Vital Collaboration in Lebanon, Part One: An Interview With Farah Salka of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM)

03/17/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated May 17, 2015

The attack and subsequent suicide in 2012 of Alem Dechasa-Desisa, an Ethiopian migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, was a turning point in the consciousness of the Ethiopian and African Diaspora. The video of Ali Mafuz -- Alem's employer -- beating her in front of the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut was one of the first widely shared visual examples of the exploitation that faces many African migrants in the Middle East. Due to a lack of resources and political organization, there have been few coordinated efforts by the African Diaspora to directly support migrant workers in the Middle East in three years since Alem's death.

Often lost in the discourse around migrant rights is that there are local efforts in Lebanon and other countries -- led by activists and the migrant worker themselves -- to support the migrant worker community. I feel this is important context to better understand how individuals living outside of the Middle East can assist in improving the lives of migrants. The news that reaches the Diaspora is normally about the tragedies. This is an unsustainable way of engaging in the issue and in the interim between public abuses, there must be more real relationship building with potential allies.

To this end, I spoke recently with Farah Salka who is the general coordinator of the Anti-Racism Movement in Lebanon, which manages the Migrant Community Center in Beirut. The Migrant Community Center is one of the few open spaces for the migrant communities and domestic workers in Lebanon. There are more than 800,000 migrant workers in Lebanon and more than 250,000 serve as domestic workers.

They are currently fundraising to keep up, and hopefully expand, the services offered. This is the first in a two part interview with Farah to share more about the Migrant Community Center, and Anti-Racism efforts in Lebanon:

Kumera: Hi Farah. Thank you for the time to speak. What is the Migrant Community Center and why is there a need for this in Beirut?

Farah: The Migrant Community Center (MCC) is a free and open space for migrant workers in Lebanon. For the past three years, MCC has been offering free and very low-cost classes, activities, services, and events to migrant workers in Lebanon. During this time, MCC has assisted hundreds of migrant workers individually, and has also helped strengthen their communities in Lebanon. In this time, MCC has become a local hub of migrant workers' activities and a launching pad for their efforts.

MCC users are all migrant workers who live in Lebanon. They are men, women, and children, hailing from a multitude of African and Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Bangladesh, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Liberia, and many more. Most of them are women employed as domestic workers in Lebanese households. There are at the very least 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, which is a country of 4 million people.

Migrant workers unfortunately make up one of the most vulnerable demographic groups in the country, mostly due to exploitative labor policies. They are excluded from the labor law and are instead governed by the oppressive sponsorship (Kafala) system, a system akin to modern-day slavery. For migrant workers, there is an absence of legal protection and basic rights like freedom of movement or the ability to change employer, etc. And there are widespread discriminatory practices in many public and private institutions. These factors created a climate where migrant workers have difficulty communicating and working together, seeking help, or just living a normal life with their rights and freedoms protected. This climate has contributed to the high rate of abuse of migrant workers, the alarmingly high death and suicide rates, and daily detention and deportation of workers who escape abusive employers

How did you and the other Lebanese activists become involved in Anti-Racism work?

Four years ago, a good friend and professor who now returned to the United States wrote a short piece on segregation at beaches in Lebanon. The professor would call the different beaches and ask about their admission policies for African and Asian migrants and would get a different answer at each location. His research showed that most migrant and domestic workers were not allowed to go to many of the beaches, including public beaches and it was all at the whim of the owner of each club to decide the policies for their place. It was a pretty good (and shocking) story at that time, because it posed lots of questions that were new to the table, including bringing up unthinkable issues, racism and its derivatives. It was not something common to (discuss in) the public scene, back in the day.

So I, along with two other Lebanese and a Malagasy (a migrant woman from Madagascar) decided to test out his research in person and on camera, if anything, to check for ourselves before anyone else, if that was really the situation around us. We secretly taped a confrontation with the management of a well-renowned beach club in Beirut with the Malagasy woman and her Lebanese friends. They were all denied entry on that day in the most direct and rudest way. We posted this online.

There was a huge response and that very amateur video went viral. We kept on working on the issue of discrimination at beaches, and we started focusing on other similar issues, for the years that followed until the Ministry of Tourism -- positively surprising at that point -- announced that they put a decree to all beaches (as well as restaurants, hotels and other institutions) advising that such practices are now banned and violators will be fined.

The video above is predominantly in Arabic

We are not claiming that we did not know that there was racism in Lebanon before Sean called out the segregationist policies at the beaches -- and not being allowed to go to the beach is hardly the most serious issue that migrant workers face in Lebanon compared to the bigger picture -- but this tangible, startling hands-on discrimination helped pave the way to get the bigger questions on racism and invisible segregation policies in the country out to the public, through increased media attention and public debate. It was more of a starting point... somewhere.

With time, more people became engaged in this topic and we formed the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) which was a liaison between local activists and migrant community leaders at the forefront of the struggle for decent and humane working conditions for domestic workers in Lebanon. ARM aimed to focus on solidarity with migrant communities in Lebanon, especially all forgotten domestic workers and we did that through both changing the policies that exploit migrants and domestic workers, and raising questions on the general mentalities we have within our societies in regards to dealing with 'the others', whoever that "other" was. Our team started building up and with no time we started taking different roles that range from acting as translators to community leaders when they needed an Arabic speaking person to assist them with cases, legally intervening on behalf of migrant workers where possible and visiting prisons to check on people who are left there with no external support or intervention from any side whatsoever.

You mentioned going to prisons. I'm sorry, but that is a bit unclear to me. Could you explain?

Sure. This is part of the exploitative sponsorship laws that govern the migrant worker's lives in this country. Migrant workers come to Lebanon on a work contract and must have a local sponsor. Many of the employers confiscate their visas and passports when they get to the country, to say the least. That is one (illegal) standard procedure. So let's say that they have an abusive employer and are able to leave the house/work place-- like any sane-minded person would do. They are still under contract to that employer, and the employer is still in control of their legal documents that allow them to be in the country. So it is them who are at fault in such scenario, and never the sponsor.

Thereby, if this worker is caught by the police or at a checkpoint without these documents, she or he is, more likely than not, always instantly imprisoned. It's really an unfair, evil, vicious system that works against migrants in every aspect. Most of the migrants are from countries that do not have proper representation in Lebanon whether through their embassies or consulates or honorary consulates so there is rarely ever capacity to investigate abuses and follow on the ample cases which need help and support.

So they could really just get arrested for being in Lebanon if they aren't protected by a sponsor?

Exactly. And if they left an abusive sponsor and end up in prison, who will check on them? Who even knows they are in the country, much less if they are imprisoned? They are either detained arbitrarily or deported back to their country without due process or justice.

So that's why there is a need for activists and the friends of domestic workers who speak their languages to check the prisons when people disappear and make some basic connections with the outer world, their families or the few organizations which can help, in all our limited capacities.


The second part of this interview will be posted in the coming week. The Migrant Community Center is currently fundraising to provide programming like language courses, referral services, music classes and cultural events for 2015. Click here to learn more.