Tag Archives: Dalila Mahdawi

The Lebanese student saving lives with his mobile phone

17 May

At 26 years old, Yorgui Keyrouz has accomplished an extraordinary feat: saving over 15,000 lives. By starting a blood database from his mobile phone, he’s put those in need of blood in touch with a growing number of willing donors. In doing so, he’s filled a gaping void in the Lebanese health sector, which has no centralised blood service. Listen to my report for Deutsche Welle:

http://blogs.dw.de/generationchange/wp-content/plugins/audio-link-player/xspf/player.swf Blood Bank in Lebanon

Yorgui Keyrouz

Yorgui Keyrouz started the blood database on his mobile phone

Samar Khoury

Regular donor Samar Khoury is ready to give


From Our Own Correspondent

27 Nov

You can listen to me talking about Lebanon’s architectural heritage and transformation, on the BBC’s From our Own Correspondent program last week. You can also read it (unedited) below:

Dalila Mahdawi in Beirut

They wake me up early every morning without fail. The construction workers in the lot behind my house bang away at steel, shift concrete blocks and yell instructions at one another. Workers on the other side of the street soon join in, busying themselves with the demolition of a building.

Beirut has for so long been synonymous with conflict and destruction.  But now it’s a city in rapid transition, changing into a modern and sleek metropolis. In almost every neighborhood, the sound of building or demolition is constant, ringing out as regularly as a heartbeat.

Lebanon is well versed in destruction – a fifteen year civil war ending in 1990 saw hundreds of thousands die or disappear.  Many buildings became sniper towers and battle grounds between warring militias. A war with Israel in 2006 also saw large swathes of the country reduced to rubble.

The conflicts have left behind a vast number of shambolic buildings in need of demolition or renovation.  But they have also provided an unprecedented opportunity for construction companies and investors to transform the country’s very character.

The current stability has encouraged previously cautious investors, as well as expatriate Lebanese hoping to reconnect with their country, to put up big money for real estate projects. It seems demand for housing has never been higher, and so the pock-marked or low-rise buildings are torn down … and the fancy apartments are bought up even before they are built.

But in the frenzied rush to reconstruct, many structures of architectural interest or historical importance are also falling victim to the wrecker’s ball. Fifty years ago, the Beirut skyline was made up of low-rise apartment blocks and picturesque stone houses.  Those have quickly given way to impersonal glass and concrete tower blocks.

On my street alone, a total of seven buildings have disappeared in recent years, including some real treasures – a 1950s art deco apartment building and two smaller houses that were at least a couple of centuries old. Soon, only the older residents will remember what this area used to look like.

Not everyone in Lebanon is quietly accepting the architectural transformation of their country.

Nestled in the lush Chouf Mountains, the charming village of Deir Al-Qamar, with its 17th and 18th century stone houses is proof that modernization and architectural heritage can find common ground.

The village boasts some of the best-preserved buildings in the country, including a mosque from 1493, winding stepped alleys, the palace of a former Ottoman governor, a restored merchants inn, and a 16th century emir’s palace. The local municipality hopes to preserve the area’s architecture by stipulating that today’s house builders must use traditional limestone brick, and red tiles for the roofs.

Meanwhile, a synagogue in downtown Beirut badly damaged by Israeli shelling is being refurbished after receiving donations both from Lebanese Jews and the international community. It is one of only a few remaining Jewish sites left in the country.

A few activists have also drawn attention to the need to preserve buildings associated with the Civil War. If all signs of war are erased, it makes it all that much easier to repeat the violence, the activists argue. One of these passionate people is architect Mona Hallak, who is largely behind the saving of one of Beirut’s true architectural delights.

The Barakat Building, a magnificent four story Art Nouveau apartment block built in the 1920s, was transformed into a militia headquarters during the civil war because of its strategically important location on the front line between divided East and West Beirut. Every floor had large, stained-glass windows offering views of the streets below, allowing snipers to pick off their targets with relative ease. The building was pulverized by rocket fire, grenades and bullets.

Today the land on which the Barakat Building sits is prime real estate worth millions. Its owners had decided to tear it down and sell it to developers. But Hallak’s efforts meant it was saved at the last minute, even as workers had already begun tearing up the marble tiles and removing intricate iron railings.

