Ethiopians mourn in Beirut

Hany Gebre who was killed in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight on 25 January. (image: matthew cassel)

I went with a friend and journalist today to cover a service at an Ethiopian church outside Beirut to remember one its members, Hany Gebre, along with 89 other people, mostly Lebanese and Ethiopians, killed on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after takeoff last Monday. Hany was employed as a domestic worker in Lebanon and was on the way to visit her family for the first time since she came to Lebanon three years ago when the plane went down. The community of Ethiopian women at the church is tightly knit, and most women said they knew Hany well. We entered to a roomful of sobbing women listening to the animated preacher singing prayers in Amharic.

It was an awkward experience for me to again take pictures of a room full of people letting their tears flow, and like I told my friend in the church, I hate taking pictures in these situations but I know that I should so others can see. As he sat there with his notebook I thought of a quote by Lewis Wickes Hine, one of my favorite photographers who once said, “If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.” Even though my Canon isn’t quite as obtrusive as the cameras were in Hine’s day, the act itself will always be obtrusive in a situation like this and make me wish that I could remain unseen in a corner capturing the scene by jotting down notes in a small notebook.

At one point I had to leave the emotional scene in the church and get some “fresh air” by smoking a cigarette across the street. Outside, I sat staring at the Lebanese passersby. I wondered what a society that many have increasingly called “racist” thinks of the hundreds of black women who gather in their neighborhood each Sunday.

I noticed an older Lebanese woman walk past with her Ethiopian “helper.” In the standard contract that all employers must sign, migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are allowed to take at least one day off per week (usually Sunday), but many employers prevent them from doing so. I assume this was an example of that. The Ethiopian worker, arm-in-arm with her employer, glanced inside the church as they walked past and immediately started crying on the street. The Lebanese woman seemed not to notice (or not to care) as she asked the worker for help while she rummaged through her oversized handbag.

Since the death of Theresa Seda across the street from my home, I’ve been increasingly involved in the plight of foreign workers in Lebanon. Previously, I hadn’t focused on this issue because my reason for being in the Middle East is to combat a highly inaccurate image of this region and its people being portrayed in much of the Western media. If I was going to cover the exploitation of workers, I wouldn’t need to travel half the globe to do so. And I distrust many Western journalists who come here critical of everything Arab while ignoring their own government’s role in shaping this war-torn and unstable part of the world. But the abuse of workers in this country is unavoidable. Every time I leave the house I see a foreign woman carrying a bratty child, picking up dog shit or staring out the window of her “madame’s” car in envy at those of us walking around with relatively few cares in the world. There is a common expression shared by oppressed peoples. Its one that screams of a yearning to spend time with family, swim in the sea, relax on a nice chair, meet friends, have money to purchase goods, travel, be free. And as someone concerned with social justice, it’s impossible to turn a blind eye to the abuse in Lebanon that is happening all around me.

Now, the big question: are Lebanese racists? Some Western journalists feel they’re in a position to say yes, but not this one. Surely there are many racist Lebanese, and it is a serious problem affecting the whole of society — nearly everyone refers to migrant domestic workers as “Sirlankiin” (Sri Lankans) regardless of what country they actually come from. But, for example, is the Ethiopian worker and her Lebanese employer an example of this racism? It’s hard to say. Before making generalizations and pointing the finger solely at Lebanese, I would take a step back and look at the question on a global scale — how many societies existing today don’t contain elements of racism? If these Ethiopian and other workers were to travel elsewhere (or stay in Ethiopia), would that solve the problem?

I thought about all of this before I heard the music sounding (seen in the video below) through the church doors and out into the street. I quickly put out my cigarette and ran back inside lugging my camera along to help me tell a story we don’t often hear.

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

image: matthew cassel

29 thoughts on “Ethiopians mourn in Beirut

  1. I don’t get how you’re being any more or less fair towards the Lebanese in this article than Galey was in his…

    you play a semantic game by saying that you’re saying “there are many racist Lebanese” and not that all of them are. I don’t think Galey made that claim at all…

    moral superiority complex anyone?

  2. This was not only a response to the HuffPo piece. And to say that many Lebanese are racists (like many humans around the world are also racist towards Ethiopians and others with darker skin) is much different than an article whose point is that the Lebanese reaction to the crash of ET409 somehow exposes “Lebanon’s racist underbelly.” (To be fair to the author, if he didnt choose the title then saying that the reactions to the crash somehow exposed a unique racism in “large parts of Lebanese society” is just as bad.) As if in the West we dont immediately point the finger at Arabs or Muslims when someone so much as sneezes, let alone when a plane crashes. The overall Lebanese reaction to ET409 was not exceptional, and it didn’t warrant a response accusing Lebanese of racism out of the context of similar situations that have happened, for example, in the West (where the article was published).

