Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau is a multimedia storyteller currently documenting displaced faces around the world, migrant workers, Black Arabs, and women in the MENA region. She has been in Lebanon since 2006 working very closely with migrant workers and on the issue of abuse and racism that migrant workers experience on a day to day basis.
She is also the creator and organizer of “Taste Culture” events, which uses food from the countries of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, art and music as a means of raising awareness to Lebanon’s cultural diversity, sharing culture and combating racism.
Simba’s photographs and articles have been featured in Global Reporting Initiative’s and the International Museum of Women’s online exhibitions. Most recently, she was selected as one of thirty journalists for the Every Human Has Rights Media Award.
I had the privilege of speaking with Simba and getting to know more about her work with female migrant workers and the situation and daily struggle for survival female migrant workers experience when coming to work in Lebanon.
Christine: Could you please tell me a little about yourself and how you got involved in this kind of work?
Simba: I don’t want to go into too much detail about myself and prefer to highlight the situation of the women migrant workers. I originally came to Lebanon in 2006 from New York to visit a friend of mine for two months. Right away I could not ignore the racism and discrimination myself and others dealt with on a daily basis. I became involved in the African community in Lebanon, who consist of a community of workers, and also mingled between other communities of workers such as Sri Lankans, Filipinos etc. I worked on a farm in the mountains outside of Beirut with three other Sri Lankan workers. It was there where I saw firsthand how these women were treated and started listening to their stories and photographing them. I returned to Beirut after spending two months in Egypt looking at an underground women’s ritual called the Zar that is led by a Sheikha. In a way, I got ‘stuck’ here and began focusing on work with migrant workers and exploring the issue of racism from the lived experience of migrant workers. At this point, I was already in Beirut for four or five months and had missed my return flight back to New York and had no financial means of paying for a new ticket. My work and contacts with migrant workers have led authorities to accuse me of being a spy, where I have been detained on many occasions, have my passport taken each time I come in, and am followed by the secret police. I have now been working with migrant workers for over 3 years. The most recent incident being when I travelled to Paris to accept the Every Human Has Rights Award. Before leaving I received a strange call from the General Security stating that I could come and pick up my passport after it had been confiscated for several months. When I arrived, I was instructed to go to an officer’s office where I was told that my case had been closed, that I was free to return to Lebanon, and that my passport was being returned so that I know that there is no racism in Lebanon. The most important part is that I was in contact with the US Embassy but at the time they offered no support.
Christine: Can you briefly explain the situation of migrant workers (their rights, access to social services etc) and the role recruitment agencies play in bringing migrant workers to Lebanon? How does this compare to other foreign workers in Lebanon?
Simba: How it basically works is that most of the workers that come are recruited by recruitment agencies in their home countries. These recruitment agencies go and locate people in desperate situations that need alternative sources of funding and income for their families. These agencies present them with what seems as an amazing offer, where they have the opportunity to make money abroad, and send it back to their families. Many of these workers think they are going to some kind of paradise. However, the reality of the situation is that these recruitment agencies do not properly train these ‘to be workers’ in assimilating in the societies where they are going to work. They also do not provide them with the adequate amount of time to learn the language so they can properly defend themselves. Many of them are never told about the reality of abuse that takes place and for this reason show up naïve and only when they arrive, they realize the situation is much different from what they were told.
Up until May of last year, once the women migrant workers arrive in Lebanon, another recruitment agency in Lebanon takes over and creates a new contract, which is written in Arabic. For this reason, many of the migrant workers do not know what they are signing. What is written in the contract is that these workers will not have days off, and that employers can leave them in the home in order to protect their investment. It is basically a 50/50 situation where Lebanese who wish to bring a migrant worker to their homes pay recruitment agencies in Lebanon $3000USD. The agency asks the employer to pay the fees they already spent in bringing the worker to Lebanon (i.e. residency, visa, plane ticket etc) and something extra in order that they make money. Supposedly, it is the recruitment agencies that pay for the visa to bring migrant workers to Lebanon, but often the salaries of workers are held for the first two months once they arrive. The employer also places a deposit of $1,000 with the General Security, which the employer gets back after the contract expires.
The Labour Law in Lebanon also stipulates that foreign workers have no rights and includes them as servants and as such, the property of the employer that hired them, which in this sense makes them slaves with no rights. However, the situation of female migrant workers that come to work in homes and other menial jobs cannot be compared to that of foreign workers since racism also plays a major factor in determining the treatment of workers in Lebanon.
