George Floyd vigil shines a light on racism in Lebanon

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Following the killing of unarmed black man in the United States, demonstrations have sprung up around the world in support of the nationwide protests in the US. In Lebanon, demonstrators used a candlelight vigil as a way to shine a spotlight on racism in Lebanese society.

Several dozen people gathered in Beirut to hold a vigil for George Floyd after he was killed by a police officer in the US at the end of May. During this vigil, those present condemned racism globally, but also in Lebanon. The kafala system, under which migrant workers relinquish their passports to their employers and gives little rights to the workers themselves, was central to the Lebanese vigil.

“Like the October Revolution,” Claudia Youakim, the organizer of the vigil, told Al Arabiya English, “that focused on the exploitative political structure in Lebanon, the Black Lives Matter Movement focuses on structural and systemic racism, not only in the US, as we see it here in Lebanon with such practices as the kafala system.”

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Youakim explained that holding vigils is an important act so that people do not forget that those who have been killed are human beings; it’s a way to ensure they don’t become another statistic.

“They had family, friends, a community, a life, one that was abruptly stolen from them at the hands of their oppressors,” she said. “As a movement we stand united, as a transnational community, who voice our disgust with their ill treatment. We are their voices and a part of their community – worldwide. If one of us can’t breathe, we all can’t breathe!”

Even though Floyd was killed in the US, Lebanese believe that it is highlighting issues that exist in their country as well. Lama El-Amine, an attendee of the vigil, specifically sited Lebanese singer Tanya Saleh, who posted a picture of herself in blackface in what Saleh said was solidarity with the protests in the US. However, she received widespread criticism for her actions.

“I’m here [at the vigil] because of Tanya Saleh,” El-Amine told Al Arabiya English, “This is not acceptable in 2020. A famous singer in Lebanon posted something on Facebook and people asked her to take it down, but she didn’t want to. This is a big problem.”

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Youakim also spoke out against Saleh’s actions and encouraged the singer to educate herself on the issues.

“I am disgusted, as are my fellow community members. I’d tell her to read history books that speak to racial issues and trends,” she said.

While many Lebanese have said that they support the demonstrations in the US, for El-Amine, they are not looking at the prejudices that exist within their own country as she is often treated differently due to her dark skin.

“I have never felt like I am Lebanese because of that [racism],” she explained. “They never treat me as Lebanese because they always say really bad words to me when I was a child or when I grew up. Whenever I’m walking in the street anywhere in Lebanon, I feel like there is racism.”

A black Lebanese woman attends a vigil for George Floyd in Beirut, Lebanon. (Nicholas Frakes)
A black Lebanese woman attends a vigil for George Floyd in Beirut, Lebanon. (Nicholas Frakes)

El-Amine pointed out that people always seem surprised that she speaks Arabic and will push back when she tells them that she is Lebanese.

“When I tell them that I’m Lebanese they say that I’m definitely not Lebanese and that there must be something ‘wrong’ in my family” she said. “They insist that one of my parents is not Lebanese. I basically need to give people my CV in order for them to accept me. It’s not acceptable!”

Emotions ran high at the vigil, with one woman being brought to tears as she and others chanted “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.”

As the sun began to set, everyone lit their candles, illuminating their faces and signs as cars drove past them, with some honking their horns in support.

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