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Father Ponce, 45, began his Lebanon mission as an assistant to Father McDermott, who had been serving as director of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center. But after one year, the provincial of the Jesuits in Lebanon switched the roles of the two. Father McDermott gladly accepted, Father Ponce recalls, and told the Filipino priest, “you’re the boss now.”

“I’m only 86. Thank God, I’m in good health. I’ve slowed down, but I can still do the job of taking care of the migrants easily. I’m glad the work has a future, with Father Ponce here,” Father McDermott says.

Together, and in their own special way, the two priests each have a great heart for their mission, keeping migrants on the path of their Catholic faith and giving them an outlook of hope, regardless of their circumstances.

Driven by poverty and conflict in their homelands, some 250,000 people from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan have immigrated to Lebanon. Nearly 95 percent of them are women, and most arrive having been recruited by Lebanese agencies that contract domestic workers in African and Asian countries.

Migrant workers in Lebanon are employed under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which links a worker’s legal status to their employer. Because they are not Lebanese nationals, they are not protected under the country’s labor laws.

“They are taking a terrible chance in coming here, because they don’t know what sort of employer they will have. Some of them are very good, some are very bad, but most of them are middling,” says Father McDermott.

Typically, the employer holds the employee’s passport. Should the migrant leave their place of employment without the employer’s permission — or escape, depending on the circumstances —— without their official papers and passport, they risk detainment by the police.

Arriving in Lebanon, migrant workers are faced with a new culture, different languages — Arabic, English and French — and the isolation of being away from their own families. Their employers control their lives almost entirely.

Such a system fosters abuse and subsequent acts of desperation. News stories report incidents of household domestics committing suicide, usually jumping from apartment balconies in desperation. Many other less-dramatic incidents remain unreported.

The Jesuits’ deep concern for the life and rights of migrants works hand in hand with the pastoral nature of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center.

Father McDermott recounts the terrible ordeal of a domestic who was raped by her employer and became pregnant. She refused her employer’s demands to terminate her pregnancy. Father McDermott was able to assist her through the help of a lawyer who volunteers his services at the center. The best outcome was for her to be released from her employer and return to the Philippines, where she named her baby boy after the priest.

In the case of a migrant worker whose employers accused her of stealing, it was discovered the accusation was a ploy to avoid their responsibility for unpaid wages. During the proceedings, in the presence of Father McDermott, the employer told his personal lawyer, “The priest is responsible for all our trouble.”

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