Nepalis caught up in Beirut blast recount horror

Photo: @RalphUNICEF

Some of the estimated 2,200 Nepalis in Lebanon, most of them female domestic workers in Beirut, have been injured in the massive blast on Tuesday that killed at least 80 people and injured 4,000. 

However, Nepalis on social media groups in Lebanon report that most are safe, and even the ones with injuries do not need hospital admission.

"From the window, I saw the first explosion but I did not make much of it. But the second one was huge and it felt like the building would collapse. It felt like a huge earthquake,” recalls Sanju Waiba, who was in a church. “Something hit me hard and I could not tell what was happening. I went down seven floors and a Lebanese friend drove me to hospital.”

Since her injury was not severe and the hospital was dealing with many serious patients, Waiba was sent to a pharmacy which bandaged the injury on her arm.”

Waiba was taken to hospital by Nepali domestic worker Pramila, who also remembers the the first explosion as not being so loud. “But the second one was so big it shook my house,” Pramila said on the phone.

Rita, another domestic worker, who lives near the explosion area said: “The explosion was the loudest I have ever heard, I still cannot hear properly. My hands are still shaking. The glass in our windows are all broken. My employers were also afraid, and thought there would be another explosion.”

Lebanon was already in the midst of a pre-coronavirus economic crisis which was exacerbated by the lockdown, and has impacted migrant workers more than the pandemic itself. There have been street protests, and migrant workers were already struggling because of the collapse of the Lebanese pound which has lost over 80% of its value against the dollar.

Ashok Thapa, Chairman of the Non-resident Nepali Associaiton of Lebanon told Nepali Times: “The pandemic is a secondary concern for workers here given the relatively low number of cases, although things have deteriorated in the past week.”

Lebanon re-imposed the lockdowns last week after cases started rising. Not all Nepali workers are similarly impacted. Those who earn in US dollars are relatively better off, although there are some who are working for reduced salaries. But Nepalis workers earning in local currency have been hit hard by the devaluation.

Nepalis who work part-time in multiple households and live in rental accommodations have been worst affected by the economic crisis. Thapa adds, “At least those who live-in with the employers or work in companies do not have to worry about rent or food expenses.”

Photos of the aftermath of the explosion taken by Nepali worker Chandra Kala Joshi.

Rama, a live-in domestic worker is aware that she is lucky to have an employer who treats her like family. “When I heard my employers talking about not being able to afford basic foodstuff, I asked them whether I should start making plans to go back to Nepal. But my employer assured me that they can afford to keep me,” she said.

Rama describes that supermarket visits are different these days with limits on the quantity of items that can be purchased owing to shortages, such as only one packet of rice or two soaps per visit. 

Pramila is undocumented and lives with fellow Nepalis in a rented apartment. “As live-out, part-time workers during a pandemic, employers are reluctant to hire us for fear of the virus,” she says. “The price of rice has tripled, and we have reduced our meals. I don’t have much of an appetite these days anyway.”

Pramila is one of the 30 Nepalis in Lebanon who have registered to return home, and it will be a struggle to pay the $700 air fare. This is a smaller number than other countries because of the lack of jobs and the spreading coronavirus back in Nepal, as well as the high air fare amid the Lebanese currency crisis. Others are stuck with employers who are not in a position to clear their dues.

Many Nepali women have come to Lebanon despite a ban on domestic workers going to West Asia, some had not been able to go home for several years to see their children and families because of the fear that they will not be allowed back out. However, last year the government allowed current workers — many working in Lebanon — to return to their jobs after home visits.

Some names have been changed.

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