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'We're like slaves... Racism here is very high'

After Beirut blast, foreign workers beg to go home

Explosion exacerbates plight of at least 250,000 migrants who were already stranded in Lebanon, amid dollar shortages and subsequent pandemic

Gambian migrant workers protest in front of the consulate of Gambia on August 20, 2020, in Beirut, asking to be evacuated from Lebanon and be repatriated to their country. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)
Gambian migrant workers protest in front of the consulate of Gambia on August 20, 2020, in Beirut, asking to be evacuated from Lebanon and be repatriated to their country. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — After struggling first through Lebanon’s economic crisis and then the coronavirus pandemic, Ethiopian worker Tarik Kebeda said the deadly blast that ripped through her Beirut home was the final straw.

Inside the small house that she shares with four friends, she pointed to the window frames covered by sheets, because the glass was smashed out by the August 4 explosion.

They had already lost their jobs — as domestic workers, or in supermarkets or restaurants — but now their home is at risk too.

“I’m scared to sleep here,” the 22-year old said, showing the deep cracks running down the bedroom’s walls, saying she feared the building would “collapse on top of us.”

Thousands of foreign workers were already stranded in Lebanon, after months of dollar shortages and then the coronavirus pandemic.

Then came the blast in Beirut’s port that killed more than 181 people, wounded thousands, and devastated swathes of the city.

Kenyan domestic workers camp on August 20, 2020, outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut after losing their jobs, due to the economic crisis, to demand repatriation back home. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Many say it was just one disaster too many, and now they need to leave.

“I love Lebanon, but I don’t want to live here anymore,” Kebeda said. “There’s no more work. How will I eat?”

Some foreign workers also say they feel sidelined by aid efforts.

In the poor neighborhood of Karantina, Kebeda’s neighbor Hana claimed aid workers sometimes put fellow Lebanese first.

Next door, 31-year-old Romane Abera recounted how she hid beneath a parked car to hide from the explosion.

“Once, a truck came to distribute food boxes, but they said: ‘Only give them to the Lebanese,'” Hana said.

Today, her damaged home is barely held up by scaffolding, with hot gusts of summer air sweeping through a huge hole in the wall.

Hammer protest

“I wish Lebanon could go back to how it was before,” said Abera, who left behind her baby boy in Ethiopia and recently lost her job.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers of multiple nationalities — including at least 250,000 housekeepers and carers — toil in Lebanon for cash to send home.

They enter Lebanon under a controversial sponsorship system called “kafala,” which has been repeatedly denounced by rights groups as enabling a wide range of abuses.

Under kafala, workers cannot terminate their contracts without the permission of their employers, or they will lose their legal immigration status.

Many foreign workers have reached their breaking point.

Gambian migrant workers use tools to knock the door of the consulate of Gambia in Beirut on August 20, 2020, during a protest asking to be evacuated from Lebanon and be repatriated to their country. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Outside the Gambian consulate in Beirut, around 30 Gambian women clamored for help.

“We’re like slaves,” one protester shouted. “We are not treated well, and the racism here is very high.”

Zeina Ammar, from Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) organization, urged countries to fund evacuations, and provide travel documents when needed.

“We want to go home,” they chanted.

Some threw handfuls of dirt towards the building, while others hit its door with hammers.

“It should be a systematic, unconditional provision of laissez-passer to absolutely everyone in order to save their lives,” she said.

‘Systematically dehumanized’

After the port blast, Lebanese shared videos online celebrating the courage of migrant workers helping with clean-up efforts in the streets, as well as footage of a housekeeper on August 4 diving to rescue a toddler from an imploding window.

But ARM says not enough attention is being given to the migrants who fell victim to the blast.

“The official tally of the deceased and the missing remains incomplete, excluding primarily people of non-Lebanese origin,” ARM said.

Kenyan domestic workers camp on August 20, 2020, outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut after losing their jobs due to the economic crisis, to demand repatriation back home. (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

“Migrant workers and refugees are systematically dehumanized and marginalized in Lebanon, in life as in death.”

Outside the Kenyan consulate, dozens of women said they had been holding a sit-in since August 10 to demand their repatriation.

Among them, a 21-year-old recounted escaping abusive employers, only to be injured and see her home destroyed in this month’s explosion.

The consulate said efforts were underway to fly those who wished back home, but demonstrators complained of inaction.

Another woman said her employers had dumped her at the consulate just days after the blast without a passport or the salary she was owed, accusing her of being too ill to work.

A fellow protester, 27-year-old Emily, was incensed.

“Who throws a sick woman on the streets at night?” she asked, with another woman’s 5-month-old baby lying beside her.

“We just need help to go back home. Only that.”

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