[Marxism] plight of female foreign workers in Lebanon

Anna Fierling anna_fierling at yahoo.com
Mon Jul 24 17:05:29 MDT 2006

Thousands of overseas maids caught up in conflict face long struggle to
get home

Jonathan Steele in Beirut
Monday July 24, 2006

With roughly 400 stranded Sri Lankan women sleeping in his offices as
they try to escape Lebanon, Amanul Farouque, the country's ambassador
was out yesterday morning, going from bakery to bakery to buy them
bread. "This is an unusual assignment, but we are in an unusual
situation," he said wryly.

As Britain completed the evacuation of its nationals from Beirut
yesterday, along with most other western states, the plight of smaller
nations and their low-paid Lebanon-based citizens is getting worse. Up
to 80,000 Sri Lankan women used to work as maids and cleaners in
middle-class homes and hotels in Beirut and other Lebanese cities. At
least 5,000 have applied to leave, and if the bombing gets worse, the
numbers may rise.

They were the largest Asian community in Lebanon, so much so that a new
slang word has appeared in Arabic. A "sirlanka" means a maid.

Some were summarily sacked when their employers locked up their homes 
panic and fled the country last week. Abandoned and penniless, they
wander the streets in anxious little groups wondering what to do. 
queue at the embassy for papers to get out.

Some were frightened by the nightly thud of bombs and asked to go back
to Sri Lanka, even though their employers wanted them to stay.

Many were living in Lebanon illegally, either because they remained
after their contracts expired or after escaping from abusive employers
who still hold their passports and other papers. They risk imprisonment
if they try to get an exit visa at security headquarters.

"I wanted to leave Lebanon a long time ago," said Umani Senaviratna, 
from Colombo as she stood in a crowded office in the embassy where 
corridor is cluttered with suitcases. The officially recommended 
wage is $130 (about B#70) but "I had to work for two households from
5.30am until 10pm and they gave me only $100 (B#55)," she said. "Then 
war came, and it terrified me. I cried and cried and told my employer 
won't eat until you give me my passport'. I got it this morning and 

Until six months ago Sharma Nimali, 23, from the resort town of
Ambulangoda on Sri Lanka's south-west coast, was working in Junieh, a
mainly Christian town and holiday place just north of Beirut. She also
found herself working for two households - her initial employer and the
employer's married daughter. She escaped and got a job with two other
Sri Lankan women fugitives as part-time cleaners and concierges in a
Beirut office block, where they take turns sleeping in a room under the

Amid the crowds of jostling Sri Lankan women at the embassy yesterday
were a sprinkling of employers who had brought their maids to help 
Randina Awali, 24, who works for the Red Cross, had driven with her
father from Adloun on Lebanon's heavily-bombed south coast. It took 
four hours to cover the 40 miles to Beirut in a convoy of fleeing
people, but they were planning to go back after delivering their maid 
the embassy. "Her family were ringing day and night in tears and
pleading with her to come home immediately," she said.

The six-storey embassy, with its offices and flats for a handful of
staff, always had its own "safe house", a sparsely furnished flat for
runaways from sexual and other employer abuse. Now the building is a
refugee camp.

The fax machine clatters endlessly as families in Sri Lanka send
photocopies of birth certificates and IDs for the scores of women who
have no papers. "This is not the time to check for fraud. We have to
give them laisser-passers and put their names on manifests," says the
over-burdened ambassador.

His main worry is finding extra accommodation and transport. The 
Caritas took 100 women to a shelter yesterday and is planning to rent
another. Two bus convoys left last week for Damascus to a chartered Sri
Lankan airways plane.

Yesterday Mr Farouque was negotiating with the Indian government for 
Sri Lankans to fit on an Indian navy boat if there is room after the
Indian evacuees have embarked. "It will go to Larnaca and then they 
fly to Bombay, Delhi or Chennai. The ship will make three or four 
he said.

Thousands of women from the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal face a
similar plight. Meanwhile, the International Organisation for Migration
(IOM), which aids the repatriation of people caught up in emergencies,
is short of funds. Among countries which have asked for help for their
would-be evacuees from Lebanon are Bangladesh, Ghana, Moldova, Nepal,
Thailand and Vietnam.

IOM has asked donor governments to give $12m urgently. This will only
help 10,000 of the most vulnerable people who want to leave.
Guardian Unlimited B) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

Anna Fierling

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