Migrant Workers Are Bringing a Taste of Home to Beirut

Lebanon’s migrant workers have limited freedoms, make little money, and endure systemic racism. But one Sri Lankan domestic worker is rising above that by training with Lebanese chefs and showcasing her homemade cuisine at an upscale restaurant.

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Mar 30 2015, 3:30pm

Sundays in Beirut are uncharacteristically quiet. Most shops are closed as families traditionally spend the mornings in church and the afternoons welcoming guests into their homes. The normally traffic-clogged streets are nearly empty. Moving through the city—typically an undertaking characterized by thick clouds of exhaust fumes, inescapable gridlock, and ceaseless honking in vain—suddenly becomes a parallel universe of peaceful efficiency.

However, walk far enough East—specifically to Dora, the neighborhood surrounding the bus station in the north of the city—and the atmosphere changes entirely. Ethiopian women smile as they braid each others' hair on the side of the street. Men on Vespas careen past with little regard for the flow of traffic. Spluttering exhaust fumes from decades-old buses fill the air. Bus drivers attempt to organize passengers amidst the chaos.

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Locally grown fruits and vegetables outside of a Sri Lankan grocery store in Dora, Lebanon.

"Trablous? Jbeil?" one shouts from the center of the roundabout, wildly gesticulating towards northbound buses.

Inexpensive and central to several major cities, Dora has long been home to Lebanon's guest populations. A hundred years ago, Armenians fleeing Turkey's genocide sought refuge here. Palestinian refugees came next, following the creation of Israel. Today it is the cultural center of Lebanon's migrant worker population, a demographic of 250,000 workers from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and increasingly other countries in Africa.

If these workers are lucky—and aren't forced to work seven days per week—Sunday is their only day off. On Sundays, Dora is bursting with street life as Lebanon's migrant workers, who constitute 5.6 percent of the population, come for a taste of home.

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Sri Lankans gather outside of a local shop in Dora, Lebanon on a Sunday.

Just off the main roundabout, a shop with signs in the curvy Sinhala script is open, welcoming the local Sri Lankan community. Inside the shop, business is booming as dozens of Sri Lankan women cram into the tiny store to do their weekly shopping. Cans of coconut milk—a staple in Sri Lankan cuisine—line the shelves. Crates of ginger, bananas, and any fruit that bears a passing resemblance to the tropical fruits of Sri Lanka are stacked on the floor. Steam wafts off of a tray of piping-hot samosas next to the cash register.

"I come to Dora to buy my groceries," Anna Fernando tells me with a smile.

Fernando speaks perfect English with a sing-song Sri Lankan accent, peppered with the "y3nis" and "habibis" of the Arabic language, which she has mastered after living and working in Lebanon for almost 20 years. Like many Sri Lankan women living in Lebanon, Fernando is a domestic worker, working six days a week as live-in domestic help for a Lebanese family. Though she has been cooking her entire life, two years ago she began cooking professionally—training with Lebanese chefs and showcasing her homemade Sri Lankan cuisine at Tawlet, an upscale restaurant in downtown Beirut, as well as operating her own catering business.

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Anna Fernando is a Sri Lankan chef and domestic worker living in Lebanon. She cooks at Tawlet, which specializes in home-cooked, healthy food.

On Sundays, she organizes her business, plans her meals, and purchases her ingredients for the week.

"At first, most Lebanese people who came to the restaurant weren't interested in trying Sri Lankan food," Fernando says. "But my food is very nice, and the more people that tried it, the more people liked it. Everyone loves my cashew peas in particular."

Fernando came to Lebanon when she was 15 years old with her mother, who was employed as a domestic worker. But after 35 years of working and living in the country illegally, her mother went back to Sri Lanka with almost nothing. Fernando hopes that, through her cooking, she can have a better life for herself and expand employment options for domestic workers in Lebanon.

"I'm sad for my mom, because she worked so hard," she tells me. "But I'm happy for myself, because until now there were thousands of domestic workers in Lebanon, only working as maids. Now I get to show my food to the media."

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Fernando cooks several different types of Sri Lankan fare for her clients.

Being a cultural ambassador for Sri Lanka in Lebanon is no easy task. Racism towards migrant workers—and Sri Lankans in particular—is ubiquitous, so much so that Sri Lankankiyeh has become synonymous with domestic help, or someone perceived to be of a lower class, regardless of their origins. One particularly disgusting colloquialism encapsulates this: "Sri Lankiyehk Filipiniyeh?" Or, "Is your Sri Lankan a Filipina?"

The racism is structural as well. Since migrant workers are sponsored under the kafala system, their legal status depends on their employer. While European NGO workers are also technically sponsored migrant workers, they fall into the first tier of employment, one of relative freedom and privilege. Meanwhile, migrant workers recruited from Africa and Southeast Asia to work as domestic workers fall into the fourth and last category. Upon arrival in Lebanon, they are escorted to a separate exit where they are effectively transferred to their employer as a purchased commodity. For domestic workers, the average salary is $200 per month.

If domestic workers are mistreated or abused, a practice so pervasive it has become a phenomenon, their only option is to have their sponsorship transferred, something that requires the consent and cooperation of their employer, or to escape. If they escape, they often do not have their papers and are forced to live illegally. If they are stopped by the police, they can be jailed and deported. Oftentimes their embassies will not pay the cost of tickets, in which case they languish in detention centers that have become de facto jails.

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Shrimp spring rolls, Sri Lankan style.

Fernando sees her food as an opportunity for a cultural exchange.

"Most Lebanese people would never eat in Dora," she explains. "So it is important that I am bringing my food to this audience."

Little by little, culinary exchanges—like Fernando's Sri Lankan cuisine—are becoming more common in Beirut, largely motivated by the desire to bridge the separation between migrant and Lebanese communities. At the Migrant Community Center in Gemmayzeh, every few weeks there are events showcasing different kinds of cuisine. One week, injera bread and stewed chicken from Ethiopia. The next, momo dumplings from Nepal.

"We want to showcase their cuisine to a Lebanese audience," Rana Boukarim, a staffer at the Migrant Community Center tells me. "Migrant communities have been living here in Lebanon for so long, but Lebanese people know nothing about them. It's completely unacceptable."