October 14 2013
Nancy Elshami, MILR '14
This summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Beirut, Lebanon with a grant from ILR for a two month internship with the International Labour Organization. As a second-year Master’s student in the MILR program concentrating on International and Comparative Labor, this was the ideal experience for me to have as I pursue my degree. While I have had considerable experience travelling within the Middle East, this was my first time in Lebanon or the Levant region in general, and it was also my first time working in the region.
While at the ILO I worked with the ACTRAV, the Worker’s bureau, as a research assistant. I was tasked with writing policy briefings on trade union activity in various Arab countries. These briefings aimed at examining the sociopolitical and economic climate within which trade unions functioned. This involved looking at both historical and recent developments and analyzing them in the context of economic indicators and political issues. The target audience for these briefings was other ILO employees in the Arab States Office and at other regional offices, as well as donors and researchers. This project sought to fill an information gap within the organization itself that could help drive interdepartmental cooperation and capacity building.
My research was driven primarily by academic literature, UN and World Bank data and news sources. I had underestimated just how much my Arabic skills would be necessary for the completion of my project. This meant that alongside my research work I was also strengthening my language skills. I worked closely with the Senior Workers’ Specialist at the Arab States Office as well as the representative for the Arab States in Geneva. I also cooperated closely with other members of ACTRAV who would periodically meet with me to discuss the theoretical and empirical foundations of the briefings. By the end of my internship period I had produced reports on Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Apart from the main project I was focused on, I also had the opportunity to gain some exposure in the field. I was able to participate in organizational meetings with independent union federations in Lebanon that the ILO had begun cooperating with and offering technical assistance. I was also able to participate in a workshop for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, which explored various legal and structural issues facing Palestinian workers. These experiences in the field gave me invaluable insight into how worker’s frame and organize around particular issues, and why some issues are able to gain traction over others.
Apart from my direct work with the ILO, my time spent in Lebanon was formative on many different levels. As someone who has travelled extensively in the region, it was eye opening to me just how unique Lebanese culture was in comparison with Egyptian or Tunisian culture. More importantly however, I was struck by the level of diversity within such a small country like Lebanon. Apart from areas that were close to the Syrian border or that had recently experienced violence, I was able to traverse most of the country while there. In just the span of a couple of hours, one can travel to the southern city of Sour, where pictures Hezbollah political figures and UNIFL tanks and soldiers amass. Up in the North I was able to visit the city of Bcharre, hometown of poet Gibran Khalil Gibran, neighboring the historic Kadisha valley.
As a country that had been plagued with civil war for almost a decade, Beirut seemed to be a city that was still struggling to rebuild and redefine itself. As someone coming from the United States, the ubiquitous army tanks and checkpoints can seem unnatural, but in Lebanon it was a welcome sign of stability and statehood. With the security situation being what it was while I was there, there were certain times when security measures and checkpoints tightened their procedures. When the violence in Sidon broke out late June, electricity would go out for several hours a day (over the customary pre-scheduled daily three hour electricity cuts). During this time, as per customary ILO safety procedures we were given bulletproof vests, helmets and emergency kits. While I never used anything beyond the pack of tissues and flashlight in my kit, they always served as a stark reminder of the tenuous regional situation.
On my street I got used to greeting the army officers, and during my walk to work I eventually got used to the juxtaposition of war torn buildings with laced with bullet marks and the pristine shops that mark Lebanon’s recent period of liberalization.
Beirut is a city that is still trying to define and redefine itself, but beyond the brand new buildings there lies a very rich and deep culture. While there I got to attend various plays and performances and meet a great number of expats and Lebanese people. My time spent outside of work was just as valuable as the time I spent at my internship. This trip enriched me on a personal, academic and professional level, and has nuanced my perception of the Middle East as well as my work with trade unions in the region.