As for social services available to the migrant workers, they do not exist. However, the migrant workers create them in their own sense and through their everyday struggles. There are a lot of community leaders for example that are very dedicated to representing the rights of their communities, such as helping victims of rape or abuse.
Christine: Considering that foreign workers are not under the Labour Law in Lebanon, what are the implications of this and the formal steps that have been taken to amend these laws? How have the embassies of these countries reacted in cases of abuse, forced labour, and the high ‘suicide’ rate of migrant workers? What about the Lebanese government, and in particular, the Labour Ministry?
Simba: Formally, a Steering Committee was set up, yet for the most part, I question many of the people on this committee. There is one person from Human Rights Watch, Nadim Houry that is genuinely working to improve the rights of migrant workers on a formal basis; however the main problem is that there has been no follow up, which is something that HRW has highlighted recently. Since May of last year, it is required that when the workers arrive to Lebanon and sign contracts, that they be written in their own language and that they be guaranteed to work eight hours a day. There was also supposed to be an account set up where their salary would go to and a receipt would be issued to them as proof but as I mentioned, the problem is that there has been no follow up. The two main reasons for this has been because there is no pressure to enforce this, and that no one is really pushing to regulate recruitment agencies that have created such contracts and set up these kinds of relations, which work in the benefit of Lebanese employers i.e. paying workers $100/month. Of course, there is no doubt that the formal Lebanese laws need to be revised, but this will only solve few of the problems since the major problem is the mentality and how these workers are viewed in Lebanese society.
Recruitment agencies in the home countries are also just as responsible as those in Lebanon. Madagascar, Nepal, and Ethiopia do not have any embassies in Lebanon, although Ethiopia does have a consulate. Workers from these countries are therefore represented by Lebanese through an honourary consulate. The problem here is that everyone is hungry for money. The governments make money because everything has to go through the government, including the recruitment agencies (i.e. visas, passports etc). It has become a form of trafficking between the governments and for this reason; the governments do not want this source of income to stop. One Sri Lankan migrant women worker for example that was speaking out against the treatment of workers had her own embassy put her in jail through the General Security. Governments do not want this information of abuse to get out and prevent other workers from coming.
Recently, Madagascar, Nepal, and Ethiopia have stopped sending workers, but the problem here is that many of them will start coming illegally, which makes their position even more vulnerable. For example some Nepal workers in Lebanon traffic women to Lebanon while others work with Lebanese to help traffic women migrant workers.
Christine: What is the relationship of migrant workers with other Arab/Lebanese women in Lebanon, in particular workers (whether foreign or Arab)?
Simba: Essentially there is no solidarity among Arab women and migrant workers. This is mainly because migrant workers are seen as someone lesser and inferior to other people in society. Women groups in Lebanon for example do not really look at the issue of migrant workers. Only recently as a result of EU funding for projects that deal with migrant workers have these groups began taking an interest in female migrant workers. For the most part, the relationship of the female migrant workers in the home is directly with her female employer, and it is her employer that views her as inferior, which is not only contradictory to human rights but also any sense of women solidarity.
The relationship is therefore based on discrimination and preconceived ideas, which is something cultural in Lebanon. If you are white from the western hemisphere, then you are treated better since many Lebanese assume you are from a rich country. As for Russians and Eastern Europeans, many Lebanese think of them as prostitutes, while people from Gulf countries are seen as wealthy. Treatment therefore comes with certain stereotypes and social status in Lebanon remains very important. When I spoke with some university students, they informed me that because their parents grew up in a culture of war, they were brought up to believe they were better than anyone and the key thing was to not look poor and create a kind of façade, since being poor is looked down upon in Lebanon.
Many of the workers that come to Lebanon are escaping from poverty and come to Lebanon as servants with essentially no freedom of movement. The irony here is that many Lebanese go to Africa and set up businesses to make money that is sent back to Lebanon. When speaking to the migrant workers from African countries that have significant Lebanese communities, they are aware of the segregation they face even in their own countries. In some areas, no Africans are allowed and the Lebanese have set up their own communities where they do not mix with the local population, and in many cases employ maids that work in these exclusive communities. As far as many are concerned, if one is Asian or African in Lebanon, they must be a servant, which boils down to racism as well as class since people who do housework are looked down upon.
