Suicide in Lebanon

Theresa Seda worked in a home on the 7th floor of the building. Her body lies on the street below. (image: matthew cassel)

While working at my house in the Sanayeh neighborhood of Beirut I noticed some commotion in the street below. I saw a bunch of people and police gathered pointing up at the building. I knew already what had happened. Suicide by domestic workers in this country is not a rare occurrence.

As I went down I stopped the first two people I saw, they were drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. I asked them what happened. One of the men replied, “A Sri Lankan woman (“Sirlankia” in Arabic) died.”

Of course, she was not Sri Lankan, but this is the general term used to describe domestic workers in Lebanon. As I spoke with people at the scene I found a man and woman from the Filipino Embassy in Beirut who told me that she was 28-year-old Theresa Seda of the Philipines. Like many women from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, she had come to Beirut to be employed as a domestic worker in a family’s home. Most middle and upper class families in Beirut and elsewhere around Lebanon have domestic workers who they pay a small salary to live with them and take care of all the household chores.

There have been countless stories of abuse over recent years. In 2006, it was widely known that as families escaped the indiscriminate Israeli bombing of Beirut and went to the mountains, they locked the workers inside their homes preventing them from also fleeing the attacks. I was surprised to hear that during the war an animal rights groups in Lebanon went around rescuing household pets who were abandoned in similar circumstances, yet no group bothered to do the same for the human workers. Now, only the Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar regularly reports on deaths and abuse of domestic workers, but the abuse is known to be widespread and I hear stories of suicide nearly every other week.

Theresa’s body has laid on the street for over an hour. In the same building where she jumped from I could see other foreign workers continue with their duties washing windows as they paused every few moments to see what was happening below on the street. As I write this now Theresa’s body is still below, cars and people pass just inches away, few stop to inquire as to what happened. Business as usual. I heard from the police that she cut herself on the balcony with a knife before jumping to her death, there is no question about it: this was a suicide.

image: matthew cassel


image: matthew cassel

UPDATE 15 NOVEMBER 2010:

I regret the certainty in which I originally wrote that Theresa’s death was in fact a suicide. After months of investigating this case and meeting her sister in Holland recently, it is impossible to deduce how Theresa died exactly. The only ones capable of conducting a proper investigation into her death, the Lebanese authorities, did not do so. There is however sufficient evidence to show that Theresa faced abuse and exploitation at the hands of her employers, and we will release all of this information in the coming months as part of a project telling the story of Theresa’s life.

28 thoughts on “Suicide in Lebanon

  1. zuz, thank you for pointing that out, it was the default setting. it’s now been changed.

  2. Thanks for sharing…w/out folks like you we in the west would never hear of such disasters…wouldn’t know how others live and die..sincere appreciation..keep it up.

  3. Ultra horrible, again. Wonder when the government will start to enforce any kind of regulation/punishment to people who so obviously mistreat their help. Lebanon pretends to be civilized but is sooooooo far from it.

  4. be ashamed to be human. workers are exploited around the world, and it will take a global movement to ever change that. but lebanon changing its laws to allow foreign workers and palestinian refugees more rights would definitely be a good start.

  5. Hey Matthew,

    In the picture of the passport, do you know of any particular reason for the stamp on the opposite page prohibiting Theresa (assuming its her passport) from entering Iraq?

  6. Nofa, I’m not really sure, but I was also wondering about that. Maybe the Philippines has banned its citizens from going to work in Iraq because of the war? I know that at one point in 2008 Ethiopia banned its citizens from working in Lebanon because of all the cases of reported abuse, but that’s since been lifted. If anyone knows more about this please post the information here.

  7. AS IF YOU GUYS ARE NOT IN THIS UNIVERSE. DON’T YOU KNOW THAT IRAQ IS A DANGEROUS PLACE TO BE? HAVE YOU NOT HEARD OF A WAR THAT OCCURRED IN THAT COUNTRY? I WILL HAVE TO ASSUME THAT IS THE REASON WHY SOME COUNTRIES BAN THEIR CITIZENS FROM GOING TO THAT PLACE CALLED IRAQ.

    AS FOR THE POOR GIRL THAT COMMITTED SUICIDE LET ME SAY ONE THING: THAT IS THE PRICE SOME PEOPLE PAY FOR INTERACTING WITH THE LEBANESE. LEBANESE ARE NORMALLY ARROGANT,RACISTS AND MONEY CENTRIC. ANYONE WHO IS POOR, NOT OF YOUR CLASS NOR OF YOUR TRIBE (I.E. YOUR RELIGION) IS CONSIDERED TO BE A SLAVE NOT WORTH OF FEELINGS. IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME TAKE A SECOND LOOK AT THE POOR FILLIPINO GIRL AND SOME RESPONDENTS INQUIRY ABOUT HER BAN TO ENTER IRAQ. THE REAL ISSUE IS THE SLAVE-LIKE TREATMENT OF OUR HOUSE WORKERS AND ANY BODY DEEMED TO BE LOWER CAST AND NOT WHAT IS WRITTEN IN HER PASSPORT.

