Upstairs – downstairs

There are some things that are frighteningly easy to get used to. And then there are others that I hope will never seem normal to me.

In Lebanon it is very usual for people to have maids. Even families without kids often decide to hire a maid to do things like cleaning, ironing and cooking. The place I stayed at is no exception.

After having stayed with the family a few days it felt a bit strange when the wife asked me to please not wash my own dishes after breakfast. Their maid is quite new and still doesn’t have the routines completely mastered, one of them being to always wash any dish put by the sink. But even though it felt strange, I have to admit I got used to it very quickly. Just like I got used to having her hang up my laundry and iron everything. And I can honestly understand anyone who chooses to pay 180$ a month to have someone do all those chores for them.

The maid in this home is 22-years-old and from Sri Lanka. She was actually supposed to work in Saudi Arabia, but was rejected there due to medical problems. The family I live with hired her despite knowing of her problems. They buy her medicine. They would never dream of hitting her or abusing her in any way. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality in many other families.

Every year Human Rights Watch criticizes the way migrant workers are treated all over the Middle East. But for some reason it seems that maids and housekeepers are treated extra badly in Lebanon. You hear of women who have their passports taken, are locked up in tiny rooms and not given anything to eat. You hear of women who work 18 hours a day every day. You hear of women who are severely beaten, sexually abused and in some cases even murdered. That is if they haven’t committed suicide – something that happens once a week here in Lebanon according to different human rights organizations. I’ve even read that some countries have started warning their citizens about going to Lebanon to work.

Ethiopia is not one of them, although the maids from there are probably treated the worst. There is a strict hierarchy when it comes to domestic workers here. Philippians are on the top of that list. They generally speak a quite a lot of English and are well-educated. Which also means that they often find jobs in beauty parlors and nail salons, where their tips add up to more than their paycheck. And that means that a family has to pay them more. Next on the list are women from Sri Lanka. They rarely speak English when they arrive, but are generally quick learners. But more importantly than that (from a Lebanese point of view) is that they aren’t black. Which brings me back to Ethiopia.

Ethiopians are generally considered the lowest of the lowest. They are often blamed for bringing HIV to Lebanon. And even among other domestic workers Ethiopians are looked down upon. When an Ethiopian Airways plane crashed after take-off from Beirut and family and friends of those on board came to Beirut airport two waiting areas were set up: One for Lebanese, other Arabs and Europeans. And one for Ethiopians.

Like I mentioned, the maid with this family is from Sri Lanka. And even though she is mainly treated well I still feel sorry for her. I feel sorry that she had to leave her husband and two-year-old daughter. I feel sorry that she can’t leave the apartment by herself – even when she’s done with her work. I feel sorry that she never gets to decide what and when to eat. That she never gets to do anything or make any decisions adults in the West would consider basic acts of freedom.

But at the end of the day, my feeling sorry for her doesn’t change anything. What hopefully will change is the future she now can give her daughter with the money she makes here.

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