Beirut, Lebanon — Meriam Prado remembers the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. When the family in Lebanon that employed her at the time fled to Syria and then Saudi Arabia, they encouraged her to return to the Philippines, the country of her birth.
But Meriam decided to stay and volunteered at the Philippines Embassy and her church in Beirut.
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Now as Lebanon risks being pulled into another war with Israel, the 51-year-old Prado, who is also the co-founder and president of the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon and has been in the country for 30 years, said she is prepared to endure it all again. She can’t leave. Her sister is here, and so is her job.
“I’m a widow and I have two boys [back home],” she said. “I don’t know what will happen here, but there’s no work back home.”
Prado is one of an estimated 250,000 foreign domestic workers living in Lebanon. Female domestic workers constitute 77 percent of migrant labour in the country, according to a 2022 study by Saint Joseph University of Beirut, with most coming from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Many men also come from these countries for work.
Migrant workers from Asia and Africa began coming to Lebanon after the Civil War ended in 1990. Today, they fill critical roles in providing childcare and help for the elderly. As of 2011, almost one in four homes had a live-in domestic worker, though that number has severely decreased since the 2019 financial crisis and subsequent currency depreciation.
Despite their crucial role in Lebanese society, migrant labourers are arguably the country’s most vulnerable community. The kafala system means workers must have a local sponsor. For live-in domestics, passports are often confiscated and non-payment and other abuses are common due to the imbalance between employer and worker. An average of two domestic workers die every week, including from suicide, though many are never investigated.
During the financial crisis, which started in 2019, families who could no longer afford to pay their domestic workers discarded them outside their respective embassies or consulates. As long as the workers are under contract, they are the responsibility of the host family, the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon told Al Jazeera. Should a protracted war break out with Israel, most of these workers, many of whom make less than $400 a month, could be at risk as they struggle to sustain themselves let alone their families back home.
Most migrants won’t have a shelter or special flight to travel back to their home country, Noha Roukoss, an expert on migrant rights with the Social Workers’ Syndicate in Lebanon, said. “They will be suffering, stuck in Lebanon, and at risk.”
Far from their families and home, migrant workers would be particularly vulnerable if a war were to break out, said Paula Chakravartty, who researches labour and migration at New York University.
“With few social safety nets in the form of state welfare services, family or community, migrant workers — most of whom are paying back their debt to recruiters or sending money home — are at the mercy of their employers and the few NGOs for survival or the promise of a safe journey home,” she said.
The news from the Lebanese border has left many workers worried about what is to come. The owner of a market in Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood that stocks products from the Philippines said that the usual Sunday traffic was absent. Sunday is typically the day off for live-in domestic workers in Lebanon.
While Prado has no plans to go back to the Philippines, many other workers told Al Jazeera that they will return home, should a war erupt. Many embassies could offer to repatriate their citizens. Most workers said their embassies are regularly updating them via Facebook pages or SMS messages with the latest information.
However, if Israel bombs Beirut’s airport the way it did in 2006, the pathway out of the country will be less clear. Al Jazeera reached out to a handful of embassies in Lebanon. None gave an official response, though an employee at the Sri Lankan embassy said officials had been working on a plan.
Fear and defiance
Fatima, 22, is from Sierra Leone and has been working as a custodian for three years in Lebanon. She runs an organisation in her home country that provides support to widows and orphans.
“If a war happens I will ask to go back to my country,” she said, stopping to speak outside a shop in Dora, a transport hub on Beirut’s periphery that is popular with various migrant communities. “Now, I’m a bit afraid.”
Other foreign workers were more defiant. Some said they were following the news but dismissed feeling any sense of fear. “It is written,” said Mohammad Suhail Mih, 38, from Bangladesh. “If there’s no work, there’s no food. So what else should we do?” Many had experienced the 2006 war and some had even been in Lebanon long enough to remember the latter days of the Civil War.
“What can I do [if there is war]?,” wondered a 61-year-old Sri Lankan man sitting behind the counter of a mini market in Dora, who had first arrived in Lebanon in 1988. He threw his hands in the air and broke into self-deprecating laughter. “If I’m dead, I’m dead. I can only die once.”
Stuck between two wars
Going home, for certain foreign nationals, would mean leaving one war zone for another. Sudan is currently in the midst of a civil war, the Tigray region of Ethiopia was at the centre of a vicious conflict until late last year, and there’s also the case of the Syrian community in Lebanon.
“If a war starts, I’ll have to talk to my friends about what to do because there’s a war in Sudan, too,” said Mahieddine Hassan, 29, bringing his hands to his head in exasperation. Tade Murugta, an electrician from Tigray in his early 30s, said he would stay and try to keep finding work in Lebanon.
For now, there’s only one thing to do: wait and see. Prado, of the Alliance of Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon, said she is going about her days as normal for the moment.
“I’m not nervous or panicking,” she said, her voice calm and steady. “If God wants us to die, we will die. But I’m a fighter and a believer.”