Sunday, November 13, 2011

Dutch pastor reaches out to domestic workers

Father Theo, center, at a gathering with domestic workers in Beirut.
The Daily Star on November 11, 2011, on page 12. By Jos Van Noord

BEIRUT: Between the poorest of the poor is where Father Theo Vlugt feels at home. “My Big Boss says in the Bible: What you have done to the poorest of my people, you have done to me!” he points out, in his native Amsterdam accent.

Already in his 80s, Father Theo is still going strong with a whole life of selfless service to the poor over 60 years as a Jesuit and half a century as a Catholic priest.

“Every day I am happy that I can do this job,” he says, eyes sparkling, at the celebration of his jubilee at the premises of his Asian-African Welfare Center, next to the church of St. Joseph in Ashrafieh, where Father Theo bases his efforts to assist migrant domestic workers in Lebanon.

“These young ladies, they are like
family to me. But the problems are overwhelming. These housemaids from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Nigeria all work in the houses of well-to-do Lebanese families, but are widely looked down upon.

“They are despised, socially neglected, they are the rejected cohabitants of the Arab world. Horribly discriminated against, and taken advantage of, often mistreated and beaten, sometimes even worse. Every week one of them jumps from a Beirut apartment tower. One every week!”

Father Theo says every now and then he is invited for a religious ceremony to one of those Lebanese families’ homes, for instance to lead prayers when there is something to be celebrated, or commemorated.

“Then I always ask: is everybody present? Yes, everybody is here! And then I repeat: Really is everyone here? Yes, yes, abouna, everybody is present. But then, after a while, the Ethiopian maid enters the room with the coffees. That is when I do my little theatrical act. I don’t say a word, but I react most surprised by pulling a face like: I thought you just assured me that everybody in the house was present! Where does she come from, all of a sudden? She’s a Christian girl, doesn’t she count?

“Then you can see their faces looking at each other: Is the abouna now telling us that our maid is also part of our family?”

Jesuit Theo never has a holiday, he works day and night, and every weekend. As a member of “Heaven’s ground staff,” as he calls himself, he often works odd hours, the phone calls never stop.

During the daytime he can often be found in the welfare center for immigrant workers near St. Joseph University, where free courses are provided for maids, who might want to become a nurse, or work in a kindergarten.

In between Theo often visits the prison, where many maids are held after they have been accused of theft. The sad reality is that all too often maids are being handed over to the police by the families they have worked for and who, by doing so, try to escape from payment of their due salaries and the repatriation bill which according to the contract has to be provided by the employer.

“In nearly all these cases nothing has been stolen. Very often the Madame of the house has put a piece of jewelry in the luggage of the maid. The police know they are being cheated,” claims Father Theo.

“It is very difficult to prove there never was any theft. The maid is put in prison during the investigation – that is the law. This often leads to deportation. In prison there are also many runaway maids, the Beirut police are hunting them in the streets, but the good thing is they are safe in prison. There, at least, they are not dragged into prostitution. In Beirut the sharks are everywhere on the lookout.”

“Of course there are also families where things are fine and where these girls are welcomed in a very friendly way. I estimate that to be some 35 percent of all cases. Thus it can happen that the whole enterprise is a success for all parties involved, the girl gets a free day every week plus the agreed salary,” says Father Theo. “But unfortunately this is not always the case.

“These poor Asian and African girls come to the Arab countries to make some money. At home they have children or other little brothers who still have to go to school. Or the parents are ill and somebody has to pay the medical bills. That is why they are here. In their poor home country they are being recruited by organizations that promise them a good salary and a free day every week.

“I always say: They do not come, they are being brought. And after that they are being exploited. Immediately after their arrival they have to hand in their passports, they are often not even allowed to have contact with their compatriots, sometimes they are totally isolated, they are in fact prisoners, have to sleep in a room that really is a cupboard and they have to wait and see if they get something to eat.

“I know of situations where girls get pregnant by their employer, or his son, and then suddenly fall down from the ninth floor balcony while window cleaning. So sad, you know, this careless girl: She accidentally fell to her death!”

Often girls flee to Father Theo’s welfare center, or he gets a phone call to come and collect a runaway maid. Sometimes the diplomatic mission of the home country is alerted, the Philippines Embassy in Beirut has a special shelter in the basement which is constantly occupied by runaway maids.

“Recently we had a prayer service there,” says Father Theo. “That day some 30 girls were flown home. Those are very special moments.”

Theo has been an immigrant pastor for 10 years. Doesn’t he ever want to return to his home country, to the Netherlands? “My country is here, my country is the Lebanon. I would not know what to do in Holland,” he says.

“The best moment of my visits to Holland is always when the plane that takes me back to Lebanon touches down in Beirut. This is my home, here is my mission.”

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