Death in Ashrafiye

A migrant domestic worker holds up a sign during a parade in Beirut to support the rights of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, April 29, 2012. (REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir)

 

 

“I woke up to the commotion around 3:30 a.m. I overheard the neighbors saying there was a potential suicide in our neighborhood in Ashrafiye.  It was a shocking thing to hear, so I quickly put on my shoes and went down to the street to see what was happening. The policeman on the scene was making some phone calls. He said that a Bangladeshi woman, a domestic worker, had jumped off from the fourth floor, and that he thinks she’s probably dead. 

A little while later an ambulance rushed to the scene. The paramedics ran to the body, but upon seeing her they realized that there was nothing they could do. I guess in some cases CPR becomes a futile exercise. I got closer and saw her for the first time. Her brain was largely outside her head, and there were bits and pieces of brain matter scattered around all over the place. She was in her early forties and she was wearing a light-colored night gown—one of those very cheap types. Her face was completely intact, but the impact of the fall had completely smashed the back of her skull.

Although cases of emergencies usually imply a series of fast-paced events, this particular one was unbearably slow. The woman was dead, but the bureaucracy of the Lebanese state meant that she had to lie there for a few more hours. The police had to complete their mundane reports and pretend they were doing thorough investigative work. The paramedics could not leave the scene before a forensic doctor arrived and officially signed the papers declaring she was dead (I later learned that these are the procedures they have to follow to make sure they are not held accountable). All in all, there was a four-hour wait, during which we just sat there and observed how the police and people dealt with the aftermath of this death.

One of the policemen was unexpectedly jolly and sarcastic. “Something is wrong in the head of these people. Each week, or two weeks maximum, we have a similar case. They keep jumping off.” He continued to interrogate the victim’s employer, a Lebanese woman in her late forties:

  • Policeman: Did you notice she was behaving in a strange way that was threatening to your kids?
  • Employer: No. Sometimes. She was mostly normal…

The Lebanese lady was in shock, but she looked more worried than she was sad. I imagined she was thinking, “What an inconvenient mess… I can’t believe this has happened to me.” The policeman joked around with her more than once, and she tried to go along with whatever narrative he was inventing. Everyone in the neighborhood was surprisingly light-hearted about what had happened. People were either joking or indifferent; they were treating her as if she were a cockroach. Some other police officers hastily took a few pictures for their records, and during their conversations with each other they often referred to her using different nationalities: “the Sri Lanki”, “the Ethiopian”, “the Bangladeshi”. It didn’t matter to them what her nationality was. She was a black maid and other details didn’t really matter. She was a late night chore, a disturbance, a task that they have to do in a half-assed way because they know for sure that no superior, minister, organization, or embassy will make a fuss about it the next day.

They took all 10 fingerprints of the corpse on the scene (they literally wiped the blood off her fingers, put some ink on them, and pressed them one after the other on a piece of paper). A nosy passerby was poking at a little piece of brain next to him. No one seemed to mind. A few hours later, by the time all bureaucratic procedures were finalized, her body was finally taken away from the scene. By then her blood on the street had become thick and dry; it had a texture like the leftover residue of Turkish coffee.

I was overwhelmed with feelings of anger that morning. I felt deeply alienated from this society. I don’t know why I didn’t say anything at the time, but boy I wish I had. I wish I had slapped that racist policeman straight in the face… How can these people have zero empathy and respect for another human being that has just jumped to her death? How can they not think for a second that later on that day her family will receive one of the worst phone calls of their lives? How can they be blind to the fact that these women are systematically oppressed in the households of their employers?” *

 

*The above text is a true testimony by one of the witnesses of this incident. At their request, and in order to protect their identity, very minor details of the testimony were edited.

 

 

 

A foreigner residing in Lebanon holds a sign reading in Arabic “The sponsorship system kills a domestic worker each week” during a cultural parade and festival to celebrate International Workers’ Day in Beirut. Photo AFP

 

Author’s note: In addition to the multitude of severe social illnesses that are characteristic of Lebanese communities (a sample of which is presented above), one other factor at play here is the Kafala (sponsorship) system that Lebanon adheres to when managing the affairs of domestic workers. A housemaid, for example, can only come to work in Lebanon if a Lebanese employer sponsors her (usually through an agency). To do so, the sponsor is required to pay a large amount of money. This usually makes employers reluctant to take any risks and overly cautious to protect their ‘investment’. Thus they usually place heavy restrictions on the workers’ freedom of movement and take hold of their passports. It is simply too costly for them to risk the possibility of having the maid, in this case, ‘escape’ and find another job.  Simply put, the current law is reinforcing the master/servant relationship between employer and employee.

 

According to Human Rights Watch, “domestic workers are dying in Lebanon at a rate of more than one per week” either from suicide or from botched escape attempts. The key factors pushing these women to kill themselves or risk their lives are “forced confinement, excessive work demands, employer abuse, and financial pressures”. Only through abolishing the kafala system can we hope to improve the living conditions and preserve the dignity and basic rights of the nearly 200,000 migrant domestic workers currently working in Lebanon.

 

It is high time that we, defenders of human rights, make our voices louder, and it is causes like these that should constitute our politics. We should be angry over this and a thousand other issues: if things are bad, it’s because someone in power is doing a lousy job, and they should be held accountable. In less than five months, Lebanon will have the first parliamentary elections in over nine years; make sure to vote for a higher caliber of candidates than the rotten political class currently in power.

 

To learn more about the Kafala system and how it can be improved, please refer to the following policy paper prepared by KAFA organization:  Reforming the “Sponsorship System” for Migrant Domestic Workers.

 

 

 

 

 




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Mazen Walker

A civil rights activist and co-founder of Freethought Lebanon. Passionate about discovering & creating music, philosophy, and poetry.