With the help of a few like-minded friends, she launched a petition and newspaper campaign demanding the building be preserved. Eventually the demolition permit was rescinded and in 2002 the city government took charge of the gutted structure. The Barakat Building is now set to become Beirut’s first museum of municipal history.

Still standing in spite of all its glaring wounds, and almost in defiance of the glass tower blocks popping up all around it, the Barakat Building offers people here some reassurance … the actions of a dedicated few architecture lovers don’t always go unnoticed. (C) of the BBC and Dalila Mahdawi

Migrant Women Dying on the Job

21 Nov

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT, Nov 21 (IPS) – October and November have been bloody months for Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers – over the last five weeks nine women have died. Most deaths have been reported as suicide.

The body of 20-year old Anget R. of Madagascar was found hanging from a rope at her employer’s bedroom door Nov. 11. A newspaper in Madagascar reported the deaths of two other Malagasy women in October. One, identified only as Mampionona, was said to have fallen from the balcony of her employer’s house. The other, identified as Vololona, died after reportedly jumping from the balcony.

Sunit Bholan of Nepal, who was 22, allegedly committed suicide Oct. 8. Ethiopian Kassaye Etsegenet, 23, died after reportedly jumping from the seventh floor of her employer’s house Oct. 15. She left behind a suicide note citing personal reasons.

On Oct. 21, 26-year-old Zeditu Kebede Matente of Ethiopia was found dead, hanging from an olive tree. Two days later 30-year old Saneet Mariam also of Ethiopia died after allegedly falling from the balcony of her employer’s house.

The list goes on: Nepalese national Mina Rokaya, 24, and then Tezeta Yalmoya of Ethiopia, 26 – who also died, it was said, when she fell from the balcony.

“It’s a national tragedy,” Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells IPS.

There are an estimated 200,000 women working in Lebanon as live-in housekeepers, cooks and nannies. Most are from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and the Philippines, though increasing numbers are arriving from Nepal, Madagascar and Bangladesh.

The workers leave their families behind to travel to Lebanon and look after strangers. Many are treated well by their employers; others are less fortunate.

Once in Lebanon, the women may be confined to their employer’s house, and have their passports confiscated and their salaries withheld, increasing their sense of isolation. Many women say they are not allowed out of the house, or get a day off. Complaints of sexual or psychological abuse are not uncommon.

Lebanon’s controversial sponsorship system means that workers are bound to their employers, and face incarceration if they leave. “It’s distressing to note that suicide for some is the only recourse to release from an abusive situation,” says Azfar Khan, senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) regional office for the Arab states.

Police investigations are often inadequate, usually taking into consideration only the employer’s testimony and failing to cross-check it with neighbours or the worker’s friends or family, says Houry. If the woman is lucky enough to survive a suicide attempt, the police almost never provide her with a translator, or ask whether she had been abused. Cases where abusive employers are imprisoned “are the exception, not the rule,” says Houry.

The recent spate of deaths is not the first. A HRW study last year found that at least 95 women had died between Jan. 1, 2007 and Aug. 15, 2008 – a rate of more than one a week.

Aimee, a freelance domestic worker from Madagascar, has been in Lebanon for almost 12 years. As a community leader now, she helps workers in distress by offering a sympathetic ear and advice.

Many of the women she counsels do not receive a regular salary, or have been abused by their employers or recruitment agency officials. Agencies “check the women’s bags for phone numbers or addresses of their consulate,” Aimee tells IPS. Any numbers found are destroyed to prevent the woman seeking help. “How can they ask someone to work so far away from home and treat them like that?”

Lebanon’s growing notoriety as a hotbed for abuse of rights has compelled the governments of Ethiopia and the Philippines to issue bans on their nationals working in Lebanon. But this hasn’t stemmed the tide of migrants entering through third countries. Bans in any case only “transfer the problem from one nationality to another,” says Houry, because recruitment agencies simply look to new countries for women workers.

One reason for suicides is the false expectations recruitment agencies raise among migrant workers. Many women are led to believe they will work as nurses or as other professionals. “A lot of these women are recruited in rural areas – it’s like taking someone and plucking them into a totally different environment,” says Houry.

One Nepalese woman he spoke to after she broke her leg trying to escape her employer’s house said “she saw the snow on the mountains and thought if she could cross the mountain, she’d be in Nepal.”

