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Published:July 30th, 2006 13:35 EST
Lebanon: The Promise Land

Lebanon: The Promise Land

By Krzys Wasilewski

Shortly after Israel began her operation in Lebanon, the West rushed their troops, battleships and airplanes to the Middle East. Not to protect ordinary Lebanese and Israelis, as some optimists might have hoped, but to evacuate American and European tourists who instead of enjoying summer holidays, found themselves in the very heart of a military conflict. Dozens of thousands of foreigners from poorer countries had to stay. Lebanon, once branded Switzerland of the Middle East, has always attracted foreigners not only from the region, but also from distant Asia and Africa. Not so long ago, in the capital Beirut and other major cities, having a maid from Sri Lanka or Nigeria was a sign of belonging to the middle class. Beirut's impressive city center would not have been built so quickly, had it not been for foreign workers. They worked hard, earned enough to secure their families at home, and within years had become an inseparable part of Lebanon's cultural mosaic. When the conflict broke out, they suddenly became homeless.

Those Lebanese families who had enough money and connections, left for neighboring Syria. Others, sometimes on foot, breaking through dangerous roads, made their way to the capital, hoping that Israeli missiles would not reach them there. Regardless the destination, most of them did not bother to take their long-time maids with them. Either dismissed or left without a word, dozens of thousands of foreigners were told to go. But to go where?

One of such people is Mary, a middle-aged Liberian. For 37 years she had worked in Beirut as a cleaner until one day her employers simply disappeared. Coming from a poor, war-crippled African country, she could only watch with envy as American and European tourists leave Lebanon closely guarded by their troops. Unlike them, she had no embassy or consulate where she could seek shelter and diplomatic and financial assistance. But even if she had a chance to leave, Mary wouldn't go. “While I have lived here I have bought some things - a small TV and goods like that and these things are money. If I can't take them with me then I'll lose them and the money they are worth.” In her native Liberia unemployment exceeds 50 percent and the majority of the population struggles for less than two dollars a day. For decades the country had been plunged into a civil war which brought Africa's first democracy on the brink of collapse. Due to international help, in 2005 Liberia was eventually able to hold the first free elections in over 15 years but the situation still remains tense. “There are no jobs there. I will not have food. I will have nothing,” says Mary. “I don't know what life in Liberia is like anymore - the war came and now it has passed. I wasn't there. I don't know my home anymore,” she adds.

Her testimony is one of many published on All of them tell the same story of people who after years of hard work, in few hours lost everything they had: their employers, their jobs, their homes. They have no money to go back. They have no courage to tell their families that they have failed. Maria and dozens of thousands of foreigners grew up in countries where bombs and shots determined daily life. Lebanon was to be a promised land, free of war and poverty. During the last three weeks, the horrors from their childhood have haunted them again.