In an ambience of solidarity, dozens of people gathered to commence the opening of the Migrant Community Center’s branch in Sidon. Several attended from Beirut while others made their way from villages south of the city. The day was a celebration of a community that has supported each other against all odds. “We have doubled our membership at the MCC with over 265 people,” Gemma, a Filipino activist with the MCC, told The Daily Star at the opening Sunday. “Migrant workers need a place that they can really call home. They want a place that is really their own.”
Migrant workers in Lebanon, like in many parts of the world, are deprived of their basic freedoms. This is most apparent when assessing their precarious living conditions under the Kafala system – a legal framework that ties a foreign worker’s legal status directly to their employer.
This system has been harshly criticized by right groups as a form of modern day slavery, most notably because it gives employers the power to trap their worker in a cycle of abuse by withholding their salaries and passport.
It’s in this context, where migrant workers are denied any form of state protection, that the Lebanese Anti-Racism Movement established the MCC in 2011. Through offering computer and language classes, the center quickly became an invaluable support network for hundreds of migrants living and working in Beirut. However, those staying outside of the capital were unable to benefit from their services, until now.
Haydar, a 27-year-old Sudanese man living in Sidon, said that having a community center for migrants in the city is a huge blessing because it will provide a safe space to evade the everyday racism that he encountered.
“We’re black and that’s why my friends and I have never had a comfortable place to relax,” he said, while smoking a cigarette on the balcony of the center. “It is hard to be black in this country. But this place [MCC] is great because nobody cares about where you are from.”
Haydar works as a doorman for a company in Sidon that pays him $300 a month, an amount well below the minimum wage of $450.
Domestic workers from Sudan often make half as much according to Gemma, who insists that the MCC will work tirelessly to raise awareness about the semblance of rights that migrant workers are supposed to have.
“There is a need to communicate to all migrant workers that they have a right to a day off,” Gemma said. “We want the MCC to be a place where their [migrant] voices can be heard.”
Though the MCC continues to do its part, the Lebanese government hasn’t expressed a political will to endorse migrant rights. The government has failed to enforce a compulsory contract that the Labor Ministry presented in 2009.
The contract required employers to uphold the basic working conditions such as paying workers on time and covering their health insurance.
Some workers have nonetheless managed to better their lives despite the obstacles in their way. Sayed, a 36-year-old Sudanese refugee who has lived in Sidon for six years, said that he traveled to the MCC in Beirut every Sunday to benefit from their English courses. Showing The Daily Star his certificate which confirmed his intermediate language level, he notes that having an MCC in Sidon will help him build on the progress he’s achieved so far.
“We only receive some aid from Caritas here so life can be very hard for us,” he said, as he folded his certificate and placed it back in his pocket. “I’m so happy to have this center here. I want to use it to continue my studies.”
The MCC’s newest branch in the south is the first of two steps to expand their services across the country. Tarek Kishawi, the MCC coordinator in Sidon, said that the Anti-Racism Movement also plans to open a center in towns north of Beirut this year.
“Besides offering language and computer classes, we plan to hold workshops about refugee rights, migrant rights and labor rights,” Tarek said. “We also want to have a free health day where doctors can come in to do some basic checkups.”
Despite the resources the center offers, its significance is much greater than the services it provides. The MCC embodies a community that celebrates diversity and challenges prejudice, which are the fundamental attributes for why it has continued to grow.
“There was a need to build a community center here in the south,” Tarek said. “And this is our ultimate aim, to build a community of migrant workers.”