by Rose Khouri
Two months ago I arrived at the office expecting a normal day. I ended up driving a sobbing Kenyan woman to a shelter for abused migrant workers.
This young woman, terrified, crying, unable to make eye contact, is one of a quarter million guest workers – primarily women from East Africa and East/South East Asia – living and working in Lebanon. The abusive situation she was running away from is neither uncommon, nor surprising.
Maids, nannies, and other low skilled positions in Lebanon have not always been associated with potential, or even inevitable abuse. As author Nayla Moukarbel noted, before Lebanon’s civil war, domestic workers were either poor local women, or immigrants from other Arab countries like Syria or Iraq. The families of the maids frequently had contact with their daughters’ employers, reducing the maids’ isolation and potential for exploitation. As fellow Arabs, their cultural and linguistic differences were lessened. Often the maids came to work for their employers at a young age, allowing them to develop close, almost familial ties over the years.
Once the Lebanese civil war began, Lebanese families began to switch to African or Asian maids. The rising tensions of the escalating crisis resulted in a shift from the potential sectarian threats of regional maids to non-partisan African or Asian workers. Lacking ties to divisive political parties, interfering countries, or opposing religious groups, these new maids posed no threat to the stability of the country’s political environment. However, the employer-employee relationship had been heavily altered to the detriment of the guest workers who, living far away from their families and support systems, have greater potential for abuse.
Driving back to work, after spending an hour ensuring the young woman would be taken in and taken care of at the shelter while they looked into legal options, my primary emotion was not grief but anger. I was angry. I was angry that someone could abuse a woman. I was angry that a human being was being abused maybe 5 -10 minutes away from where I live. I was angry that someone from my own identity, a fellow ‘Christian’, was abusing a human being. There was no ‘Other’ that I could blame in this situation.
Lebanon is not a bad country. The Lebanese are not bad people. Lebanon has been a shelter to thousands upon thousands – Armenians, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese, etc. But we live in a world where power and privilege do not exist in absolutes but filter through layers. The oppressed can too easily oppress others.
I was angry that day. But every Sunday after I only became angrier. I have sat through many sermons in Lebanon. I have listened to pastors preach about gratefulness, about money, about how to be a good father and mother, but never once have I heard a pastor or a priest speak about the abuse of domestic workers. I have to ask, what is the point of spending an hour and a half on a sermon about how ‘good Christians shouldn’t complain’ if you know that people sitting in front of you listening intently might go home and physically abuse another human being?
Doubly frustrating is that in Lebanon people tend to hire domestic workers from the same religion. Muslim Lebanese often prefer fellow Muslims from Bangladesh, while Christian Lebanese prefer fellow Christians from the Philippines, Kenya, or Ethiopia. Are Lebanese pastors or priests responsible just for the Arabs sitting in front of them? Is their role as shepherds of our Christian community restricted to those with whom they share an ethnic tie?
Of course, this is not just a Christian issue in Lebanon – physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is happening to female guest workers in every kind of home in Lebanon. The same Lebanese Muslims who have angrily protested the crimes committed against their fellow Muslims in Palestine or Iraq have often returned home to scream at their Muslim maids from Bangladesh. A young Muslim man, who passionately posts about the treatment of Muslims in the West, once told me, “Bangladeshis are very stupid and they will try and cheat you.” But, I cannot speak for Lebanese Muslims. I can only speak to the Church of which I am part.
My challenge to the Lebanese Church is this: right now abuse is happening. It is happening in large ways (sexual, physical, and emotional abuse). It is happening in small ways (small markets will ignore guest workers and serve me first). This is not just something being committed by Other people and this is not something that is affecting communities hours and hours away from ours. The woman I drove to a shelter lived in a Christian area of Lebanon. She experienced extreme abuse while church bells called Christians to come and worship. This is an issue at the core of our Christian faith – what does God require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8). Where is the Lebanese Christian leadership? Where is the emphasis on education, guidance, and peacemaking? Are these not the roles of our pastors?
I am not asking the Lebanese Church to solve the Syrian crisis. I am not asking our pastors to solve poverty, broken families, homeless children, or financial instability. Rather I am asking our pastors to acknowledge what is being done behind closed doors, by members of their congregations. I am asking for them to prioritize their teachings and sermons to address this issue. Can you imagine if our Church leaders used their platforms, their voices to equip their people for works of service, so that the body of Christ might be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ? (Ephesians 4:12-13)
There is so much violence, so much pain going on in our region that we cannot control. But this issue, this stain on Lebanon’s reputation as a historical safe haven, is something our community should not just address but should lead the fight against.
 N Moukarbel, Sri Lankan Housemaids in Lebanon: A Case of ‘Symbolic Violence’ and ‘Everyday Forms of Resistance’, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2009, p 30.