Happy to be Home: Sri Lankan Migrants Flee Lebanon

Fathima Laroofa was among the first to come out to the waiting area at the Katunayake international airport. Visibly exhausted from the long journey, the 36-year-old mother of four, smiled wearily at the motley group of media representatives present there.

Reporters and cameramen had been waiting since the wee hours of the morning with much anticipation. This was the first group of Sri Lankan migrant workers  assisted by IOM to return from war-torn Lebanon.

Fathima was among 270 Sri Lankan nationals to return home that day on an IOM-sponsored flight  from the Syrian capital Damascus. "It was terrifying. Those were not ordinary bombs; they were dropped by jets and landed near us frequently," she said covering her ears. She had words of gratitude for the Sri Lankan embassy in Beirut, saying the officials there had treated them with kindness. "I'm also grateful to IOM for bringing us home." Fathima was clearly glad to get away from the explosions that had surrounded her for over a week.

Her employers were reluctant to let her go. "They told me they'd paid an agent USD 2,000 to find me and that I'd first have to give them that money before I could be paid for my work," she said, sobbing. A kind-hearted taxi driver took her to the Sri Lankan embassy in Beirut. After slaving away as domestic help for more than a year, Fathima returned home almost empty-handed. Gone were her dreams of saving money to lead a comfortable life when she returned to Sri Lanka. The war and  her employers have put paid to those hopes.

Worse still, her 21-year-old daughter,who was also employed with a family in Beirut, is still missing. "I pray to Allah that she returns home safely."

Later, at the Sahana Piyasa, a training-cum-reception centre run by the Sri Lanka Bureau for Foreign Employment near the airport, the group was able to wash and have breakfast, and receive medical attention.

I approached a woman who stood by herself, away from her noisy fellow-evacuees. It had clearly been a long journey for all of them - first by bus in IOM convoys from Beirut to Damascus and subsequently, the flight to Colombo. Sinnaodayar Anonaumma looked rather dazed.

"I'm so happy your organization brought me back. I dread to think of what it would be like to be stuck there in the middle of the bombing. "But life back home isn't going to be easy. "I divorced my husband many years ago and don't really have a family to go back to," she told me. "I have no house, no belongings." Her employers didn't let her carry even her clothes. "I only have a few things," she said pointing to a couple of torn plastic bags standing against a pillar near her. "They didn't give me any money. My employers owe me over a year's salary," she said with tears in her eyes.

Not all returnees were unhappy with their employers though. Ammavasy Puweneshwary and Muniyandy Maheswari had worked in Beirut for four and eight years respectively. They came to IOM's Colombo office seeking assistance a couple of days after their arrival.

"Our employers were quite nice. I worked with the same family for about eight years.  They gave me a day off each week and paid me regularly," 33-year-old Maheswari said. "But I do know some others aren't that lucky. They are not fed properly, are deprived of basic facilities, and are not even allowed to go out of the house."

The two women don't plan to return to Lebanon, they have decided to stay here and look after their children instead. "I wish I'd been able to stay there long enough to save enough to build a house," Maheswari said wistfully.

Still, it is clear that the hundreds of people returning are relieved to be back. Some are eager to express gratitude for the assistance they've received. "IOM officials were very kind to us throughout our journey from Beirut. They provided food and took care of us," said Nilusha, who's in her mid-20s, echoing the sentiments of many of the returnees.

Since 20 July, IOM has evacuated about 1200 Sri Lankans living in Lebanon, providing them also with medical, shelter and repatriation assistance with funds donated by the European Commission and the US government. More evacuations are taking place this week.

B. Ranjitha
Media & Public Information Officer
IOM Sri Lanka
24, Police Park Avenue, Colombo 5.
Phone: +94 11 533 3432
Mobile: +94 773597349
Email: ranjithab@iomsrilanka.org