Evacuated Migrants Continue to Recount Depressing Tales of Abuse

At first glance, you'd think they were tourists putting up at dormitories - all spread out comfortably on mattresses or bunker beds and chatting cheerfully. The salubrious surroundings add to the relaxed atmosphere as sunlight pours in from the balconies attached to the rooms. The building itself is the beautiful Mar Touma monastery located on a hill some 25 kilometres away from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

"Hello, ladies!" I say to them through the open French windows. "May I come in?" The group of Filipinos greets me with enthusiasm: "Hello and welcome!" They beckon to me, sitting up on the beds and straightening their clothes as I climb over the railing. "This is a lovely place and you folks seem to be having a nice time," I comment.

"We are happy and are enjoying ourselves although we are running from a war!" one of them says and they all laugh.

I walk up to a small group of women who are sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. They are in the midst of lunch but are eager to talk to me. "We are happy because we are safe," says Elizabeth Salvation. "More importantly, we are relieved to get away from our employers," she adds. Beth, as she is known to her family and new-found friends, is obviously echoing the sentiments of several women in the room. "Yes!" they scream and clap their hands spontaneously.

Beth and her friends are among the over 13,000 foreign migrant workers who have been evacuated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) from Lebanon since 20 July. With funding from the European Commission and the US government, IOM has sponsored or arranged for their stay at various shelters in Syria, and provided food and medical attention to evacuees as they wait to fly back home.

IOM has worked in collaboration with the monastery to house this group of Filipinos as it has with many other groups of stranded migrants evacuated by the Organization. These women have spent a longer time in transit in Syria than some of the other groups, allowing them time to recover a little from the trauma of the bombardment they'd witnessed and the chance to relax a bit.

Many migrant workers have reported that their employers in Lebanon were kind and even brought them to their respective embassies so they could escape the war. In fact, one Lebanese expatriate in the US sent me an email a few weeks ago, asking how his family back in Beirut could contact IOM as they wanted to send a Sri Lankan domestic worker home. However, a large number of foreign migrant workers have complained of cruelty and abuse of varying degrees by their employers.

In Beth's case, she had had a decent working relationship with her employers. However, things changed when the bombing began and she told them that she was scared and wanted to return to the Philippines. They refused to let her go. As the bombing intensified, she repeated her request, saying that she was too afraid to work. "I told them that I wasn't Lebanese and it was not my home. So, please let me go," she explains.

Beth reenacts the scene, talking animatedly as she shows me how her "madam" clutched her arm and pushed her against the wall. "Look at these bruises," she says. The discolouration of the skin on her upper arm is evident as her friend pulls up the sleeve of her shirt. Beth claims she was locked up in a room for a few days and had the key to the flat taken away. She was told she couldn't leave in the middle of her contract and that she'd have to pay them USD 1,200 if she wanted to go.

The 39-year-old decided to try and outsmart her ruthless employers. "I stopped complaining and said I was sorry. I resumed my chores around the house," she explains. "They thought I'd given up and handed the key back to me. I pretended I was my old self again but quietly packed some of my things. And do you know what I did," she asks with a broad grin. "One day, I took out the garbage as usual. No one knew that I'd put my belongings in the garbage bags! So I walked out of the house without raising any suspicion."

Not all the migrant workers were as lucky. Many women whose employers were preventing them from leaving were nevertheless determined to escape. They jumped out of windows or clambered down walls even if it meant falling down and breaking limbs. "I escaped from the window of a two-storey building," one woman says. "I was brave, wasn't I?"; she laughs as her friends cheer loudly.

Another woman says that she was forced to work at her employer's mother and friend's home as well for no additional payment. "I lost 10 kilogrammes in the 11 months I spent in Lebanon," she says. "They never gave me adequate food. All the food was locked away in the refrigerator and I wasn't allowed to touch it."

Thirty-year-old Jovelyn Augustin appears a bit introverted. "I pray all the time," she says and leads me to the chapel at the monastery. There, she breaks into tears. She found out only recently that her husband was dying of cancer in the Philippines. Her employers had tried to keep that information from her. The mother of three begged them to let her go back home so she could look after her ailing husband. They refused. "I worked with the family for 11 months and they haven't paid me anything. My family needs money and I don't have any even after working so hard," she sobs.

We leave the chapel to join the rest of the group. They've gathered on the terrace and one of the women is entertaining everyone with a song. Later, the others join in for a Filipino song. The women request IOM staff - who reside at the monastery to take care of the evacuees - to play music. "Let's dance," one woman suggests and some of her friends follow eagerly, turning it into an impromptu party.

It's a happy sight but the singing and dancing belie the suffering and agony that many of them have endured, some even before the bombing began. Ironically, for many migrant workers, the conflict may have brought a much-appreciated opportunity to escape from unkind or abusive employers even though life back home will be difficult.

As the others sing and dance, Jovelyn looks on pensively. She's preoccupied with thoughts of a sick husband back home and what the future holds.

The claims of abuse and maltreatment cannot be verified. These are individual testimonies of some of the migrant workers evacuated from Lebanon.