    If I had the time, I probably should’ve gone into more detail in the post above about how racism plays out in this country and also mention the many Lebanese individuals and groups working to fight racism.

  3. The Lebanese official’s reactions were clearly racist. To deny the Ethiopians adequate, timely information as they were offering the Lebanese families was clearly racist. To deny the Ethiopians genetic identification tests as they were offering the Lebanese families was clearly wrong. I can’t speak of the Lebanese society as a whole, but the reactions of the officials was clearly racist. If the officials behavior is a good indictor of the country at large, the Lebanese society has serious, serious problem.

  4. thank you for the article and pictures.
    i am lebanese living abroad and i have been reading every available piece of news about the crash, and i found it incredibely ridiculous that none of the lebanese media made the effort to mention the ethiopians who died in the crash nor have they paid their respect to the ethiopian community in Lebanon.
    Lebanese are racits. End of story.
    They think that the citizens of Africa and South Asia are of lesser important than the Oh-so-mighty Lebanese, they think they can own them, and rule over them like slaves.
    I hate that about the Lebanese. I am actually ashamed of the Lebanese.
    I hope that every mistreated domestic worker sues her boss and makes good money out of that. Money doesn’t bring your broken pride and soul back, but at least it helps you get out of the hellhole some women live in.

  5. While I agree that most countries would focus on their nationals in such kind of tragedy, and that racism is a worldwide problem, I guess I still think that it is a main issue in Lebanon, that for the most part goes undiscussed. I’m thinking here of the untimely death of your neighbor, Theresa Seda. Suicides are too frequently unreported, and under-investigated. Not all Lebanese are racists, true. Many migrant workers are lucky enough to fall on good people, whom they develop very healthy and lasting relationships with. And some individuals, and organizations are working to fight racism, also true. But, as a general rule, I don’t mind seeing the issue brought to light in this way. It could force the country to deal with it.

  6. A country called lebanon is suffering from inferiority complex. Their history is history of subjugation by foreigners recently by Syria. The young generation want to imitate Europe and America without excelling in science and technology.

    Their big achievement is their diaspora. You can find them all over the world and there are many too in South America too. Lebanese who traveled or settled out of Lebanon know what racism is because they themselves faced it however those who are now getting some freedom recently back home and they are babies for freedom and their racism towards a proud people of Ethiopia is not unexpected.

    Their ruling regime and journalists are also immature and need to be educated. For fellow Ethiopians over there and if you are not welcome go home with your dignity. Ethiopians have never been slaved by anyone let alone by Arabs.

    Little Lebanon should respect big Ethiopia the only uncolonized country in that part of the world.

  7. you know what, this is getting ridiculous, at least try not to be so biased in your articles, yes there is racism in Lebanon against people of darker skin like everywhere else unfortunately. However there is no more racism in Lebanon then a place like the US for example it’s just that the lebanese gvt hasn t put in place laws to protect people against discrimination based on their color. It s funny how foreigners think that they can come to a country take a few cases of foreign workers being subject to violence or intimidation and then make sweeping generalizations such as all “lebanese are racist” or even most of “lebanese are racist”
    Yes there is a problem with racism in Lebanon and yes the lebanese gvt is not doing enough to protect migrant workers but do you even bother to mention how many organizations there are in the country to defend the rights of these workers and lobby the gvt to modify the laws.
    And after all what i will say might sound shocking to some but no one is forcing ethiopians or any other nationality to come work in Lebanon and if they think that the situation there is that bad, then they should simply not go.

  8. hey dounia, you should maybe grab a dictionary and check out the meaning of the word inconsistencies , you say you’re lebanese and you make statements such as “Lebanese are racits. End of story”.”I hate that about the Lebanese. I am actually ashamed of the Lebanese.” can you explain to me how someone that makes statements such as those above can claim to even have any moral authority or decency to lecture others about their racism? do you know what racism even means?

  9. I wasn’t saying that the whole article was about the huffpost piece. I just took exception to you implying that when he said “large parts” of lebanese society were racist it was illegitimate, but when you say “many lebanese” are racist that’s ok. remember i eve said that otherwise it was a good post. brownie points for going to the service.

    secondly, Patrick never said that the racism was unique to Lebanon, and if he was located in the west when such an event took place im sure he would have written about that too…

    you write that “The overall Lebanese reaction to ET409 was not exceptional, and it didn’t warrant a response accusing Lebanese of racism”

    So why did you write one? – it might have only been half your article… but it’s the bit that most of the comments have reacted to – and it was only half of patches as well, the difference is the headline i guess? that’s pretty weak.

    also… you’re right, the West loves to beat up on the Arabs at the slightest excuse… but how are you any less western than he?

    you write “If I had the time, I probably should’ve gone into more detail in the post above about how racism plays out in this country and also mention the many Lebanese individuals and groups working to fight racism.”

    if he had the time im sure he would have too… you don’t think so?

