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Meet the Migrant Workers Task Force

On October 9, 2011

The Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF) is a volunteer driven organization that promotes migrant rights in Lebanon; compromised of ordinary Lebanese and non-Lebanese civilians, students, and migrants themselves, the Task Force powers several different programs, including language classes, fundraising activities, and awareness campaigns. MWTF has received international recognition from several news outlets and organizations for its pioneering initiatives.

Below is an interview with Alex Shams, a founder and current public relations coordinator of MWTF. Alex has been a key organizer with the force since its inception and continues to advocate on its behalf from his residence in the United States. Visit the MWTF blog to track their incredible efforts and find out how you, too, can take action.

What was your motivation to start the MW Task Force? Can you tell us about the team you've assembled?

Just under a year ago a few of us came into contact with Aimee, a Malagasy migrant worker who is active in defending the human rights of migrant workers in Lebanon. Her work is focused around direct social work and makes use of her access and intimate knowledge of the situation facing migrant workers, and particularly migrant domestic workers, in this country.

We began at this point thinking- how can we advance and support her work and the work of people like her, and how can we involve the many people- both Lebanese and foreigners- who are passionate about this human rights crisis? We were not an NGO and we were all engaged in either our jobs or our studies, so we understood from the beginning that whatever we did had to be based on a volunteer collective. After a few planning meetings, we decided to focus on language classes for migrant workers in Lebanon, as most Lebanese speak multiple languages and this is something that can be shared between individuals. Also, many migrant workers in Lebanon face many hurdles because of their limited language abilities. And so our first project was to set up weekly language classes.

Can you tell us more about your language project, and how we and others can help?

We offer Arabic, English, and French classes to migrant workers for free every Sunday. These classes have been going on for about 9 months now, and have attracted over 100 students and about 50 teachers (though only about a fifth of students and teachers attend every week). Both students and teachers are volunteers, a fact necessitated by the fact that very few migrant domestic workers in Lebanon receive one day off a week, and thus cannot attend regularly. Despite this, the classes have been very successful. In addition, for the classes we have developed and continue to develop a curriculum that is suitable to the needs and specific circumstances of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

The biggest need for us is always teachers! We always need more volunteers to come and teach languages for our classes because we always have extremely eager and committed students. Right now the classes are extremely personalized- about 4-5 students per teacher- and we hope to retain this level. Please contact us if you are in Lebanon and are free for 2 hours on Sundays!

What are the toughest challenges you face with your campaign and advocacy work?

The biggest issue we face in our advocacy is ignorance about the rights of migrant workers. Many people seem to consider these workers less than human in some way and do not understand that as workers they are entitled to the same rights that a Lebanese worker expects to receive. Even very educated people often do not recognize locking a worker in the house as imprisonment or having her work 7 days a week as slavery, and so often people do not understand why we seek to work with migrant workers.

We are the first volunteer collective in Lebanon focused on this issue, and so our very work raises awareness to the moral crisis Lebanon faces because of its horrific treatment of migrant workers. There are some excellent organizations working on improving the legal situation of migrant domestic workers; as volunteers, however, we are continuing to struggle to enact grassroots change in people's mentalities while we work with migrant workers to develop the skills needed to defend their rights. Through fundraising and cultural events as well as through video awareness campaigns

Is this project currently funded or do you rely primarily on donations? Do you have any regional or international partners?

We are volunteers and we have absolutely no funding. All money we raise goes directly to the causes we serve; whether this be financially supporting human rights workers from within the migrant communities or making copies of lessons for students in our language classes.

I encourage everyone in whatever country they may be to start similar volunteer collectives. A group of us with little experience began this project of our own volition and based on our own passions and with no money, so I hope people elsewhere will follow this example and skill sharing between migrant workers and people across the region will grow!