Editor’s note: Lebanon is a country of 4.5 million, which hosts some 1.5 million refugees displaced by war as well as about 250,000 migrant workers. This article is part of a series on how the Church attends to the spiritual and humanitarian needs in the region.
BEIRUT — Beirut is a balmy, energetic, Christian-friendly city, one of the few capitals in the Middle East where visitors can stroll under palm trees festooned with Christmas lights.
Hotels are bursting with tourists this holiday season, attracted by a temperate, cosmopolitan place, with great food, lively culture and a notorious nightlife.
Quietly accommodating tourists across Beirut — in the “back of the house,” as hotels refer to the domain of the housekeeping staff — are thousands of Filipino women, mostly Catholic, who typically leave their families to work abroad on two-year renewable contracts, lured by better pay, which they promptly send home.
You can find these faces of migration in the Middle East singing their hearts out at the Sunday noon Mass at St. Francis Catholic Church on Hamra Street, West Beirut’s careworn commercial boulevard.
“For you a-lone are the Ho-ly one; you a-lone are the Lord!” belts out Nenita, a 38-year-old Filipino hotel maid and member of the white-veiled, all-female choir.
For the few people who don’t already know the prayer’s words, the Gloria is projected in English onto a movie screen. Just one song in Tagalog, at the end of the Mass, gives away the native tongue of most parishioners.
Nenita told me she could not survive without her “church family”: Her happiest hours of the week, and only day off, are when she sings at church on Sundays.
What’s most striking about this bustling congregation is its homogeneity: Of the 700-plus people packed into every corner and spilling out onto St. Francis’ front steps, only five or six are men; more than 95% are from the Philippines.
An “army” of some 30,000 churchgoing Filipino women are in Beirut, according to a local priest. Most are here to work in hotels or private homes as housekeepers, caregivers, babysitters and domestic servants.
At St. Francis, women are the readers, the ushers, the gift bearers and the music ministers; they don’t, however, serve on the altar or offer Communion.
Rather than general intercessions, the congregation prays for a long list of people that takes close to 10 minutes to read — people who are sick or recently deceased and those facing special challenges, including exams, marriage woes and financial trouble. These are mainly family and friends back home, I learn later.
Instead of a second collection for infrastructure or a foreign mission, a reader explains one parishioner’s health crisis, and the offering baskets are passed for her.
Without deviating at all from the universal liturgy, this Mass has the distinct feel of belonging to the faithful here gathered. And when Father Abdallah offers a final blessing, communion has only just begun.
After Church, sunglasses come out, and parishioners, most between 20 and 40 years old, jostle for space to take selfies in twos and threes on the tall front steps.
Many move to an adjacent Catholic school playground, an enclosed space hidden from the busy main street.
“We try to create space for everyone to relax and be with each other, to be human, free,” explained Father Abdallah, a 46-year-old Capuchin priest, gesturing around the yard. Father Abdallah, the eldest of nine children born in the Bekaa Valley, is proud of his Arab ancestry. A younger brother is also a Capuchin. They both want to continue serving in Lebanon.
Some women are celebrating a birthday: They’ve decorated a corner with balloons and are producing a feast out of plastic bags.
Another group has turned on pop music as a soundtrack for the fashion show they’ve created inside a circle of plastic chairs.
“They work very hard, often with no time for anything but their employers’ needs, so Sunday is a sacred celebration and a community event,” Father Abdullah continued.
As he spoke, he continually scanned the school yard, breaking away abruptly to eject two male interlopers who, the Capuchin explained, had no business there — pimps or other human vultures attracted to the large gathering of women.
Filipino women are among the most valued domestic and hotel staff in the Middle East because they typically speak English, are well educated and are known for personal traits such as honesty and patience, which some link to their Catholic heritage.
The women come to earn money for their families at great personal sacrifice, since they often leave children and husbands behind in the care of relatives.
Approximately 25% of people in the Philippines live below the poverty line, compelling some 10 million Filipinos to find jobs abroad. In 2014, these overseas workers sent approximately $24 billion back home in remittances, which represented 8.5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the central bank.
