BEIRUT — “They called me a whore, an animal,” said Rosemary, who arrived in Beirut from Kenya four years ago. Her story, online at Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), is one of constant name-calling, verbal abuse and physical attacks, experiences that are probably familiar for every black woman living in Lebanon.
Rosemary, who withheld her last name, her Nigerian husband and their child vacated their apartment in early September after a string of abuse by their neighbors. Rosemary told Al-Monitor that she had come to Lebanon to work as a cleaner. She met her husband here, and they had a daughter. While Rosemary was pregnant in August 2015, the couple moved into a small apartment in the marginalized neighborhood of Nabaa.
Tired and sick due to her pregnancy, Rosemary began cooking on her balcony, lacking the energy to go up and down the stairs of the apartment to the small, stuffy and ill-equipped kitchen on the floor below the living quarters. The neighbors above — a Lebanese Armenian woman living with her son and daughter-in-law, relatives of the building’s landlord — began complaining about the aroma of her food and threw dirty water at her.
“So, I started cooking in the room,” Rosemary told Al-Monitor. “But it wasn’t enough. They started making problems again. After I delivered, I cleaned and fixed up the kitchen, because the landlord wouldn’t help. But my neighbor was still complaining. I asked her what she wanted. She said she didn’t like black people, that we were animals. Things got worse every day. Each time the woman and her son passed by the kitchen window, they would call me a prostitute.”
There was always some kind of problem: The washing machine was too noisy, their food was too smelly and on it went. Daily life for Rosemary and her family became filled with humiliation and anger as well as fear that the verbal abuse hurled at them would one day turn into physical assault.
According to the narrative on the ARM website, their fears became a reality on Aug. 29: “The neighbors stormed into the couple's house, attacked them, hit them both, pulled a big chunk out of the dreadlocks of the husband, insulted their baby daughter, calling her things like ‘small, black animal and dog’ and calling the wife a ‘whore.’ They also threatened to kill them, literally, if they don't leave the house ASAP.” Most of what was said and done was captured on video and audio.
Distressed, the couple contacted an employee of the Kenyan Consulate and the leader of the local Nigerian community. When they arrived at the apartment, they too were subjected to verbal abuse and attacked, so they called the police. After arriving, the officers saw the evidence of what had happened — the husband's hair, bruises and recordings — but concluded, as ARM reported, “The best thing would be for the African family to comply and evacuate the house as soon as possible, for ‘their safety.’” No action was taken against their attackers.
After publication of what had transpired, offers of help poured in. The family was able to move into a new apartment. Rosemary told Al-Monitor that she feels “relieved and peaceful, without insults every day.”
Stories like Rosemary’s illustrate the core of ARM’s fight against deeply rooted racism in Lebanon. Rosemary said that except for her neighbors, she has experienced little racism in Lebanon, although there have been numerous reports on racism in the country, especially toward black people, and for abuse of domestic workers in Lebanese homes.
“I have Lebanese, Syrian, Armenian and African friends,” Rosemary said. “Some people come up to talk to me in the streets to ask if I’m Ethiopian, because a lot of maids are from there, and they are surprised that I’m Kenyan and have the same color of skin as the Ethiopians.”
Farah Salka, executive director of ARM, told Al-Monitor, “I think Rosemary has quite a high degree of tolerance when it comes to racism,” explaining that Rosemary has been subject to racist acts but did not recognize them as such, except for the violence she experienced at the hands of her former neighbors. “The situation she has been through is not unusual at all; I hear it every week. A lot of people commented [on] the post, especially women, who have been in the same situation because of the color of their skin. Just yesterday, a woman from Cameroon who married a Lebanese man sent me a message because she had been forbidden to enter a park with her daughter. I see so many cases of blatant and violent racism. This is so depressing.”
With Rosemary's post, ARM activists raised $700 to help the family move. Some people helped find a place for them to live, and others offered their vehicles to help them move. The mobilization made Salka a little more hopeful about the future.
“We thank everyone who helped, really,” Salka said. “We want to keep working directly with people affected by racism and documenting [their experiences], because with time, more and more people realize the graveness of the situation. If people don’t accept what’s going on and stand up for equality, policymakers will be forced to put a law on the agenda. It’s pressure that will be impossible to ignore, and even if it’s going slow, we are going in the right direction.”
Rosemary’s family consider themselves fortunate for the assistance and support they received. Rosemary insisted, “We are all human beings, and the way you treat your neighbor will come back to you, so let’s just be human.”