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A domestic tragedy

The Ethiopian Airlines crash in Lebanon has thrown the plight of the country's migrant workers into sharp relief.

The Ethiopian Full Gospel Church in Beirut holds its services in the borrowed chapel of an Adventist high school on the outskirts of town. When I arrived there one recent Sunday morning, the room was filled with women, many of them crouched on the floor, facing backwards, their heads pressed down against the seats of the pews. Here and there I could hear the stifled sounds of weeping, but otherwise the room was eerily silent.

Six days earlier, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 409, heading for Addis Ababa, crashed into the Mediterranean Sea a few minutes after departure from the Beirut airport. Ninety people died. For six days, Lebanon mourned, and on the seventh, Sunday, it was the Ethiopians' turn - Sunday is the only day migrant workers reliably have time off to gather. Thirty-two of the dead were Ethiopian, including the crew, and one of them was a twentysomething housemaid named Heny Gebre, a parishioner at the Full Gospel Church. Gebre had been living and working in Beirut for three years. Her home, which she shared with her sister and a few other women, was in a rundown neighbourhood called Quarantine, whose name bears the lingering stigma of its former days as a holding area for incoming port cargo. In practice, however, most of her time, day and night, was spent at the residence of her employers, in the upscale French-Christian neighbourhood of Achrafieh. On the day of the crash, she was on her way to visit her mother in Addis Ababa for the first time in years.

In Lebanon, as in much of the Gulf, tens of thousands of Ethiopian women work as housemaids. The job affords them an intimate place in the daily lives of their employers, even as it often dehumanises them. Lebanon's worker-protection regulations explicitly exclude domestic workers, and stories of abuse and mistreatment abound. Not infrequently - or not infrequently enough - they die, and often enough by their own hands. In 2008, Human Rights Watch reported that an average of one domestic worker dies every week in this tiny country, usually from a fall of some sort.

As the aftermath of the plane crash played out in the Lebanese media, the tragedy became an occasion that was twice bitter for Ethiopian workers - a reminder that they are in Lebanon but not of it. Newspaper and television stories seemed to focus almost exclusively on the Lebanese passengers. There were reports that Ethiopians, showing up at the main government hospital to identify remains, had been pushed aside or told to wait. Separate Facebook pages were set up to memorialise the Ethiopian and the Lebanese victims. The state-run National News Agency released the names of the Lebanese dead on a separate list from the Ethiopian ones. At least one Beirut-based journalist interpreted the national reaction to the plane crash as evidence of outright racism toward foreign workers (he was shouted down in the blogosphere). But at the very least, the crash seemed to exacerbate divisions borne of nationality and inequality in Beirut.

I had arrived at the church with my friend Matthew Cassel, a photojournalist. Together we composed 100 per cent of the non-Ethiopians in the room, and two-thirds of the men. The women remained in their prostrate position for almost half an hour before anyone spoke. A small picture of Gebre was taped to the podium at the front of the room. Finally, the pastor, a human-rights activist named Victoria Andarge, took the stage.

"Tabarek, Gita, Tabarek, Yesus," she sang, in Amharic, in a lush, booming voice - Bless you, God, Bless you, Jesus - over and over until it became a kind of mantra. The woman seated just in front of me wept quietly, a pile of crumpled tissues growing steadily on the windowsill beside her. At one point, the pastor paused her singing, and in the moment of silence that ensued, one woman burst out wailing and ran from the room.

Matthew had been taking photographs at the front of the church, and now he walked to the back and sat down next to me. "I hate my job sometimes," he whispered. One day in January Matthew had been doing some work on his balcony when the body of a young Filipina housemaid landed face down on the pavement up the street from his apartment. She had evidently climbed out onto the balcony of her employers' seventh-floor apartment and, after slitting her wrists, jumped to her death. For over an hour, Matthew says, the body lay on the ground, covered only by a semi-transparent tarpaulin, before any emergency workers arrived. Cars and pedestrians passed by unperturbed - "business as usual", he said.

He spent the ensuing weeks tracking down the housemaid's family, hoping that in telling their story, he might be able to shed light on the tragedy of her experience as a domestic worker in Lebanon. But so far Matthew had found them resistant to working with him for a mix of emotional and practical reasons: they didn't want to believe that she had committed suicide, and they didn't want to draw attention to themselves, for fear of raising the ire of Lebanese authorities.

Matthew had told me all this on the way to church, and now it began to sink in. We tend to think that trauma makes people more knowable, since everyone can relate to loss. But even in the midst of a raw and glaring tragedy, the experiences of migrant workers - who must constantly rationalise sacrifice in pursuit of a better life - can remain difficult to grasp. When the service was over, two hours after we had arrived, the parishioners spilled out into the church's front yard. Word spread that church members would be going to pay their respects to Heny Gebre's sister, who did not usually attend church. Matthew and I crammed into a taxi with three Ethiopian women. At the house, we sat silently in a room with two dozen other people. We were wordlessly served lamb stew with traditional Ethiopian bread - the soft, crępe-like, injera - on a plastic plate with small cups of Sprite. Before, I had been eager to come to this house, but now that I was here, I couldn't help feeling like an intruder. I asked the woman sitting next to us - a cousin of Gebre, apparently, who was dressed in all black except for a red checked scarf tied around her head - a few questions about Gebre's life. She answered them politely, before standing up and leaving the room. After 15 minutes or so, Matthew and I excused ourselves. We hadn't taken any notes or photographs.

Earlier, as church let out, I had asked one of the parishioners about life in Lebanon. It was indeed wretched, she said grimly. "Before I came, I expected to work half of the day, and the other half of the time I'd be able to do personal things, or take classes. But when I arrived here, everything is work." That was nine years ago. After three years, she had returned to Ethiopia, but it wasn't long before she was back in Lebanon again. Why? I asked her. She smiled stiffly, and replied: "Because in my country, there is no work."

On flights into Beirut, young women looking for work stream in from worse-off places. I recently flew a leg of one of the more popular routes for Ethiopian maids - they often fly to Addis Ababa on Yemenia Airways, via Sana'a. On the way from Beirut to Sana'a, the boarding area was filled with dozens of giddy Ethiopian women. Some of them, no doubt, were heading home for the first time in years, like Gebre. When I asked a couple whether they were going home for a visit or for good, they grinned and said, proudly, "Khallas" - finished. Later, as they boarded the plane, one woman bent down and kissed the gangway, a euphoric farewell to a country she hoped to never see again. On the flight back, 10 days later, their seats on the plane were filled with an equal number of Ethiopian women, poised to begin a new life in Beirut.

Joshua Hersh is a journalist living in Beirut whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New Republic.

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