Surviving Displacement, Alienation, and Kafala in the Nineties: An Oral History of Grassroots Organizing

It is not an easy task to write about the history of organizing by migrant domestic workers in Lebanon during the nineties.1 The “archive” of this struggle, an important source for historical writing that could illuminate radical moments from the past to support intersectional struggles in the present, is elusive and incomplete.2 Even if archival documents were within reach, however, they could only lay claim to history fragmentarily, long after heroines had disappeared—and they haven’t seized to be present.3 The first is Malini (Mala) Kandaarachchige who arrived in Lebanon from Sri Lanka during the civil war, labored in domestic work, and organized the Sri Lankan community surrounding Dahr el-Souane around mutual aid praxis in the nineties. Difficult material conditions forced educator and longtime community mobilizer Gemma Justo out of her home in the Philippines and into postwar Lebanon where she spent more than two decades initiating repatriation processes, advocating on behalf of migrant domestic workers, and contributing to transform the local feminist movement. Then at the close of the nineties, missionary Aimée Razanajay gave up a more privileged life in Madagascar and came to Lebanon as a domestic worker. Dedicating her resources, she organized through the church to repatriate Malagasy domestic workers enduring exploitation and abuse. However diverse their strategies may have been, these women were notable makers of that decade’s organizing history.

Between 1998-2001, while she was under Kafala, she also began to dedicate
her skills and resources to repatriate women in the networks she entered and
founded who were exploited and abused. “Il faut s’organiser pour quitter,” [to
leave, people must organize] she said to me. Many women she encountered
trusted her with their stories, and it was then that she began collecting their
testimonies. Father Salim put her in touch with Caritas and Roland Tawk, a
lawyer who was advocating on behalf of migrant domestic workers at the close
of the decade. Although she was not allowed to receive guests in her sponsor’s
home, she was able to meet the women who sought her help in the lobby and
use the landline of her sponsor. “Le téléphone n’arrêtait pas de sonner” [the
telephone would not stop ringing]. She listened carefully to the accounts of
domestic workers, sometimes more than once, as they related the “deception
schemes of agencies, or how the sponsors forbade them from eating, withheld
their wages, prevented them from communicating with their families,” and even
raped them. She would then compile the names of the sponsors, photocopy at
the Christian library in Hamra the documents she could obtain, and write
down the horrendous details of each account. Once a file was complete, she
would then go to the dermatology clinic of her sponsor to fax the documents to
the local consulate, the ministries of labor and foreign affairs in Madagascar,
and Caritas.

English | September 15, 2021



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