BEIRUT, 12 May 2011 (IRIN) - For two months now, a project run by volunteers in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, has offered migrant workers free classes to learn skills that could make them more competitive and hopefully improve their livelihoods.
"All sorts of students come," said Alex Shams, who with Janie Shen founded the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) [ http://mwtaskforce.wordpress.com/ ]. It has 130 members, and 30 Lebanese and foreigners who contribute specific skills including drama, film-making and cooking.
"[These are] mainly those who work as domestic workers, in kitchens and elsewhere; also people who used to be married to Lebanese and now raise their children alone," Shams added.
Activities include computer classes and cooking sessions, but the main attraction is language classes. For two months now, MWTF has held free courses every Sunday at Beirut's Zico House [ http://www.zicohouse.org/ ]. The classes are run entirely by volunteers and designed to match each student's individual needs.
On 8 May, the garden at Zico house was packed with 50-60 students aged 15 to 50-plus, from Ethiopia, Sudan, Madagascar, the Philippines, Nepal and India. "For many students, Sunday is their only day off," Shams said. "Coming to class on that day says a lot about their motivation.
"Our original idea was to provide people with the skills they need to defend themselves, and we thought most students would want to learn Arabic. But, as it turns out, most are primarily interested in language skills that they will benefit from in the time to come."
Migrant workers in Lebanon generally face a tough time. According to the watchdog, Migrant Rights [ http://www.migrant-rights.org/2011/03/07/testimonies-from-migrant-domestic-workers-in-lebanon/ ], some have been driven to suicide by their conditions. The sponsorship system that regulated foreign labour in Lebanon, it notes, ensures that migrant workers who run away from their employers even in cases of abuse lose their legal status. This, and police apathy, discourages many workers from complaining or leaving their employers.
Lebanon, with a population of more than four million, has at least 200,000 domestic workers from across Asia and Africa, primarily from Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, according to the NGO, Kafa [ http://www.kafa.org.lb/StudiesandPublications.aspx ]. In a recent study, it found that 65 percent had experienced various forms of hardship.
"When making a living becomes a commodity, like it has for these migrants, it opens the door for enslavement and exploitation," Hoda, a volunteer at Zico house, said. "If all domestic workers were to go on strike for one day, it would be worse than the government collapsing. And, if each Lebanese family understood the true value of their employees, the bonds that form when taking care of others, they would gain a much-needed understanding of what it means to be humble."
Hoping for a better life
Anas Kadjo and Abakr Khalil Addoumah came to Beirut with the same goal: to escape violence and economic hardship in their home country Sudan, but found that long-term prospects were bleak.
"I am learning things for the future," Addoumah, known by his friends as Sami, said. Having worked as a driver in Lebanon for six years, he sees the classes as a way to invest in his future.
"Through learning English, I can improve my situation," he added. "Life here is very hard, especially in regards to work." Sunday was his first class, but Kadjo has been coming to the centre since it started.
"I have been here every week since the beginning, studying English and French," Kadjo said. "Both are world languages, so learning them will improve my work chances." He has spent five years in Lebanon, only returning once to see his wife and family in Khartoum.
"Life in Sudan is hard," he added. "We have suffered many years of war and there are no economic opportunities at all. These classes are a way for us to change our situation. I would like to return to Sudan and use these skills for making things there better. My vision is to teach English and French in Khartoum."
MWTF also offers lessons in languages such as Amharic, Nepalese, Malagasy and Filipino - mother tongues of the migrant workers.