Lebanon's Lankan maids tell their story

The film Maid in Lebanon is a tale of exile, occasional abuse and even death.

    Thousands of Sri Lankan women go to work in Lebanon each year

    It documents the fate of Sri Lankan women seeking better wages abroad to support their families.


    The documentary, shot by Carol Mansour, both in her native Lebanon and in Sri Lanka, opens on a hopeful note.


    Sixteen-year-old Sureika is getting ready to leave for Lebanon, where her $100 monthly wage will support her family back home, pay her dowry and may even put her sister through school.


    Like all 80,000 Sri Lankan women who have similar jobs in Lebanon, Sureika is checked for HIV, hepatitis B, TB and pregnancy before departure.


    She also takes a 12-day course in English, Arabic and local cooking, and gets acquainted with electrical appliances she has never used before - a vacuum cleaner and a blender. Sureika's village has no electricity.


    When she arrives in Lebanon she will be asked to clean, cook and probably look after children.


    Employer's property


    "On signing the contract," says a voice-over in the film, "we almost become property of the employer and will work three years without a day off."


    Some film viewers remarked on
    how beautiful Sri Lanka is

    Mansour told Aljazeera.net that during her research for the 26-minute film she discovered many examples of mistreatment.


    "Some of the maids are actually not paid during the first three months to make up for part of the money their employers paid to the agency that brought them over," she said.


    "Employers keep their passport for the duration of their contract." 


    Sureika may encounter the same fate as another maid, Kumari, who says her first employer locked her up for hours without food.


    Kumari, in her twenties, says she had to work for more than a year to pay $2,000 to the Lebanese agency that did her paperwork, in order to get her passport back.


    Even then, she ended up going back to Lebanon to support her children, whom she left in the care of her parents.


    Lila, too, left her children behind. She sends her salary to her sister rather than to her husband, who has a drinking problem.


    She cries when Mansour shows her footage of her daughter in Sri Lanka.


    "People here in Lebanon think that $100 salary is a lot of money," says Mansour, "but what they don't know is that families in Sri Lanka are completely dependent on these women."


    Success stories


    But there are success stories as well, such as Nirosha's.


    "Some of the maids are actually not paid during the first three months to make up for part the money their employers paid to the agency that brought them over"

    Carol Mansour,
    director, Maid in Lebanon

    Together with her husband, who stayed in Sri Lanka to take care of the family, she is helping to finance the construction of their future home.


    Nirosha's employer says she is happy that Nirosha is "doing something with the money".


    She is one of the few employers who agreed to appear on camera.


    "Some owners [employers] simply did not want to be interviewed," Mansour says. "I felt they knew deep down that what they're doing is wrong. Some would admit off camera that they keep theirs maids locked up at home.


    "I knew that there was some abuse going on, but the more I got into the subject, the more I saw how difficult their situation is."


    Rape and death


    The film also tells the story of abused maids.


    While Mansour was shooting, she discovered that most maids do not have a room to sleep in. Some sleep on couches, others in windowless spaces.


    "Some owners simply did not want to be interviewed. I felt they knew deep down that what they’re doing is wrong. Some would admit off camera that they keep theirs maids locked up at home"


    Mansour says the more money an employer has, the more likely they are to abuse their maids.


    "Maybe they don't look at them as human beings," she says.


    One maid, Sudany, says she was abused by a boy from the family she was working for. Another woman, speaking on condition of anonymity with her face obscured, says she was repeatedly raped by a teenager while working.


    A third, who does not give her name but shows her face on camera, tells of physical abuse and humiliation, involving beatings while handcuffed, hair pulling and chopping, as well as threats to throw her off a balcony while being held from the window by her male employer.


    Ray Jureidi, a professor of sociology at the American University in Beirut, who is interviewed in the documentary, says: "There seems to be some kind of censorship with regard to abuse and deaths of migrant domestic workers."




    Two screenings of Mansour's documentary were held in Beirut.

    She asked her acquaintances to bring their maids to one of them in November. She says some people were "a bit disturbed" by what they saw.


    "But many actually remarked on the beauty of Sri Lanka, how green and lush it is. It goes to show they have no idea about the women they employ," she says.


    The film was released last summer and funded by Caritas Migrant Center Lebanon, the European Commission, Caritas Sweden, the Netherlands Embassy in Beirut and the International Labor Organisation (ILO).


    It is being shown 

    in Lebanon's schools and to other pupils worldwide to create awareness about problems faced by migrant workers.




    "There seems to be some kind of censorship with regard to abuse and deaths of migrant domestic workers"

    Ray Jureidi,
    professor of sociology,
    American University in Beirut

    The ILO said in a statement last week that Lebanon's labour minister had formed a panel to review the labour law and put together a standard contract for domestic workers. 


    The committee is also drafting a "rights and responsibilities booklet" for maids which should be availabe by May.


    Mansour directed other documentaries focusing on socio-economic issues such as child labour.


    Her first documentary 100% Asphalt told the story of street children in Cairo and was awarded the Jury's Prize by the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris 2000, and Best Documentary at the Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam and in Sydney.


    She recently completed another piece focusing on child labour in Lebanon, entitled Invisible Children.


    She says she and the producer of Maid in Lebanon,

    Cheryl Uys Allie, went back to Sri Lanka last autumn and documented the stories of other women there.


    She is currently seeking funds to work on a 52-minute version of Maid in Lebanon.


    Photos courtesy of Carol Mansour

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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