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A Home for Migrants

Foreign workers build a sense of family in Lebanon

text by Doreen Abi Raad with photographs by Tamara Abdul Hadi

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Emelyn rises at 6 each morning to prepare breakfast and usher the children off to school, accompanying them to the bus stop. So begins her long day of cleaning, cooking, ironing and general housekeeping, ending a couple of hours before midnight.

The children and the house are not hers. They belong to her employers, and form part of her job. Her own two children are 5,500 miles away in the Philippines. She misses them terribly.

For five years, 36-year-old Emelyn has been living in Beirut, Lebanon, employed as a domestic worker. Her partner in the Philippines finds sporadic employment in construction, making Emelyn the primary breadwinner. The couple never married because they could not afford a wedding.

Emelyn’s eyes well up with tears, her voice turning to a strained whisper as she shares the painful conversations and text messages she experiences with her 12-year-old daughter back home.

“Why, mama? You’ve been there a long time. Don’t you miss me?”

“If I don’t work here, you won’t have anything there: a house, electricity, water,” Emelyn reminds her daughter. “You won’t have a nice dress, new shoes.”

Sometimes her daughter feels so angry at these circumstances, she refuses to speak to her. But both are looking forward to Emelyn’s visit near Christmas — her first return in five years.

What Emelyn would most like to do is to set up a small convenience store back near her home.

Despite the anguish of being away from her children — and despite the tedious, hard work she performs daily — Emelyn is thankful.

“God heard my prayers,” she says. “I work for a good family. They treat me as part of their family, not like a maid.” Her Greek Orthodox employers, recognizing how she values her Catholic faith, provided Emelyn with two copies of the Bible — one in English and another in her native language, Tagalog.

The high point of Emelyn’s week is Sunday, her only day off. She attends Mass in Beirut in English at the Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s Church, and afterward goes upstairs to the Afro-Asian Migrant Center to meet up with her friends. There they spend their day together, having fun, sharing a meal and being spiritually nourished in their common Catholic faith.

The center was established at St. Joseph’s in 2000, by an American Jesuit, the Rev. Martin McDermott, now 86. He has been working with migrants since the early 1980’s, in partnership with a Dutch Jesuit, the Rev. Theo Vlught, who recently returned to his homeland at the age of 90.

But Father McDermott is not working alone in providing pastoral care to migrants. The Jesuit-run center he founded forms part of a pastoral care committee, established by the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, for migrants throughout the country. The charity of the Catholic churches in Lebanon, Caritas Lebanon, operates safe houses and shelters for migrants in distress. And since September 2017, the American Jesuit has been joined in his work at St. Joseph’s by the Rev. Henry Ponce, S.J. — the first time the Jesuit Province of the Philippines sent one of their own priests to the Middle East.

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