A hotel employee typically makes $350 per month, while a domestic worker makes $300. A full $100 goes each month to the employment agency that arranged the contract. Most migrant domestic workers have two-year, renewable contracts.
In Lebanon, domestic workers are often paid based on nationality: Filipino women are paid more than women coming from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia or Bangladesh, who are now recruited in greater numbers.
It seems odd that a country full of refugees is importing household staff, but a Caritas Lebanon staff member explained that the employment agencies perpetuate the lucrative business and that Lebanese law forbids refugees from working. However, they work in the underground economy, which includes agriculture and construction.
“Migrant workers have come such a distance to work here; they become totally dependent on their employers, which makes them reliable, but also vulnerable,” said the Caritas case worker who has helped Filipino workers with abusive employers but preferred not to be named.
Caritas Lebanon maintains a Migrants Center that helps domestic workers who encounter problems such as physical abuse or non-payment of wages.
It produced a short video this year on the fact that domestic workers should be respected and treated well, including the need for a day off, timely pay, the right to worship, form community groups and call family back home regularly.
Two factors make the lives of migrant domestic workers precarious: Lebanese labor laws do not apply to them; and their residence permit is linked to their employment. This practice, known as the kafala system in the Middle East, makes migrant workers totally dependent on the sponsoring family or employer.
One Filipino domestic worker who was sexually assaulted by an employer in Lebanon emerged as a leader of a new union for domestic workers announced a year ago.
Father Abdallah said the Church helps parishioners who encounter problems. “We have mediated to help settle disagreements” with the labor agents who recruit the workers, but, “mainly, we are a sanctuary away from all the workplace trials.”
Worst Reputation: Saudi Arabia
One part of the school yard at St. Francis’ post-Mass festival was turned into a small bazaar of goods for sale or barter, side enterprises managed by the women, often based on prior employment.
Julia, who was selling “Saudi gold” from a carry-on bag, explained that she worked a year in Saudi Arabia — “the worst year of my life!” — where she invested some of her earnings in gold necklaces.
“You can’t imagine how lonely it is where there is no church,” Julia recalled.
Despite employing approximately 1 million Catholic guest workers, most from the Philippines, Saudi Arabia refuses to allow the Catholic Church to open a church where the faithful can worship. It is illegal to have a rosary or the Bible in one's home. The Holy See has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia because the country does not respect freedom of religion.
Julia said she worked 16-18 hours a day for a private family, doing everything from cooking and cleaning to childcare, errands and helping workers who were renovating the house.
“It was grueling, and I was totally controlled. I could not go anywhere on my own. Some women I knew wound up dead. Lebanon is one of the best countries to work in the Middle East.”
Because Lebanon has a significant Christian population, many people take Sundays as a day off. More recently, Shiite-owned businesses in Lebanon began giving Filipino workers Sundays off so they can attend Mass.
In most other Muslim-majority countries, Sunday is a workday, another barrier to church attendance.
One of the few men at Mass, Wilson, age 28, is a restaurant cook from Manila whose last job was in Saudi Arabia. “I got through eight months, but it was a real nightmare. The Saudis don’t consider us humans. We were shuttled between workplaces and tiny apartments, with no free time or freedom.”
Wilson said his family helped him “buy out” his contract in Saudi Arabia; he makes less money in Beirut, but he doesn’t care.
“Every dollar I make goes home. Everyone in this church is working for relatives,” Wilson said. “That’s why I always come to church. It reminds me why I’m here.”
‘Next Sunday We Will Be at St. Francis!’
Back at my hotel, a mile down the street, I gave prayer cards to two Filipino women cleaning rooms and asked them if they are able to attend Mass.
“Of course, sir, we go to church,” replied Maria, who had already told me her husband cares for their four children back in the Philippines.
“We take turns rotating with our friends [in the hotel]. This week we have to work, but next Sunday we will be at St. Francis!”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.