Lebanese labour laws do not cover domestic workers. Without any legal protection, foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation.

“The ILO has been pushing for domestic workers to be covered under labour law – not just in Lebanon but in other countries of the region – so that at least institutionally they enjoy protection and have the option to have their grievances addressed in court,” says Khan. “They are workers, so why should the labour law not apply to them?”

Lebanon has signed the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but has yet to move towards signing the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families – a measure that would obligate it to take protection measures for the migrant community.

But more practical measures the Lebanese could take are to create a national hotline for distressed workers and a labour inspection force to monitor the treatment of migrants, says Houry. “More broadly, society has to mobilise. Not everyone is guilty of ill-treatment, but everyone has to feel responsible. People need to start speaking out and express that this is unacceptable.”

Lebanon’s Crawl to Equality

12 Jun

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and was written for Common Ground News Service.

Patriarchy and political dynasties have shut out women who wish to govern.

By Dalila Mahdawi

It sees itself as one of the Middle East’s most liberal countries, but Lebanon’s lack of women politicians is conspicuous. While Lebanese women today enjoy senior positions in the private sector, political appointments have all but eluded them.

Lebanese women were granted suffrage in 1953, yet to this day they face considerable obstacles to entering politics in a country where political dynasties and patriarchy rule.

Most Lebanese women who do go into politics do so “wearing black” – that is, filling a position made available by a deceased male relative, and for which there is no other male relative available. Two examples are Myrna Boustani, who became the first Lebanese woman in parliament upon her father’s death, and Nayla Mouawad, who joined the body after becoming a widowed first lady of Lebanon.

But even when a female politician is elected to parliament without the help of a tragedy – as Bahia Hariri was in 1992, well before the assassination of her brother Rafiq Hariri, the five-time prime minister – it still seems to be a requirement that she hail from a rich and traditionally political family. It is virtually impossible for an independent, self-made woman to enter the political arena.

Unfortunately, the issue of women’s political participation was only superficially addressed by Lebanon’s elections on Sunday. The elections, which saw a Hezbollah-led opposition defeated by the Western-backed March 14 coalition, were widely hailed as the most competitive in years. But out of 587 candidates, only 12 – or a mere 2 percent – were women.

Worse, only four of those 12 – Nayla Tueni, Bahia Hariri, Strida Geagea, and Gilberte Zwein – were elected to Lebanon’s 128-member parliament. And all of them belong to political dynasties.

Lebanon’s instability has in the past helped drown out voices calling for gender equality. Over the last relatively trouble-free year, however, those voices have become louder and more persistent – most notably in a campaign to alter Lebanon’s discriminatory nationality law, which prevents Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men from transferring their nationality to their husbands and children.

Beirut has also been pressured to amend discriminatory family laws and to make greater efforts to combat gender-based violence.

But during the run-up to the elections, the closest the country came to a national debate on women’s role in politics was a war of slogans. The opposition’s Free Patriotic Movement played on the well-known French saying “Sois belle et tais-toi” (“Be beautiful and shut up”) with posters urging women to “Sois belle et vote” – “Be beautiful and vote.” The March 14 coalition responded with “Sois egale et vote” – “Be equal and vote.”

The parties were keen to attract women voters. But none of them explained how exactly they intended to promote women’s rights.

Women will be able to play a greater role in the governance of Lebanon only if the country’s political system moves away from its traditional sectarian system and toward a secular meritocracy. In 2005, a national commission to draft a new electoral law suggested introducing a 30 percent quota for women, but this was rejected. If the parties are serious in their calls for equality, they could impose voluntary internal quotas to ensure that a minimum number of women run in intraparty and national elections.

Lebanon has a duty to eliminate gender discrimination. Beirut amended the national constitution in 1990 to embrace the International Bill of Human Rights, paving the way for international human rights to be applied to national legislation. It might be too late for this year’s elections, but greater political participation by women could be encouraged in the 2010 municipal elections.

As long as Lebanon continues to hinder women’s rights and prevent women from entering the political process, the country cannot enjoy true democracy. Men and women alike must work to encourage the election of more women members of parliament.

Lebanese women have had the right to die as part of their country’s army for the last 18 years. They should also have the right to help formulate the laws that govern every Lebanese citizen – man or woman.