Members of the migrant worker community sing at Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’ Church in Beirut. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Father McDermott blesses a parishioner during Mass. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Eugene and Apple, now engaged to be married, first met at the migrant center at St. Joseph’s Church in Beirut. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Sudanese migrant Adut embraces her son, Martin, in Beirut. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Parishioners pray with joined hands at a Mass celebrated by Father Henry Ponce at St. Joseph’ Church. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Faithful receive Communion at a Mass celebrated by the Rev. Martin McDermott, S.J. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Emelyn rises at 6 each morning to prepare breakfast and usher the children off to school, accompanying them to the bus stop. So begins her long day of cleaning, cooking, ironing and general housekeeping, ending a couple of hours before midnight.
The children and the house are not hers. They belong to her employers, and form part of her job. Her own two children are 5,500 miles away in the Philippines. She misses them terribly.
For five years, 36-year-old Emelyn has been living in Beirut, Lebanon, employed as a domestic worker. Her partner in the Philippines finds sporadic employment in construction, making Emelyn the primary breadwinner. The couple never married because they could not afford a wedding.
Emelyn’s eyes well up with tears, her voice turning to a strained whisper as she shares the painful conversations and text messages she experiences with her 12-year-old daughter back home.
“Why, mama? You’ve been there a long time. Don’t you miss me?”
“If I don’t work here, you won’t have anything there: a house, electricity, water,” Emelyn reminds her daughter. “You won’t have a nice dress, new shoes.”
Sometimes her daughter feels so angry at these circumstances, she refuses to speak to her. But both are looking forward to Emelyn’s visit near Christmas — her first return in five years.
What Emelyn would most like to do is to set up a small convenience store back near her home.
Despite the anguish of being away from her children — and despite the tedious, hard work she performs daily — Emelyn is thankful.
“God heard my prayers,” she says. “I work for a good family. They treat me as part of their family, not like a maid.” Her Greek Orthodox employers, recognizing how she values her Catholic faith, provided Emelyn with two copies of the Bible — one in English and another in her native language, Tagalog.
The high point of Emelyn’s week is Sunday, her only day off. She attends Mass in Beirut in English at the Jesuit-run St. Joseph’s Church, and afterward goes upstairs to the Afro-Asian Migrant Center to meet up with her friends. There they spend their day together, having fun, sharing a meal and being spiritually nourished in their common Catholic faith.
The center was established at St. Joseph’s in 2000, by an American Jesuit, the Rev. Martin McDermott, now 86. He has been working with migrants since the early 1980’s, in partnership with a Dutch Jesuit, the Rev. Theo Vlught, who recently returned to his homeland at the age of 90.
But Father McDermott is not working alone in providing pastoral care to migrants. The Jesuit-run center he founded forms part of a pastoral care committee, established by the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon, for migrants throughout the country. The charity of the Catholic churches in Lebanon, Caritas Lebanon, operates safe houses and shelters for migrants in distress. And since September 2017, the American Jesuit has been joined in his work at St. Joseph’s by the Rev. Henry Ponce, S.J. — the first time the Jesuit Province of the Philippines sent one of their own priests to the Middle East.
Father Ponce, 45, began his Lebanon mission as an assistant to Father McDermott, who had been serving as director of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center. But after one year, the provincial of the Jesuits in Lebanon switched the roles of the two. Father McDermott gladly accepted, Father Ponce recalls, and told the Filipino priest, “you’re the boss now.”
“I’m only 86. Thank God, I’m in good health. I’ve slowed down, but I can still do the job of taking care of the migrants easily. I’m glad the work has a future, with Father Ponce here,” Father McDermott says.
Together, and in their own special way, the two priests each have a great heart for their mission, keeping migrants on the path of their Catholic faith and giving them an outlook of hope, regardless of their circumstances.
Driven by poverty and conflict in their homelands, some 250,000 people from the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan have immigrated to Lebanon. Nearly 95 percent of them are women, and most arrive having been recruited by Lebanese agencies that contract domestic workers in African and Asian countries.
Migrant workers in Lebanon are employed under the kafala (sponsorship) system, which links a worker’s legal status to their employer. Because they are not Lebanese nationals, they are not protected under the country’s labor laws.
“They are taking a terrible chance in coming here, because they don’t know what sort of employer they will have. Some of them are very good, some are very bad, but most of them are middling,” says Father McDermott.
Typically, the employer holds the employee’s passport. Should the migrant leave their place of employment without the employer’s permission — or escape, depending on the circumstances —— without their official papers and passport, they risk detainment by the police.
Arriving in Lebanon, migrant workers are faced with a new culture, different languages — Arabic, English and French — and the isolation of being away from their own families. Their employers control their lives almost entirely.
Such a system fosters abuse and subsequent acts of desperation. News stories report incidents of household domestics committing suicide, usually jumping from apartment balconies in desperation. Many other less-dramatic incidents remain unreported.
The Jesuits’ deep concern for the life and rights of migrants works hand in hand with the pastoral nature of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center.
Father McDermott recounts the terrible ordeal of a domestic who was raped by her employer and became pregnant. She refused her employer’s demands to terminate her pregnancy. Father McDermott was able to assist her through the help of a lawyer who volunteers his services at the center. The best outcome was for her to be released from her employer and return to the Philippines, where she named her baby boy after the priest.
In the case of a migrant worker whose employers accused her of stealing, it was discovered the accusation was a ploy to avoid their responsibility for unpaid wages. During the proceedings, in the presence of Father McDermott, the employer told his personal lawyer, “The priest is responsible for all our trouble.”
Reputed for his humility, the priest says: “It was the best thing anyone ever said of me. I took it as a great compliment.”
