Article in Hibr; 27 March, 2011
Nepalese and Lebanese hold vigil for deceased migrant worker
A large banner bearing a death announcement fluttered in the wind on Sunday March 20th beside an apartment block in Jdeideh, a suburb north east of Beirut. Some thirty people had gathered nearby holding candles to commemorate the death of a young woman in circumstances hard to comprehend, yet disturbingly common in Lebanon these days.
The mood at the vigil was a mix of grief and anger. Mourners held posters calling for a “public and transparent investigation” into the cause of her death and the deaths of other migrant workers who have died in Lebanon. The group observed a minute of silence to remember Samoay Wanching Tamang, a young Nepalese migrant worker who had died in the Jdeideh apartment building three weeks before.
Unfortunately, the authorities’ flippant handling of Samoay’s case and Lebanese society’s indifference to the plight of migrant workers suggest that the chances of her case receiving a thorough investigation are slim.
Pushed to suicide?
On February 26, 30-year-old Samoay was found hanging from a “metal bar in the bedroom of her employer”, according to a report on Lebanon Files (and as Hibr reported at the time). The police deemed it a “suicide” based on the physical evidence at the death scene. The scene, however, only explains so much.
Lebanese activists launched an independent investigation. They found that Samoay had a four-year-old daughter in Nepal who was seriously ill with a long-term illness and who depended on medication to survive. The money Samoay sent back every month was this child’s only source of funding for the life-saving treatment.
Farah Salka, 25, a human rights and anti-racism activist, began to probe the details of Samoay’s case. All sorts of questions ignored in the police report began to emerge. “Why did she kill herself if that was her only source of funding? Maybe because she wasn’t getting her salary on a monthly basis and thereby felt helpless at the situation of her daughter?” Unfortunately, despite activists’ efforts, the unwillingness of the police and the employer to cooperate in conducting a serious investigation have resulted in the details of Samoay’s death remaining shrouded in mystery.
“Five migrant workers dead this month”
The tragic story of Samoay’s death is not an exception. Every week in Lebanon, an average of one migrant worker is found dead, according to a Human Rights Watch report in 2008, the latest year for which data is available. As of the date of publishing, at least five migrant workers have died this month, according to sources tracking the deaths at Migrant Worker Task Force.
All of these deaths have received only cursory attention by the police. Despite this, there will be no punishment, and there will be no headlines demanding justice for these migrant workers’ deaths. Activists like Salka, however, will continue to voice their anger and to demand further-reaching investigations.
“It is like some dog…died in the street”
Salka, a member of the Anti-Racism Movement and the Migrant Worker Task Force, which helped organize the vigil, commented: “The situation with migrant domestic workers and racism as a whole in this country has reached horrendous levels. And until the day comes when enough people and voices are shouting against that, it shall continue as such.”
Priya Subedi, 24, an active member of the Lebanese chapter of the Non-Resident Nepalese Association and one of the independent investigators on the case, concurred: “Every time migrant workers die here, it is ignored. It is like some dog or something died in the street. I feel that at least she [Samoay] was lucky that everyone went there and we prayed for her.”
“We will hold accountable the authorities and murderers”
On Sunday afternoon, Samoay’s former neighbors observed the vigil with varied reactions. Some residents of the apartment building looked down solemnly, while others laughed and joked around as the crowd below mourned a young woman and a lost friend. From a balcony, one migrant worker, a Nepalese woman and friend of some of the mourners, took note of the vigil and tried to communicate with them. When her madame noticed the vigil, however, she came out, forced the young woman to come back inside, and shut the curtain.
The grief of the vigil contrasted with rage at a post-vigil meeting held at a Nepalese restaurant in Dora. As the smell of momos (Nepalese dumplings) and Nepalese curry wafted through the crowded café, mourners debated the future of migrant workers in Lebanese society. In the face of public indifference and police negligence concerning such violence and racism, the future, they agreed, was in the hands of activists.
Mirna Haidar, 21, a member of the Anti-Racism Movement, said: “We will not be satisfied until employers treat their workers like human beings. We will blow the whistle… and we will not be silenced on murders, violence, and racism.”
She continued: “Samoay’s vigil is only the beginning of honoring [those] who died, were killed, [or] who [committed] suicide under very harsh circumstances. We will hold accountable the authorities and murderers.”