UB student wins fellowship for research on migrant workers in Lebanon

Gabriella Nassif will seek to partner with community organizations to learn about and document the experiences of women hired to work in Lebanese households, including during COVID-19

Release Date: July 28, 2020

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Portrait of Gabriella Nassif.
“The only thing keeping many families in Lebanon going during COVID-19 is these migrant domestic workers. Some have masks, and some don’t, but they’re still going out, whether it be to buy groceries, walk their employers’ dogs, or to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy. ”
Gabriella Nassif, PhD candidate in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The global pandemic has revealed how some of the world’s most vulnerable workers are also among the most essential.

One example: migrant domestic workers, who are hired to complete household labor such as cooking, cleaning, child care and grocery shopping, says Gabriella Nassif, a University at Buffalo PhD candidate. Through her dissertation research, Nassif will seek to partner with current and former migrant domestic workers in Lebanon to document and understand their experiences both during and prior to COVID-19.

The work these women do is often undervalued, leaving them marginalized, with low pay, minimal benefits and limited job security, Nassif says.

And yet, she adds, “the only thing keeping many families in Lebanon going during COVID-19 is these migrant domestic workers. Some have masks, and some don’t, but they’re still going out, whether it be to buy groceries, walk their employers’ dogs, or to fill prescriptions at the pharmacy. They’re in the streets while everyone else is safely tucked away in their homes. It’s shocking to see.”

Nassif — a student in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies in the UB College of Arts and Sciences — has received a $20,000 Dissertation Fellowship from the American Association of University Women to complete her PhD research.

Her focus will be on women who have traveled from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines and other countries to work in Lebanese households. She hopes to connect with these workers through community organizations that support and advocate for migrant domestic workers in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital and largest city.

Through interviews and other research, Nassif’s dissertation will examine questions such as how perceptions of gender and race shape the way communities in Lebanon view and value domestic labor. Even before COVID-19, the situation of Lebanon’s migrant domestic workers had been growing ever-more perilous as the nation entered its worst economic crisis in decades.

“You have just this super, super precarious and marginalized existence for these women in Lebanon, and I wanted to learn more about their lives and their relationship with Lebanese society,” Nassif says. “For much of the Middle East, there’s a dearth of data on women and labor. Globally, research on migrant domestic workers tends to focus overwhelmingly on women who migrate from the Global South to what are traditionally known as developed countries, like in Europe and North America.”

Nassif, who grew up in Shorewood, Wisconsin, holds both U.S. and Lebanese citizenship. Her father is from Lebanon, and as a child, she used to take summer trips there with her family.

Today, Nassif splits time between Buffalo and Beirut. In Lebanon, she has worked for the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, and as an independent research consultant to various United Nations organizations, with a focus on gender in development and humanitarian programming.

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