    I only pointed it out because your aside at Mr Galey, who I should point out is a friend of mine, ruined what would otherwise have been a very nice post… about exactly the same problem that Patrick was writing about…

  10. lebenene & austin,

    If the accident happened in the US or England, for instance, I assure you the officials would not have treated the loved ones of the Ethiopian victims as the Lebanese did. I am 100% sure they would not have refused to give the Ethiopians up-to-date info or the genetic tests while availing the Lebanese. So to say there is no more racism in Lebanon than anywhere else is wrong in my opinion.

    They need to look into their souls. And the Ethiopian government and other third world countries may need to consider denying work permits to their citizens to some countries depending on the human right records of each country. I understand no country is a heaven, but I think some are beyond pale.

  11. The hostility of some if not most Arab nations towards Ethiopia has a long history. Among the many reasons the Arabian countries enemity towards Ethiopia is the presumption that Ethiopia is an Island of Christianity and a closest allly of Israel. The issue of and the interest to control the NILE being the most current. The recent TPLF/Egypt position on The NILE attests the devlish triune TPLF/EPLF/Arabs alliance against Ethiopia is still very much alive. Currently Ethiopia itself is under the tyrannical repression of the invading woyane. No Ethiopian has the most elementary human right in his/her own country let alone those who are living in Arabian nations. The shameful act of the Lebanese gov’t and its officials could have caused a diplomatic flare up had there been an Ethiopian government. Sadly Ethiopia is under the tyrannical yoke of her enemy/TPLF. Only the people of Ethiopia can change this shameful scenario. I am deeply sorry for my fellow Ethiopians and the rest of the victims.

  12. Tsega,

    Your attempt to politicize, to bring Ethiopian politics into this tragedy is despicable. You should really be ashamed of yourself.

  13. I am half Arab and half African Moslem.As a Moslem, I am ashamed a folower of Mohamed would torture, kill and miss treat people in 21st century . No excuse for the goverment and the people of Lebanon to allow these thing to happen in their country.All Moslem of the world should be ashamed of Lebanon people. Comparing with slavery in America, Lebanon people are worest than American white Slave holders. Again, as Moslem I am offended and ashamed by Lebanon people.


  14. justin.. just so you would know a delegation from lebanon went to Ethiopia to get DNA samples from the families of all those who were on board the flight so i don’t know where you got your info that the lebanese refused to give the Ethiopians the genetic tests while availing the Lebanese and please spare me the nice talk about american democracy and human rights as their track record in regards to the rights of arabs and muslims wether inside or outside the US since september 11th 2001 does not need any comments.

    There wasn’t more bias in lebanese media coverage about the accident then you would find in CNN, FOXnews or MSNBC when there are accidents involving americans anywhere in the world.

    What happens to SOME foreign workers in Lebanon is unacceptable and should be dealt with swiftly but this kind of sensationalist and biased coverage will not help their case and is an insult to everyrone in lebanon who is trying to improve their rights and their living conditions.

  15. Lebanon is not the only Arab country where foreign housemaids face cruel treatment( I’m not saying it’s an Arab problem) but from what we hear from Ethiopians who’ve been to the Middle East really supports the accusation that this rather tiny country neighboring Israel holds very high opinions of itself and is one of if not the worst for poor foreign girls who migrate there! I don’t blame, because we do too!But a very telling reaction for me was the insinuation that the Ethiopian pilot didn’t follow the advice of the ACT,perhaps they meant he didn’t understand, dumb Ethiopian …
    We know that the girls who go to Beirut come in majority from poor backgrounds and their families don’t have the means to send them to the West!
    We hear often in the news horror stories from that terrible country!What our girls should do is stay home even if it means facing huge problems!Still why go in that tiny haughty neighbour of Israel to be abused, humiliated and murdered or be driven to suicide!
    And our country will not stay as poor as it is, whatever we might disagree on about the politics and some other issues here I for one won’t deny that Ethiopia in 2010 is not the terrible place it was in the 70’s and 80’s!
    There are lots of positive changes and please sisters if you really have to go, go to China!Man, these people are, you know excentric, they love explosions!
    Come on,Dwarf countries like Beirut should not be racist!The West, China and India can, it looks good on them!

  16. In Israel also Ethiopian so called Jews are said to be facing racism! But we never hear about them being thrown from windows, burnt with boiling water killed and so on!
    If only Israel was not in the Middle East, nearer to Greece,no wonder they feel so insecure in this bad neighborhood!!By the way don’t misunderstanding,I am not against any religion!
    We hear that Turks are absolutely lovely people and Ethiopians going there say nice things about them!

  17. How about this angle: it’s slavery, not outright racism. Slaves are treated differently than the rest of the population, and that’s what we’re seeing today in Lebanon.

