Perched atop a hilltop north of Beirut, the former monastery turned shelter is a place of deep tranquility. For Kathy Rastatso*, a migrant worker lured from Madagascar by the promise of work, the shelter, run by the Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center, is as far removed as she can imagine from the nightmare she has been living in Lebanon since early 2011.
"When I started working, I didn't have any problems with the family at first," Kathy says of her host family, for whom she performed domestic duties like cooking and cleaning. "The problem started when the family's grandmother came."
Recounted months later for staff members of Catholic Relief Services, long a supporter of the center's shelter, Kathy's story falls nothing short of nightmarish. For months, she witnessed brutal abuse as her employer battered her elderly mother-in-law. Finally hospitalized for a serious injury sustained during one such episode, the elderly woman died, leaving Kathy—an eyewitness to the crime—fearing for her life. It was fear that was not unfounded.
"[My employer] started threatening me, and I promised I would keep the secret because she says she would kill me," Kathy says. "I was feeling that I was in danger, and I wanted to leave."
Perhaps an extreme case of the hazards faced by migrant workers, drawn by the millions to the Middle East in search of work, Kathy's case highlights the vulnerability of foreign workers in Lebanon. Usually poor and female, drawn most frequently from countries such as Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, migrants are at the mercy of their employers on their arrival to Lebanon.
Although laws are on the books to protect migrant workers, most are seldom or unequally enforced. Stories of physically abused or unpaid migrants, or even those imprisoned in homes, are commonplace for Caritas staff at the shelter, which has been harboring refugees and migrants since 2006. Employers in the wrong find ways to cover their crimes, says one of the Caritas social workers, who has worked at the shelter since it opened.
"If a lady runs away, immediately her employer will make a charge of theft against her to protect himself," the social worker says. "She is also illegal because the employer always keeps her passport."
With no passport, no legal voice and a trumped-up criminal charge brought against them by a Lebanese citizen, many women end up being detained by the authorities. The Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center provides those women with legal counsel and a range of support to help clear their cases. The Caritas shelter grew out of those efforts when migrants, freed from detention, needed a safe place to call home until their cases could be cleared and their passports returned.
"We try first to negotiate," says a social worker. "In cases of abuse, we make a legal complaint, but it's very difficult."
A Safe Zone for Traumatized Workers
At the Caritas shelter, migrants and refugees receive support such as clothing, food and shelter, legal counsel and counseling—all provided free of charge. Funding from CRS since the shelter opened has turned the shelter into an oasis for poor and often traumatized migrants—who can end up staying there for a year or more.
For migrant worker Kathy Rastatso, her journey began when she leaped from the balcony of her employer's home. Fleeing with only the clothes on her back to the Madagascar embassy, she was referred to the Caritas migrant center and sent to the shelter immediately. Now, she waits with 79 other residents for her difficult and complicated legal case to be addressed by lawyers employed by the center.
Shaken, penniless and with no passport, Kathy finds herself in the same position shared by most at the shelter. Seated on a padded chair in a brightly lit room of the shelter, her voice still quavers when she thinks back on her journey and where it might have ended without this oasis.
"I'm feeling safer now," Kathy says. "But if not for this place, I feel that I would be on the street."
*Name has been changed.
David Snyder is a photojournalist based in Baltimore, Maryland.