Sadly, I have to leave Egypt to get back to Lebanon tomorrow. The events of the past few weeks have been absolutely unbelievable to be part of. Few thought that overthrowing Mubarak would be possible, but people power made it happen. However, it was only the first step in a larger struggle for rights and a more democratic government in Egypt — read my interview with blogger/activist Mona Seif for more on this. What happens next is up to the workers. Many who were part of the uprising to overthrow Mubarak, are now taking to the streets from various sectors to overthrow their corrupt union leadership and demand better pay and more rights. As this happens be sure to follow Egyptian photographer and journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy (www.arabawy.org), who has documented the struggle of Egyptian workers for years.
The below portraits are of public transport workers protesting in Cairo today:
It’s about time. Thanks to the courage and steadfastness of one 53-year-old Sudanese refugee, the issue of foreign workers in Lebanon is starting to make headlines.
Dr. Abdel Meneem Ibrahim has been on hunger strike for 12 days now to protest the arbitrary detention of at least 17 Sudanese men who, despite completing their sentences, remain behind bars. (Foreign workers have few rights in Lebanon and are subject to often subject to exploitation and abuse, for more on this see my project Unseen Lives.)
Not only has Dr. Ibrahim’s (or simply “Dr.” as some of his supporters call him) protest brought out local and foreign media, but young Lebanese activists have also waged an energetic campaign in solidarity with the hunger striker. Activists have spent day and night at the Dr.’s side to show their support and prevent authorities from taking action to forcefully end the protest.
Tomorrow, 7 October, activists are calling for a “Demonstration against racism and arbitrary detention in Lebanon!” outside the Ministry of Interior.
For a more comprehensive report on the Dr.’s protest read Meris Lutz’s article in the Los Angeles Times.
I took the below images over the past few days of the Dr.’s protest outside the Sudanese Cultural Club in Beirut’s Hamra district. I’ll be updating this post with more images after the protest tomorrow.
Images from the protest outside the Ministry of Interior in Beirut on 7 October:
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is an energy and a general optimism among much of Egypt’s workforce unlike I’ve seen anywhere else. Ask most Egyptians, they will tell you that change will come, it has to. Many others are too used to their US-backed Hosni Mubarak who has ruled for nearly three decades to think that things could ever be different. But as it is now, the Mubarak government is repressing the voice of Egypt’s millions of workers who are frustrated with the rising cost of living and the low wages. The property tax collectors are at the forefront of the workers’ movement and the fight for independent workers’ unions, which are currently all under the control of the state.