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African Students Share How Often They Experience Racism In Lebanon


The U.S. isn't the only country reckoning with racism right now. In Lebanon at the prestigious American University of Beirut, African students are speaking up about discrimination. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Shufaa Hame from Tanzania tells me that as a Black woman and a practicing Muslim, she thought she'd feel more welcome in the Middle East.

SHUFAA HAME: I thought it would be a good alternative for me not to go to the United States and go somewhere where people, you know, kind of understand the experience of being, you know, racially profiled.

SHERLOCK: Arriving at the university, she went to her dorm room.

HAME: Everything was fine. I met my roommate, and then it all started.

SHERLOCK: Hame says her roommate seemed surprised to share with a Black person and tried to set rules about what Hame could or couldn't do. In class, some students wouldn't sit beside her. The university told her she was being too sensitive and the problems were much worse off campus. When Hame had to go to a hospital, a Lebanese patient refused to share a room with her. And on the street, she says, she was sometimes treated like a prostitute.

HAME: They're scary moments, you know, when someone tries to touch you or someone, like, in the street, like, is adamant following you, trying to offer you money for sex. And you're like, oh, my goodness. Should I start running, you know?

SHERLOCK: Hame had always been good at exams, but now she felt so tested in her daily life that she couldn't face them. She went to see a counselor on campus who asked her what was wrong.

HAME: And I say the words. I was like, for the first time in my life, I have experienced racism, and I know what it is. And I said it out loud, and I knew that was the problem. And I just broke down crying.

SHERLOCK: We reached Hame at her home in Tanzania where she says she dreads going back after the summer break. A recent graduate, Claudette Igiraneza from Rwanda, collected during her degree and published online in June the testimonies of 21 other African students.

CLAUDETTE IGIRANEZA: What happened to many African students on campus is like them failing to be part of the community, them being discriminated by their fellow students.

SHERLOCK: Dr. Talal Nizameddin, the dean of student affairs, tells NPR that the university has a zero-tolerance policy on racism and is always working to improve.

TALAL NIZAMEDDIN: The key is that you ensure equity, you ensure justice, you ensure fair treatment on an institutional level. And I honestly believe AUB does that.

SHERLOCK: But he says it's a battle in Lebanon overall. We asked a Lebanese student and friend of Hame's, Batoul Noureddine, why this is. She believes the racism in Lebanon is connected to class bias.

BATOUL NOUREDDINE: Lebanon identity is still, like, a struggle between the Lebanese themselves.

SHERLOCK: She explains lebanon is divided. There are Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze and they all look down on each other. And at the bottom is Lebanon's large migrant workforce, mostly from Ethiopia. They work as housemaids or in other jobs that Noureddine says the Lebanese see as being beneath them.

NOUREDDINE: Then someone asks, with this particular skin color, with a black skin color, came to take this job, so they were perceived as inferior.

SHERLOCK: University student Yeneza from Rwanda says she drove this point home by wearing a maid's uniform to some of her lectures.

: Some people respect us, but then when they go back to their homes, they mistreat their domestic workers. Like, it doesn't make sense.

SHERLOCK: She says she's going to get a masters in Britain and then when she graduates maybe return to Lebanon to try to fight the discrimination that people of color face there. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.