Christine: In addition to formal organizations and actions, does organizing take place at an informal and grassroots level? What is the vision of these women in their everyday struggle?
Simba: Most of the organizing that takes place is done internally between the women and communities themselves. I was able to blend into such communities, not as someone coming in from the outside to do research on them, yet as their friends and as a woman that understands their situation as I have had to deal with it myself, such as when I also used to clean homes. As an individual of colour in Lebanon, you are automatically placed in a category.
These women have created their own social networks, where women help each other and assist each other in various ways and on a day to day basis. For example, many of the migrant workers that have run away from their homes due to abuse are housed by members of their community. These community leaders technically house them illegally and also face the risk of being put in prison. In cases of rape for example, they are helped to cope. They also pay visits to migrant workers in prison such as bringing them food and clothes. Many of the community leaders have been here for 12 to 15 years and are in a position to assist the women in their communities. Some are here illegally while others are legal who pay for Lebanese to sponsor them.
Christine: What are some of the major impediments to organizing the women migrant workers seeing that many of these women are confined to the homes they work in? Do they view such organizing as means of resistance, struggle, and personal empowerment? How does your work allow them to represent themselves and have their own voice heard in their struggle?
Simba: When people talk about organizing, they usually do so from an outside perspective. These migrant workers organize these informal social networks simply for survival. There is no particular organization, but the churches do provide some sort of support and networks, while Muslim migrant workers and refugees remain in need of basic assistance. The church for example has clubs for African and Filipino’s that have the ability to get out of their homes. Many that do work here however have no kind of movement.
Taste Culture has organized many events to provide a platform for community leaders to speak out in public. The TasteKulcha events for example have been set up as a means to have dialogue over food and share cultures. One problem also is the mentality since many of these workers do not have a university education and do not feel that they communicate with Lebanese since their place is to serve them. The idea is to get them to speak to each other and get out of this Master-Slave kind of relationship. In these cultural events, while most people come for the food, we have discussions, invite leaders, and have the workers speak.
In the most recent cultural event and in reference to all the deaths and high suicide rates, we conducted a public vigil to two of the locations where a domestic worker had died. Also through art and dance women have been able to have personal empowerment. In a workshop organized by TasteKulcha a woman from Darfur was able to teach Lebanese how to do the local dance of her village, which makes her feel empowered through sharing her culture. Other communities have opened their own shops, where in particular on Sunday’s, one senses that in certain areas they are in another country as people from these communities gather together.
Christine: Keeping in mind that these workers play a vital role in Lebanese society (taking care of children and elderly, cleaning and maintaining the household etc) which is not acknowledged enough, what does it take, in your opinion (or in that of the women you work with) to have a just relationship between employer and employee in Lebanon?
Simba: As I mentioned, it comes down to a situation of status. There are some who cannot even afford to pay a worker but hire one anyway to upgrade their status in society. This is not to say that all Lebanese abuse their workers. There are many who treat their workers very well, giving them their own rooms, days off, the ability to go home and visit family etc. But for the many others that do mistreat these female migrant workers by forms of abuse and rape, this has led many workers to run away from the homes or commit suicide. I have interviewed many such women that were raped by their male employers. Even Syrian workers in Lebanon that are also looked down upon view the domestic women workers as prostitutes. I think justice will come by changing these mentalities, which has led to excessive mistreatment, suffering, and abuse of migrant workers, most particularly the female workers.
Christine: Why is it important that other people know about this issue? What methods and outlets have you used to get the message across?
Simba: There are many ways of challenging stereotypes in regards to female migrant workers. One as I mentioned is through the TasteKulcha events of music, food, and art. I have also been invited to universities to talk and have written a few articles in the past few years. In regards to getting the message across, Western audiences are not very interested in this issue while at the local level, people in the region do not want to hear about such things and get shocked or offended when speaking about slavery. Only recently has the local media began taking an interest in the issue of female migrant workers and in some ways have become like vultures that have various reasons and interests on this issue. The point of view from many in Lebanon is that there is no such racism, while from the point of view of the workers and myself, racism is a real fact in their daily struggles of life and this is the message I am trying to get out. 
 Simba Shani Kamaria Russeau is a US citizen and passport holder.