The Unsung Heroes of Lebanon

In this part of the world, one of the toughest things I’ve had to grapple with -- and continue to do so, five and a half years in -- is the pronounced polarization of socioeconomic classes.

Having grown up in the West where from a young age I was taught the importance of self-help and equality regardless of color, race, or creed, I’ve had difficulty coming to terms with the deeply-felt presence of a migrant working class in Lebanon.

Gas stations manned by Egyptians and Bangladeshi who pump your gas and squeegee your windows without you even having to open the car door.

Garbage men balancing precariously on steel rungs in the rear of dumpster trucks, inhaling the fumes of the road and rank rubbish as they descend to the street level to sweep it up.

How about those captive restroom aides who camp inside restaurant and venue wash areas, wiping down toilet seats and counters and doling out paper towels to comers and goers?

Migrant worker keeps busy on phone while manning the restroom
(Photo credit:

Ever noticed how the janitors inside restaurant kitchens are almost uniformly dark-skinned?

I haven’t even gotten to the most common form of immigrant employee you see in Lebanon, and that’s the domestic servant, nanny, governess, or whatever euphemism you want to reduce her to. She comes in Filipina, Bangladeshi, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Cameroonian, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, or Burmese, and if you spot her inside a mall, she’s invariably on the heels of her mistress, tending to the kids’ every need.

The sight of these ladies wrenches my heart, because I don’t know how they get on psychologically, how they justify their daily bread slaving for others. Sure, they come to this country of their own volition, seeking to secure a more relaxed existence for their families and children back home. But the second-class treatment they’re sometimes the recipients of, the tiny personal space they’re relegated to, and the cold shoulder we can be guilty of giving them makes me uneasy.

Migrant workers rallying in Lebanon (April 2012, The Daily Star)

We Lebanese have a reputation for washing our hands clean of menial affairs. Anything requiring back-breaking labor, we typically enlist the help of foreign laborers. 

Just look at our public works and construction sector. Who but Syrians are pouring concrete and threading rebars through blocks?

How about the bag boys inside supermarkets? Ever seen a Lebanese pack your groceries or carry them to your car?

The moped-riding men who risk their lives braving traffic (though admittedly, they’re not always innocuous themselves) simply to bring us lunch to the comfort of our offices…are they Lebanese nationals?

Valet parking attendants are exceptionally Lebanese, possibly because their business is highly profitable, and we’d be fools to pass on a pretty penny to a foreigner.

I won’t pretend life isn’t vastly easier with these migrants' presence. You can have your home hosed down for proverbial peanuts, whereas abroad, a house cleaner commands a decent salary. You can afford to juggle a full-time career and household thanks to these domestic goddesses, who occasionally take the reins on the cooking as well. You can have your heavy grocery bags conveyed to the car for tens of cents. And if you’re ever strapped to your desk and can’t get out for a bite, they are the saviors who will bring you nourishment.

Is it wishful to hope that these people will someday be perceived as equals? Equal pay for equal labor. Equal access to all forms of employment. Equal protection under the law. Equal treatment in general.

Photo credit:

Until that day comes, let’s each do our own small part as a collective whole:

Let’s notice them.

Let’s be nice to them.

Let’s strike up a conversation with them and listen intently.

Let’s hear them out. Each has a story to tell, and you’d be surprised at how positive and upbeat they are about their livelihoods.

Lord knows how we’d cope if ever put in their shoes.


  1. Both of President Obama’s daughters do their own laundry. Can you picture a daughter of any of our ministers doing her own wash? That would be a sight to see.


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