BEIRUT, 11 July 2011 (IRIN) – Of all Lebanon’s communities the Dom, described by some researchers as “the Gypsies of Lebanon”, are the most marginalized: Up to 68 percent of Dom children do not attend school, according to a new report.
“Their access to legal protection, health, education, adequate shelter and food is very difficult, verging on impossible,” said Charles Nasrallah, director of Insan Association, an NGO that promotes respect for the rights of vulnerable communities. “Such problems were compounded by acute social marginalization.”
The Dom are also sometimes described as `Nawwar’, an Arabic word carrying derogatory connotations of poor hygiene, laziness, begging and questionable morality. Many, according to the report released on 8 July by Insan and Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes (TDH), have Lebanese citizenship, but deeply engrained discrimination has rendered them worse off even than Palestinian refugees.
The results of the study “are screaming out for all actors on the humanitarian landscape to re-think their current programming initiatives and bring the Dom people and their children into the humanitarian space in Lebanon,” said Jason Squire, country delegate of TDH Lebanon. “The wider community in Lebanon does not live and experience the same daily hardships that the Dom face,” he added.
The Dom are a poorly understood ethnic minority living across a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territory, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Like gypsy communities in Europe, historians believe the Dom are descendants of travelling performers who migrated westwards from India centuries ago.
A recent study published by the American University of Beirut on poverty among Palestinian refugees in Lebanon noted that most live on about $2.7 per person per day. According to Kristen Hope, TDH Dom project manager, “about 9 percent of Palestinians in Lebanon are living below the poverty line.”
By contrast, the TDH/Insan report found that “over 30 percent of the Dom sampled are living on less than one dollar a day.”
According to think-tank The Dom Research Centre, few Dom in the cities have steady jobs, and can be seen begging in the streets, playing drums, flutes or other instruments at weddings and parties, fortune-telling and doing manual labour.
Insan Association and TDH interviewed Dom community members in four locations, and found that many live in rudimentary shanty towns where most homes are not connected to a sewage network. Most mothers are deprived of maternal health care and many children faced neglect by parents struggling to make ends meet. Some 68 percent had never attended school.
“An indication of the depth of the prejudice faced by the Dom is a desire to leave behind their ethnic identity,” said Hope. Demonstrative of this is the fact the Domari language is rapidly losing ground to Arabic, she told IRIN.
“Half of the adults but only a quarter of the children we interviewed spoke Domari,” she added. “Language is a marker of their ethnic identity and it seems parents are trying to suppress it to protect their children from the discrimination they experienced.”
TDH and Insan Association were unable to estimate the size of the Dom community in Lebanon, but their research suggests there are 3,112 living in the Lebanese cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. “Many more Dom communities exist within Lebanon, particularly in Tripoli and the Bekaa,” Hope said.
Unlike refugees or the Bedouin, with whom they are often confused, the Dom were granted naturalization in 1994. But despite enjoying citizenship rights, the Dom community faces even greater marginalization than Palestinian refugees and is ignored by almost all NGOs, the report said.
The children, in particular, are vulnerable to violence, chronic malnutrition, child marriage, dangerous working conditions and exploitation. Many community members are also reluctant to access public services like health care or education because of their perceived secondary status.
Until recently the Dom of Lebanon were a nomadic people. Since naturalization, however, most have settled down and started enrolling their children in school, Hope said.
“Ten years ago, our family used to be afraid of enrolling children in school,” said one Dom man living in the Bekaa’s Bar Elias area. “We were afraid we would be arrested or be refused because people think we are afraid of science. Now we are trying to enrol our children in school.”