Ethiopians in Lebanon: Moments of Epiphany

Ethiopians take part in a wedding ceremony in Lebanon. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Nisrine Hammoud

Published Tuesday, January 24, 2012

For most domestic migrant workers, life in Lebanon is no cakewalk. But there are rare moments, like the celebration of Epiphany, where all is forgotten and a piece of home comes to life.

Bearing what no person can bear, her bones moan just as her soul. Her black eyes tell what the tongue fails to say. She listens attentively to the story of his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. She remembers that she is living not far from one of the tributaries of this sacred river.

However, the only thing she faces here is the humiliation visited upon dark skinned women. These Ethiopian women agreed to immigrate in order to serve a Lebanese “lady” who believes that their monthly salary – which is equivalent in price to her winter leather shoes – gives her the right to enslave these dark skinned women.

She halts the succession of her bitter days as she escapes with joyous hymns of the Father calling from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Shundra is one of hundreds of Ethiopian women who were granted permission Sunday to take their work uniforms off and celebrate the Christian holiday of Epiphany. They attended in silence, dressed in Ethiopian costumes that are worn especially for prayer. They consist of a white linen gown that includes a skirt and a jacket. Others are dressed in tight pants or short skirts, and they all wear a head covering called Natala.

The Ethiopian women take off their shoes at the entrance and kneel before an image of St. Gabriel, prior to entering the temple, where they perform their rituals.

As the religious ceremonies proceed, a 40-year-old Lebanese man is seen holding a diaper as his Ethiopian wife carries their newborn child. He asks her to baptize him in honor of the holy day, so she rushes outside to look for water.

The sound of worship and ululations are heard in the courtyard outside that is full of believers. Female guides try to organize them in queues, but they soon realize that their numbers are beyond the hall’s capacity.

Ethiopian women continue to arrive until noon. They either come on foot, rent buses, or take cabs, which are usually abundant in the Badaro area on Sunday morning. The “lucky” ones arrive in SUVs.

The women gather around one of their friends who was lucky enough to become the mistress of a Lebanese man who grew tired of his monotonous married life and saw this opportunity as the “cheapest solution” to satisfy his desires. The 50-year-old man says openly that “nobody is like her. She is nice and undemanding. She has no conditions, like the type of car or house. She and I are the same...and I do not deprive her of anything.”

As he waits for her to leave the church, he explains: “I did not accompany her inside so that no one would think I am her husband.” Soon, she appears and begs him to give her more time to complete her prayers. He threatens to leave by himself before submitting to her wishes.

In a different corner, a couple are seen with their 5-year-old daughter dressed in a green coat. The young Lebanese father holds his wife’s hand and attends the ceremony in silence, unconcerned about prying eyes.

A 60-year-old man stands outside holding the hand of his 4-year-old son, who has bright bronze skin. He says proudly: “All the attention that he received from his mother early this morning did not dissuade him from staying with me.” When asked if marrying a foreign woman is acceptable in light of the prevailing “mentality,” he answers by insulting all women before he heads outside.

In a perfect English accent, Sami (26 years) explains that he came to Lebanon from Addis Ababa in order to work as a manual laborer. He did not pursue his university degree in mechanical engineering back in Addis Ababa, where he held several administrative jobs.

He does not fail to mention the extent of “exploitation” that he has been subjected to at work. He is made to perform duties that were not listed in the contract he signed. He is outraged that his employer calls him a “donkey.”

As the worshipers line up and flood the main entrance door, a large group of Ethiopians led by a Lebanese woman merge into the crowd.

Soon we realize that she is the partner of a divorced Lebanese man. The couple brings in Ethiopian domestic workers to Lebanon through Sudan at a cost of $1200 per person, earning them a $300 commission for each one.

He explains that this amount is less expensive than that set by the domestic worker offices and that this operation is 100 percent legitimate and has its advantages because his partner knows the women personally. He says that he asks her to import maids from rural areas, where they are still “raw.” He then monitors them for any “prohibited” behavior.

We leave them to watch the flow of holy water from tubes inside the house of worship. The women cry as they receive their blessings from it.

We join Aynalem (31), who is lighting a candle. She confides that she asked Jesus to send her back to her country and to her lover, whom she left 11 years ago.

“A person’s requests are endless, but I thank God that I work at a home where I receive good treatment from a woman whom I consider a mother to me. My desire to collect more money has prolonged my stay, although I do not regret coming here,” she says.

Another Ethiopian worshipper, Sahay tells us that the gowns worn to church in Ethiopia are very decent and that it is unacceptable to enter a church without wearing one, whereas Ethiopian women in Lebanon do not apply this tradition.

On Sundays, they pray, visit friends, and call their families. “We’ve let go in Lebanon. We started going to church wearing makeup and skirts. But this is very wrong,” she says laughing.

Outside, Badaro’s main street resembles a neighborhood in Addis Ababa. It is full of street vendors selling Ethiopian products. One of them calls out “mastico,” which Sahay explains that it is a 100 percent Ethiopian gum with a delicious banana flavor.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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