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Global response to Alem's suicide

On March 22, 2012

Solidarity with Alem Dechasa's plight has continued to grow since the Ethiopian maid's suicide nearly two weeks ago. Major media outlets,including The Guardian, are paying close attention to the legal and social aftereffects of the very public case. Both Lebanon and Ethiopia have announced their cursory vows to "fully investigate" the incident, treating Dechasa's death as a single occurrence rather than the product of systematic neglect.

More valuable, and ultimately more constructive, are the civilian responses from both in and out of Lebanon. Global Citizens Voices has curated an extensive record of social media reactions to Alem's tragedy. Check out two campaigns launched to address the plight of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle East here and here.

Lebanon hosts a sizable, internet-savvy activist community who devote particular consideration to migrant rights. Their perspectives tend to offer an evaluation of Dechasa's death with the social and historical context that governments disregard. For instance, a Lebanese blogger recently skewered Ali Mahfouz's appearance on a local news show; Mahfouz is Dechasa's former employer and the man caught beating her on video. Mahfouz attempts to absolve himself by claiming that Dechasa was insane - a claim he has sustained since his initial capture. The entire piece deserves a read, but the conclusion is especially powerful:

Alem Dechassa was killed three times. Once when her body was violated in front of her embassy and dragged into Ali Mahfouz’s car. The second time was when she got so desperate and took her own life. The third time was with the Lel Nashr episode that portrayed her as insane. The end result is simple: the victim becomes the abuser and the abuser becomes the victim. Well done New TV. Well done.

The Anti-Racism Movement, a migrant rights group based in Lebanon, responded similarly to Mahfouz's deflection. Their brilliant piece further addresses the social apathy that perpetuates migrant and domestic worker abuse:

Today another domestic worker died. But today the sorrow in me is not only because another lost innocent soul, but also because you all knew who she was, and witnessed her death. And with your silence you have participated in her murder. You murdered her when you didn’t demand a law to protect her, when you didn’t object for the resignation of a Minister who fought to cancel her slavery legal system called Kafala.

Unfortunately, bigoted commentary periodically punctuates social media reactions. Claims that the Lebanese, Arabs, or Muslims are "barbaric" or "evil" offer no solution to the domestic worker crises. On the contrary, such attitudes only deepen the chasm between employers and employees. Effective initiatives seek to raise social awareness, promote social change, and prompt legal reform - these are the all-inclusive efforts championed by groups such as the Migrant Workers Task Force, who organized a local and migrant dialogue at their student center. Migrants from varying backgrounds expressed their frustration with the failure of either the Lebanese government or their own representatives to address the chronic mistreatment of domestic workers.

Ethiopian filmmaker and domestic worker Rahel Zegeye was among the migrant speakers, particularly criticizing the Ethiopian government for their resigned posturing, which only appears to awaken in high-profile cases. In stark contrast to the diplomatic desultory, Rahel's emotional concluding statements demonstrates that the fire ignited by Dechasa's death will not end with the Mahfouz's punishment, but with the procurement of sustained social and labor justice for all migrant workers:

If it was an American worker who is getting abused, I’m sure things would not have been the same. I urge all of you to step up for action, and I’m happy that we’re getting support from our Lebanese friends and I’m sure we can do something to stop this. I do not want to leave dirt for future generations of workers like the previous generations have left for me, and I don’t care if I have to die for this cause.