanese authorities, did not do so. There is however sufficient evidence to show that Theresa faced abuse and exploitation at the hands of her employers, and we will release all of this information in the coming months as part of a project telling the story of Theresa’s life.