Complementing the American priest’s many years of experience serving the migrant community, Father Ponce brings to the work a sense of empathy and compassion drawn from his own background. “[This mission] is so close to my heart because I, too, was a migrant worker,” he says. “I know how it feels to be a migrant, to be away from your family, to be working abroad.”
It was while employed in Japan for seven years as a design engineer for a shipbuilding company that Father Ponce first felt called to the priesthood. The revelation occurred to him while attending Sunday Mass. “There are so many people hungry for spiritual nourishment,” he says. “I realized I wanted to reach out to them. That’s why I became a priest.”
Ordained in 2015, the priest’s first assignment was to the prison ministry in the Philippines.
“In a way, the migrants are like prisoners, they are uprooted from their country and put in a place where they don’t want to be. Once they are here, they are not free,” Father Ponce says.
Among the biggest frustrations for the priests are employers who won’t allow their domestic help a day off to come to Mass on Sundays.
To reach homebound Filipino migrants, Father Ponce hosts a weekly program on Lebanon’s Voice of Charity radio, run by the Maronite Lebanese Missionaries. It airs Sunday evenings and includes that day’s scripture readings and a short homily. With Filipino migrant workers as Father Ponce’s co-hosts, their lively and frank conversation in a mix of Tagalog and English draws on their struggles and triumphs, ultimately connecting both to the Gospel.
The program is prerecorded, but Father Ponce has developed his technological and social media skills, and now also broadcasts it via Facebook. Through such efforts, the ministry has begun to reach beyond Lebanon, with listeners in other countries in the broader region — including Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates — in addition to the Voice of Charity’s radio listeners across the Middle East.
A refugee from South Sudan, Adut fled to Lebanon with her husband, Galb. As with most displaced Sudanese, they wait in Lebanon until they can resettle in the West, hoping for a better life. They live suspended between their past and an uncertain future. Returning to Sudan is typically not an option, as it is still dangerous. And so their wait in Lebanon has been long: Adut has no residency or working papers, complicating her attempts to register as a refugee and hampering her ability to find work.
“I’m afraid all the time of being stopped by the police,” Adut says. Still, she ventures out every Sunday to attend Mass at St. Joseph’s Church, the high point of her week.
Her husband, a janitor in a hotel, must work on Sundays and is only able to attend Sunday Mass on Christmas. “[Although] we pray together every night,” she says.
After paying rent for their one-room apartment, about $100 remains for monthly living expenses.
“It’s not easy, but God sees everything. I’m nothing without God,” Adut says softly, with a calm confidence.
Her 18-month-old son sits on her lap, contentedly playing with a piece of paper as she waits to speak to Father McDermott after Mass. “If I’m feeling low, I talk to him. He listens to me.
“He tells me to put everything in God’s hands.”
Through the help of the Mass collection, Father Martin paid for the cost of her baby’s delivery. The name Adut chose for her son, Martin.
“Because I love him,” she says with a chortle. “He’s our father. He’s made a big difference in my life.”
St. Joseph’s Church dates to 1875, after members of the Society of Jesus founded what became St. Joseph’s University. The space now used by the center was formerly part of the university. The main meeting room is adorned with all kinds of statues of the Blessed Mother and various saints, as well as images of St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata. For nearly 40 years, Father McDermott served as spiritual director for the sisters of her order, the Missionaries of Charity, in Lebanon. Sisters from the order teach catechism at the center and serve at the Sunday Mass.
The Jesuit priests are looking forward to the upcoming renovation of the center, with funding in part from CNEWA. Father Ponce, with his engineering and design skills, planned the improvements according to the center’s needs, enlisting the help of an architect. The new plan includes a kitchen and a multi-purpose hall for fellowship meals, seminars and conferences, with comfortable seating areas.
“It will mean a lot for the migrants because they will have a more dignified place to gather — their sanctuary, where they can relax and socialize more comfortably,” Father Ponce says. He envisions a homey atmosphere.
“This community treats us like a family,” says 30-year-old Apple. You can feel the love here.” In fact, love has blossomed for Apple at the center. It was there that she met Eugene, new to Lebanon and working for a telecommunications company as an engineer. It so happens they are both from the same province in the Philippines.
“He’s the man of my dreams,” Apple says with a demure giggle. Most importantly, she stresses, “Eugene is a God-fearing man.”
Eugene, also 30, credits Fathers McDermott and Ponce for his deepening faith. Although he always attended Sunday Mass in the Philippines, Eugene says he now considers the Word of God in all aspects of his life.
“It’s a touch of the Holy Spirit,” Eugene says of the center. “I found my inspiration here and the person I will love for the rest of my life. Praise God.”
Eugene and Apple plan to marry, and are putting their future in God’s hands.
“We’re praying for the right timing, just seeking first the Kingdom of God,” he says, beaming.
Doreen Abi Raad is a freelance writer in Beirut. She has written for Catholic News Service and the National Catholic Register.
The CNEWA Connection
CNEWA takes to heart the biblical admonition to “welcome the stranger,” and so we have worked closely with our partners in the field to offer spiritual, pastoral and humanitarian support to those who find themselves far from home — including migrants seeking jobs to support their families and pave the way for a better future.
In Lebanon, many of those migrants come from Africa, especially Ethiopia and Sudan, and the Philippines. The purpose of the Afro-Asian Migrant Center in Beirut has been to give members of this marginalized community a place to gather, to pray, to learn about the faith and to enjoy a sense of family — particularly for those who are far from their own families.
Thanks to our donors, CNEWA has helped fund the rehabilitation of the building that houses the center, enabling some 600 members of this community to socialize, take courses in catechism and prepare to receive their sacraments. In addition, the site serves as a community center, enabling members of the community to celebrate birthdays, christenings and weddings. The goal is to keep the migrant workers close to their families and their Catholic faith, enriching their time in Lebanon.
To help support this vital mission, call: 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada).