In a small café-bar in downtown Beirut, an unlikely partnership is putting a group of women migrant workers behind the kitchen counter, serving up traditional foods with 100 percent of the proceeds going directly to the chefs.
Initiated by the Anti-Racism Movement’s Migrant Community Center, this ‘Chef Residency’ program at Demo – located Gemmayzeh Street in the capital – offers an alternate way for migrant women to support themselves financially amidst Lebanon’s ever-deepening financial crisis.
“I am very excited,” chef Mariam Sesay told Al Arabiya English on opening night. “They said we can make food from our country and we will see how it goes; if the program goes well then maybe we will make a big restaurant.”
The delicious debut menu consisted of simple, hearty dishes from Sesay’s homeland of Sierra Leone – groundnut soup, cassava leaf, foo-foo (lit. ‘mash’ or ‘mix’), fried chicken and a filling vegetable stew – with cuisines from Madagascar, Cameroon, Kenya, the Philippines and Nepal all coming in the following days.
Sesay first came to Lebanon from Sierra Leone in 2015, as a teenager. She originally planned to stay for two years, earning money to further her education by going to college when she returned home. Instead, she is now an active member of the MCC, working with other migrant women who, like her, have found themselves stuck in Lebanon.
“I try [to do] as much as possible,” she said. “In this situation, you have to be very flexible. I try at least to be in a place where I can help. Sometimes, I just try to be a volunteer; if I can do it, somebody else can do it.”
Established in 2011, the MCC’s mission is to improve the quality of life for migrant workers, particularly migrant women, by supporting community-led initiatives, advocacy and activism.
With little in the way of safeguards or job security, initiatives like this offer unemployed migrants a much needed lifeline.
“For now, it’s still a pilot, because we want to see how it works, especially because the Migrant Community Center is welcoming a lot of nationalities,” explained MCC organizer Anamê Gnanguenon. “We’re starting with just two weeks, and each two days there is a different nationality. The chefs are really proud to be working on these menus. I hope it’s something we can develop with other restaurants.
“What we want to do with the kitchen project is for them to have a space where they can cook some dishes – like a traditional meal – but also have a small profit for them and help them survive as everything becomes more expensive.”
As Lebanon continues to suffer through one of the worst economic meltdowns of the century, members of the migrant worker community have been hit especially hard.
Under the controversial kafala system operating in the country, unskilled laborers are legally required to have an in-country sponsor who is responsible for their visa and legal status, typically their employer. The practice has been heavily criticized for creating easy opportunities for sponsors to manipulate and exploit their vulnerable workers, or withhold their passports.
With their residency tied to their employment contract, attempting to leave an abusive sponsor places migrant workers, especially young women, in a dangerous legal limbo. Recently, many have found themselves stranded as the families that previously employed them can no longer afford their services. Rent and food prices have also increased dramatically.
“One of the limits from the kafala system is that when you come as a migrant domestic worker, [if] you want to do something else, you cannot,” Gnanguenon explained. “[If] they don’t have a job, if they want to go back to their home country, they cannot.”
Migrants also face racial discrimination, something that the MCC hopes this program will help to address by creating positive engagements that empower and celebrate the diversity that migrants bring to the Lebanese community, rather than presenting them as victims or unwanted outsiders.
“This is how you confront people,” said Gnanguenon. “[They can] have a meal, meet the chef and just understand her story. Migrant workers are facing the same troubles [as they do]. There is another culture here for them to discover.”
For Sesay, the project is also a chance to help others who have been through the same struggles that she has faced herself.
“When I was working, I faced a lot of sexual harassment,” Sesay said. “I ran from the employer. You will tell the truth and nobody believes you, so you decide not to talk about it. You just numb the pain and live your daily life like this.
“We can encourage other people to join us and it will be much better, not just for the money but [because] you can talk to someone about your problems and what you’re going through. It’s a relief.”