On a bustling side street in central Beirut, three floors above a small green grocery, Sriyani Disanayaka and 19 other young women are fighting their own quiet battle in war-torn Lebanon. Sheltering from nightly air raids, Sriyani and her fellow migrant workers are Sri Lankan nationals – poor, rural women drawn abroad by the promise of a working wage, now trapped inside Lebanon.
Like more than 900,000 others displaced by the fighting in Lebanon, Sriyani and thousands of other domestic workers have been engulfed by the conflict here. A country with a strong culture of domestic servitude, where even lower middle-class families often employ domestic workers, more than 200,000 migrants were living in Lebanon at the outbreak of the war, many of them from impoverished countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sri Lanka.
Like Sriyani, many such workers come from poor rural backgrounds, drawn abroad by the promise of a few dollars a day working as gardeners, trash collectors or domestic servants. Most first learned of the opportunity to work abroad through employment agencies in their local towns, which aggressively recruit young men and women in many countries around the world. For Sriyani, the decision to come to Lebanon was made for her by her husband back in eastern Sri Lanka.
“A girl introduced me to an employment agency there,” Sriyani said. “My husband sent me here to earn money.”
Despite rosy promises by such agencies, working conditions in countries like Lebanon, where migrant labor laws are non-existent or rarely enforced, are often extremely difficult. Sriyani works as many as 18 hours a day, earning just $100 each month, the average for Sri Lankan domestic workers here. Having signed a three-year contract, Sriyani had been working for a Lebanese family in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area which came under Israeli air attack at the outset of the war. When the first bombs fell, Sriyani said, her employers fled, taking with them the passport and documentation she had given to them upon arriving in Lebanon.
“When the bombs hit our [town], they locked me in the house and went somewhere else,” Sriyani said. “All night I was there alone.”
Finally able to escape the house during a lull in the fighting, Sriyani – who speaks none of the local languages in Lebanon – made her way to a shelter run by Caritas Lebanon, a non-governmental organization working in Lebanon to assist migrants affected by the war. There she received food, clothing, and much-needed support from social workers employed by the agency. Housed now in an area of Beirut largely unaffected by the air raids, Sriyani and the other migrants with whom she is now living are simply awaiting their chance to leave the country.
While many governments were able to evacuate their citizens from Lebanon at the beginning of the war, the Government of Sri Lanka was overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. An estimated 80,000 Sri Lankans live in Lebanon, most of them as domestic workers and many of these left without documentation of any kind when their employers fled the fighting. Working closely with the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Beirut, Caritas Lebanon staff members, including lawyers hired by the agency, are helping to coordinate all aspects of the repatriation process – providing shelter and food to those harboring in eight shelters now set up around the city, and steering migrants through the application process necessary to acquire documents.
But leaving Lebanon today is a complicated and increasingly treacherous process. With the airport closed and little if any ship traffic arriving in the port, the only way out of Lebanon is through neighboring Syria – an arduous three hour bus journey to the north. As Israeli air strikes continue, however, the last main road out of Lebanon is now cut off, forcing bus drivers to use tenuous mountain roads and doubling the length of the journey. Some of the buses that leave daily for Syria have been forced back by the risks of further air strikes, adding to the tension and fear these young migrant workers already feel. Though Caritas Lebanon has thus far assisted more than 4,000 migrants to repatriate, thousands more have sought refuge in the crowded the embassy compound in Beirut, desperate to leave the country.
“I came here empty handed, and I am leaving empty handed,” said Sugandika Samerakoon, another Sri Lankan migrant trying to leave Lebanon. “I just want to get out as soon as possible.”
And though 300 to 600 migrants are making it out of the country each day, the fear and tension that grips those who remain is increasing. Young, uneducated, and separated from their families for the first time in their lives, these migrant workers are not only caught up in a war few of them understand, but have also seen their dreams of a better life dashed by this latest Middle East crisis. Their only option now is to return home to poverty, an option that for many still beats the alternative of staying in Lebanon as fighting continues. Back at the shelter, Sriyani summarizes the feelings among all of those with whom she is now waiting to evacuate.
“I just want to leave now,” Sriyani said.