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

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