Young, black and in Lebanon: Youth of color face discrimination, racism

Originally published on May 9th 2012 for The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon

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BEIRUT: They told her she was ugly. They refused to play with her, saying her dark skin would dirty their hands. They broke her teeth. But Meyada kept trying to make friends at her public elementary school in Mar Elias. Her mother, Sudanese refugee Ikhlass Jomaa, took to standing outside the playground, where she would find her daughter “isolated.”

“The other children would be playing, and she would be sitting alone,” she recalls.

Meyada would come home crying and hungry. Kids stole the sandwiches Jomaa packed for lunch, as well as her books. Jomaa, who has been in Lebanon for nine years, went to see the school’s principal. The principal said she could do nothing.

Born in Lebanon to Sudanese parents, the now 8-year-old Meyada is not alone. Lala Arabian, executive director of Insan Association, an organization that works with refugees and migrants, confirms from her experience what Meyada knows. Migrant domestic workers, refugees and their children face “a lot of discrimination and racism … in Lebanese society,” she says. “Usually they [refugees and migrants] don’t benefit from social services provided in Lebanon.”

It isn’t only the children of migrant workers and refugees who face discrimination. People of color have come to Lebanon in a variety of ways, including the more recent post-Civil War trend of a return from the Lebanese-African diaspora.

Meyada is hesitant around strangers but content to talk about her best friend Esther, the computers at her new school, and her ambitions as a cook. But her words come more slowly when the subject turns to her previous school: “They used to make fun of me there, I don’t know why. They told me I was ugly.” She doesn’t want to talk about it.

Jomaa eventually pulled her daughter out of the public school and enrolled her in one run by a charity where all of the other students are African. This is one option for children having a hard time in mainstream public schools. The other is private school, but Insan’s Arabian explains that to enroll, students must have “some kind of identification papers from their countries of origin to be able to register, and they’ll pay much higher fees than at state schools.” Those without legal residency can’t attend public schools at all.

“I really feel for her,” says 25-year-old Edith Kitoko, upon hearing Meyada’s story. Like Meyada, Kitoko was born in Lebanon to African parents. She’s never been to the Democratic Republic of Congo, although its passport is the only one she holds.

Kitoko laughs that while she and her twin sister were “the only Africans in the history” of her private school, her experience there was mostly positive. Teachers treated her well, she had lots of friends. Once another student called her “Sri Lankiya,” a term meant in a derogatory manner, referring to the many migrant domestic workers who hail from Sri Lanka.

Looking back, Kitoko says she was protected by the school bubble. “The first day of university was kind of shocking,” she recounts. When she walked into a courtyard full of students, “they all turned and were looking at us.”

Since then, she can recount a litany of nastiness. People assume her father is a diplomat, because she is educated. They presume she is a prostitute, because she is African. As she puts it, “a Lebanese woman maybe has a 40 percent chance of being sexually harassed. I have something like an 80 percent chance.”

There is often shock at Kitoko’s flawless Lebanese Arabic, which doesn’t bother her as it once did. Born in Lebanon, she still has to regularly apply for residency and must get a work permit like any other foreigner.

To her own surprise, she’s thinking of leaving for the Democratic Republic of Congo, a home she has never seen. She thinks her skills could be of use there. Several of her African-Lebanese friends have already left for Africa. Racism here hasn’t decreased with time as far as she can see, but Kitoko doesn’t see it as a singularly Lebanese problem.

“I know some really great Lebanese,” she says, adding that “I love this country because I was born in it.”

But she doesn’t feel Lebanese or Congolese: “I’m in a no-man’s land.”

Ethiopian Carol Assefa has tried to keep her two children with her Lebanese husband out of this no-man’s land, teaching them pride in their dual heritage. Her kids have friends of all skin colors and are comfortable with their own, but she thinks they suffer less because their skin is light like her husband’s.

Discrimination has its own complexities. One summer, Assefa’s now 6-year-old daughter warned her older son to stay out of the sun. She was concerned his skin would darken and people would call him Sudanese.

“So it is there, inside their minds,” Assefa says. “They think about it.”

Although the educational problems of Jomaa’s three children are temporarily solved, the charity where they study doesn’t offer secondary education. Her 6-year-old, Mawada, has developmental disabilities and needs special schooling, the type of public services that Arabian says the state doesn’t provide.

Jomaa has other worries that indicate a wider, long-term concern. Her first priority is keeping her kids safe, but if children of color and Lebanese remain separated, their fear and dislike for each other may only increase.

“Sudan is a country that is both Arab and African … we don’t know where life will take us right now,” says Jomaa, whose application as an asylum seeker was turned down by the United Nations. “Even if we go back to Sudan at some point, I would like my daughter to remember that she lived in Lebanon for a while and she had Lebanese friends there, rather than look back on it as a terrible experience.”