  18. lebnene,

    Initially they did refuse to give the Ethiopians the genetic tests. It was even reported in one of the Lebanese papers. I believe they reversed course after all the negative coverage. It’s all good if they learnt from it – to err is to be human.

  19. Austin, if you read the rest of the the paragraph where I say “many Lebanese are racist” (and for reasons unrelated to the plane crash that I allude to in the previous paragraph), you’d notice that I do so in order to highlight how racism against those with darker skin is an issue in much of the world, and not only in Lebanon. The focus of this post is not Lebanese “racism”, but rather the plight of migrant domestic workers who we (in Lebanon, the US, Europe, and elsewhere) are all responsible for mistreating either directly or indirectly. Your friend, on the other hand, uses this timely event to make a sensationalist claim about “large parts” of a society based on their reaction to a tragic plane crash in which its citizens were the majority of those killed. Don’t get me wrong, the treatment of Ethiopian friends and family of those killed in the crash has been appalling, but it’s hardly this event alone that warrants the racist label for “large parts” of Lebanese society. If anything, this plane crash reinforced the fact that the mistreatment and abuse of migrant domestic workers continues to be a very serious problem in Lebanon. Galey’s article would’ve been much more effective and less sensationalist had it been framed in this regard.

  20. I read your whole article… i wouldn’t have commented otherwise… but im not convinced of any substantive difference in the claims made… yours just seems more bloggy, his more article-y….

    any how good luck to both of you

  21. to make my point clearer… he never said other countries weren’t racist… surely we all know it happens around the world…

  22. How could a tiny country like Lebanon be so bad? There were Lebanese migrants in Ethiopia during the Selassie era. However they were pushed out due to competing aggressive merchants from the Gurague Ethiopian tribe. They look like any Arab people I know, they are devout Muslim people, they seemed to have bad teeth as I remember from my youth and always upto chewing something. They seemed nice and didn’t bother anyone. Lots of them used to have shops in the Mercato area in Addis Abeba.

    Ethiopians have a culture of respecting foreigners, migrants or others. Its hard for me to understand why people mistreat defenseless migrants who are dependent on you, who work and sleep in your home. Burn with boiling water? I don’t think that is racism, I think these Lebanese housewives are mistreated themselves, made to feel powerless, made to feel useless, captive, insignificant and ugly. There had to be some self-worth issues for people to act so aggressive against those who can’t defend themselves.

  23. I wonder, how many people commenting are actually black people who have spent time in Lebanon or elsewhere in the Arab world? I’m an African-American and have spent nearly two years of my life studying and traveling in the Middle East (specifically, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Egypt and Lebanon). I can say without the slightest reservation that I have never been made to feel as aware of my skin color as I was in the Arab world. The consistent attitude gap among Arabs in receiving my white counterparts with warm hospitality and oft-times irritating deference versus the barely veiled conceit and suspicion with which I or any of our Asian-American friends were regarded was awkwardly amusing at best, indescribably maddening at worst. The most annoying thing is that they seem to be totally unaware of it, but I’d like to give kudos to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar for tackling the issue of racism/classism head on.

    Most infuriating of all is when they try to deflect criticism and point fingers at the US. For some reason, my attempts to explain my personal experience as a black person who has spent all of his life in America with extended interludes in the Mid East, and has only rarely felt racism in the former compared with near daily incidents in the latter, fall on deaf ears.

  24. I am an Ethiopian living in Germany, and I am often outraged by the horror stories about abuse and discrimination of Ethiopian migrant workers in Lebanon. The Ethiopian government has not banned its citzens from seeking jobs there for no reason.
    The initial reaction of the Lebanese reporters and authorities was also painful and totally inapropriate to the tragedy at hand. Thank God, it appears that everyone is learning something from this tragedy.
    Fortunately, I happen to know a very gentle and friendly Lebanese family here and I remember how worried they were back in 2006 because of the conflict with Israel. On the other hand, it is also shameful, that some of my Ethiopian compatriots make dumb and racist comments about Arabs in general and Lebanese in partikular.
    PS: @ lebnene: “If you don’t like it here, go home” is simplistic statement. You may not know it, but surely hundreds of Lebanese immigrants hear day by day all over the world. Racism or abuse are topics a society should face and overcome.

  25. Ethiopian girls should not go to tiny insignificant countries such as that place next to Israel, you know which took on the role of David in that nth remake of doomed wars against a tough and resilient people. By the way I think the socalled Ethiopian jews and the Solomonic dynasty and so on are just fabrications of the crafty Israelites who meant “see, how can we be anti arab, we have imported Black ethiopians from Africa”?
    Our brother from Germany thinks we make dumb and racist comments and another one confused Yemenis who love to chew khat with Lebanese who are more frenchified than these Arabia Felix tribesmen!
    Beirut is not China, we have nothing to lose by not sending our poor girls there to suffer abuse daily.

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