Of cultural diversity in Beirut.
Of cultural diversity in Beirut.
African and Asian migrant workers. Their children. And my child.
So how is Beirut? It's hot, it's humid, it's busy, it's crowded ... full of people who could hardly be more different. If you know anything about Lebanon's capital, if you have only read one or two poorly researched articles you'll know that there are 18 different officially recognised sects in Lebanon, that there are Muslims, Christians, Druze who call this city home, that you have more Christian sects in this country than you could probably ever name from the top of your head ... even if you identify as a Christian yourself. There are Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Syrian-Orthodox Christians, Catholic ones, Maronites ... to name just a few. There are different religious sects, different socio-economic classes, people who speak French fluently and others who hardly know a handful of words of English. There are those who live in London, Paris, Washington or Dubai for most of the year and those who have perhaps never left the city they were born in. And that's just the Lebanese. Add to that Syrians, many of whom recently sought refuge in the country, and Palestinians, the majority of whom have been here for much longer.
But that's not the only way in which Beirut is diverse. One stroll on one of the capital's streets, and you'd have to be blind not to notice all those African and Asian faces. Beirut is Eritrean, it's Nigerian, and Filipino. It's the African housemaid, the Asian nanny. Some of them in gingham uniforms, others in their regular clothes, they often accompany families of the upper middle class when they take their kids to the park or a walk by the seaside.
Doing research as a European in a country like Lebanon can be challenging. You don't really speak the language, you're not used to the heat, and things are different than at home. You are different.
Doing research with a child is even more difficult. Or so I thought. I didn't think I could just drag along ze baby to my interviews so I started looking for childcare. On a student budget. Ha ha, she's ambitious, that woman!
But I found something. In a centre run by an NGO providing all sorts of support services to Asian and African migrant workers living in Lebanon. They were kind enough to agree to let ze baby stay for whenever I needed someone to look after her for a couple of hours.
So that's how ze baby ended up spending a few hours every week with a group of little African and Asian kids. Originally from Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, or half Asian, half Arab, most of them have been in Lebanon for the majority of their life. They speak Arabic, some English (which is the language of communication in the centre) and sometimes also the language of their parents, be it Hindi, Tamil, Tagalog or Filipino.
That's how ze baby ended up spending a few hours every week with all the other children, and that's how I ended up hearing all those stories.
About recent changes in the law that don't allow maids, cooks, cleaners and nanies from Africa or Asia to keep their children. They don't get the residence permit they'd need to stay, so eventually the kids are being sent "back home", a country many of them don't know, where a language is spoken many of them have never learnt, or at least not properly.
About how much the children love that they can run around, sing and shout in the centre. Because at home, in their parents' employers' home, they are told to be quiet, not to disturb the employers with their laughter and their shouting - noise, disruption, not wanted, stop it please, can you be quiet now?!
About how some parents before they found the centre just locked the children alone at home until they were back from work in the afternoon.
Because doing research with a child is difficult, and working with a child is difficult, too. Childcare is expensive and hard to find, the European researcher from the UK knows that as much as the Sri Lankan cook in Lebanon. Or maybe not as much. But she knows, too.
And so ze baby plays and sings and paints with the other little kids. And while I sit there and look at them I can't help but think how much they are the same, children, funny, laughing, quite adorable most of the time and simply annoying from time to time, and how much they differ. They are five, six, seven, eight now and all play together, but Lieschen, just because of the place she was born in, the family she grew up in, the country the nationality whose nationality she holds, has the opportunity to such a different life. All the same yet still so different. That's Beirut, that's also Beirut.