Two acclaimed Hollywood movies have recently brought the topic of slavery to the forefront of social debate. Both in their own ways, Lincoln and Django Unchained are a testimony to the long road the United States has traveled as a country during the fight against oppression. But even though we have a clear picture of what the slave trade entailed, how many of us have witnessed modern manifestations of the same regressive practice? Lebanon is a perfect example, though unfortunately not the only one.
Lebanon is regarded as one of the best countries in the Middle East for entertainment, a country where the party scene and somewhat relaxed religious attitudes are natural magnets for tourists from across the world. What Lebanon is less known for is its treatment of migrant workers and the abject racism that exists across all social spheres. Through an acquaintance’s mother, I was able to observe the whole process.
Step 1: Selecting a Slave
For starters, a Lebanese person needs to go to a specialized agency that will propose various candidates based on photographs. The client chose a woman labelled as a 20-year-old single Ethiopian and instead got a 23-year-old married mother of a nine-month-old baby who was leaving her village for the first time, but she did not know that yet. The clerk also informed her that maids from the Philippines were more expensive because she claimed they were less stupid than their Ethiopian, Bangladeshi, and Sri Lankan counterparts and because they can understand some English.
Step 2: The Airport Pickup
The next step was the airport pickup. There are two arrival gates at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport: One for all passengers and one on the far end for incoming maids. It is important to note that all concerned governments have forbidden their citizens to go work there but a well-oiled system makes them travel to a variety of destinations before reaching Lebanon. Here the surreal experience involves getting a ticket just like you would at your local butcher and waiting in line for a police officer to escort the maid to you and hand you her passport. According to the law, the maid is your responsibility and therefore it is important to avoid possible escapes. It is truly a harrowing experience looking into the eyes of these very poor women slowly walking behind their master with a look of utter despair and acceptance, not even being helped with their small suitcases.
Step 3: The Arrival at Home
Once at home they are made to sleep in a small room adjacent to the kitchen and work full-time for six or seven days a week, their first two months' worth of salary going entirely into the pockets of money lenders to whom they are indebted. Stories of abuse are so frequent that an NGO called the Anti-Racism Movement has made it a point to fight this institutionalized practice through hidden cameras, web campaigns, and protests.
These practices are not confined to Lebanon but it is quite stirring to witness the extent to which people will dehumanize others in the name of economic gain, laziness, or social norms. As long as some human beings across the world will be treated as cattle, slaves or third-class citizens, humanity as a whole cannot advance on the path of progress, never mind economic prosperity or social well-being.
Photo Caption: Alem Dechasa being thrown back in the back of a car after trying to escape.