    PITY THE POOR IN LEBANON WHO IN THEIR PURSUIT OF FEEDING THEIR FAMILIES HONORABLY, END UP BEING HUMILITAED AND PUSHED TO THE WALL BY THEIR ARROGANT LEBANESE MASTERS/MISTRESSES.

  8. Nofa,
    It’s because citizens of the Philippines are strictly forbidden from traveling to Iraq following the kidnapping of Angelo de la Cruz. They are now also technically banned from coming to Lebanon, but they still arrive via third countries.

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  11. we are very angry about what happen to my sister teresa also very sad.about her dead,if anyone can tel me about the tragedy please let mo know. matthew cassel thanks from information and the very sad and shokking pictures about my sister.please continue giving information on the internet.thanks again.

  12. please co-pilipina wake-up now!just look what happen to my sister whe dont know exactly the truth what happen to her.she wil never do that to her self this is our nightmare.

  13. its hurt so much the way she died.sins our mother died two year ago im her mohter now and i wil some of my love ones again.

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  16. To Matthew, thanks for the report.

    I’m a Filipina, educated and trustworthy. We do not believe on many suicides, perhaps, a few Filipino workers cannot cope homesickness. But suicide? We have questions behind our minds. Some Filipino ladies do not easily surrender loyalty and chastity and this might shock you, to know that others prefer to die than to be treated like a ‘comfort woman’. Filipino ladies, mostly, are educated and once you trust your family to them, you will be taken cared well. Your children will have the right tutor, your wife will be taught hygiene and your husband will be accorded a high respect. JUST RESPECT A FILIPINO, YOU WILL BE TREATED LIKE A KING AND QUEEN… GIVE HER JUSTICE AND CONCERN, YOU WILL BE CARED BETTER…

  17. The problem here is these poor but cultured and god fearing women come here in the hope of making a living for themselves and family. Little do they know, Lebanese are uncouth,cruel, ignorant and arrogant people. To them what matters is money and race. whilst they try to present themselves as ” the Europe of Middle East, they are as primitive as the rest of the continent. Racist, yet uncomfortable in their own skin. At least if you pretend to imulate Europe, try to behave like Europeans. i.e. civilised. Their cruelty has no boundries. Even in the face of absolute terror( Israeli attack 2 yrs ago), they lock the domstic workers behind and left. How can any human being do this to their fellow human? only in the arab world. Do you know it takes a certain class to be a boss of any kind you know!!! – No amount of money can buy class and that is what lebannon and the rest of middle east need to realise.

  18. the lebanies people most of them they are treating thier maid more than amimals not a human being its better the animals they are talking care of them most of the problem here is they dont give the salary ang without food what kind of peole they are.we need a justice for her.we dont believe that she kill her self………..

  19. Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Ethiopians etc are working in lot of Lebanese houses. There are some who are living in small rooms created in the houses’balconies by putting glass walls: the girls appreciate this accommodation so much, especially in winter…While I was living in Sour, my balcony was facing another balcony provided with such a “maid room”. Unfortunately in Lebanon the rules concerning the work of housekeeper are made just to allow anyone to have a “srilankia” without paying attention to the worker situation. Moreover, having a maid is considered a status symbol by Lebanese, a way to be “a la page”. I saw plenty of them even in some “poor” village in South Lebanon…Beyond the domestic workers, in Lebanon there are several areas which are a prerogative of foreign workers: every nationality has its task. Masons are Syrian; doorkeepers are Egyptian (or Syrian); gardeners or general workers are Sudanese; gas station workers are Egyptian (but in Akkar they become Syrians); agricultural workers are Syrians (women is even better because they are cheaper!), cheaper than the Palestinians; night club girls are from Eastern Europe (if you are blond in Lebanon you are automatically Russian and there is no doubt about your field of work..); street cleaners can be from Bangladesh, India, Syria…All this jobs are fatiguing, badly paid and despised, but ALL of them help Lebanese in making their daily life easier with little expenses. Instead of despising foreign workers and treating them as sub-humans, Lebanese – who think to be more European then the Europeans and more American the Americans – should treat them in a decent way, not as slaves, and, why not? thank them from time to time.

  20. Hey matthew, it is also widely known that americans are the most unracist people in the world, who want to spread democracy in the world just for the sake of helping the poor people and we saw how well that worked in Iraq.
    It s also widely known that americans are completely clueless about any other country in the world besides theirs yet they think they can lecture others about what to do or how to live. don t ask me how i know it s just widely known.

    your article made sense until you started basing yourself on the widely known stories that you probably hear over coffee in the morning from your next door neighbors so next time, please try to stay away from generalizations and ask around to see how many groups are working in Lebanon to guarantee better conditions for migrant workers before making claims such as this one “no group bothered to do the same for the human workers”, it would at least give your writings an appearance of credibility.

  21. i watched the program on future tv about foreigners in lebanon !! it was realy interesting !! and matthew i realy appreciate your interests in these problems .. because i feel sad about what`s happening with these people who leave their families and children to work here and make money .. and suddenly when they reach here .. the will be shocked because this is not what the looked for !! thx again for sahring such topics with us :D

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