Lebanese Chronicles: One

Her name is May, and as she sat me down opposite her, all smiles, I could leisurely observe her cross neatly tied around her neck, her loose plait, her glasses. 

May is from the Philippines, and has been working in Lebanon as a beautician for one year and four months. 

Such a precise statement could only mean that she was counting down the days until she came home. I was eager to know more, and sure enough, it was not long before each of us were parting with bits and pieces about our respective lives. 

May notices my wedding band and starts giggling: Oooh very nice! Then on to tease her colleague, who just arrived to Lebanon, fresh from the Philippines, and who has six children back home:”Yiiiih Sally, did you see, you need to go home and find another husband and have even more children!”, cue giggles, and me telling to said Sally that one husband was plenty, thank you very much, and that I was sure she’d agree with me. 

May speaks about her colleagues, about how long they’ve been in the country, how long more they’ll be staying. Until I decided I wanted to know more about her. 

May’s husband died a couple of years ago, and she found herself a single mother living with her son, working as a nail beautician in her homecountry. “Do you know, she said to me, that in the Philippines, a manicure-pedicure is 2 dollars? This is why we come here, this is why we leave home”. May’s son is called Sandrix, he’s now five years old and living with his grandmother. Beaming with pride, May tells me she sends them money every month: “Last time I spoke to them, my son asked me “Mama! Are you going to send money? Can I have some ice cream then?” so I told him “yes my love, yes, too much ice cream even”. 

Then he asked her where she was. 

When I heard this, I felt a little part of my heart wither and die. Me, who made a big song and dance about not seeing my niece for a couple of months, I was sitting opposite a woman who left behind her own child to make sure he had a future.

May wanted to know everything about my husband, my life, why my mother was not staying with me in Lebanon, all details I happily provided her with. When I said to her I’ll be sitting by the phone waiting for my sister to call, she looked at me and laughed “like me!”. Funny how sparks of understanding can fly between people who come from completely different walks of lives. Different situations, different circumstances, same, universal feelings stemming from the essence of being human. Loss, grief, want and need are undiscriminating weapons. 

But don’t go for one second think that May was complaining or miserable. When I told her her parents must be really proud of her, she positively blossomed: “They are. My parents, my brother, my sister, they all said they were so proud of me, especially because I used to be so naughty with all of them! But now I’m very happy, they’re proud of me, and my son is going to school!”

While I couldn’t imagine her ever being naughty to anyone, it made not doubt to me her whole family was proud of her. May will be in Lebanon until 2013, then she’ll go home to her son and family. Until then, I intend to drop by and have a chat with her now and then, so we can have a coffee, and maybe some more laughs. 

Note: May did say to me she was really happy working in a nail salon and practicing her trade and not in a house, even though she did not elaborate on why. Domestic workers and migrant workers in Lebanon suffer high levels of discrimination and sometimes, violence, leading the most desperate of them to commit suicide. Working conditions in private houses can be extremely harsh, with employees not allowed days off, getting locked up or beaten up. Migrant workers are not allowed to go into swimming pools at beaches and have to endure the rampant racism and lack of support from the authorities. To know more and get involved, please go to http://www.nasawiya.org/web/category/migrant-rights/ 

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