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Migrant Women in Greece and in Libya: Leaders in a COVID-19 World

This year, we celebrate the 2nd International Women’s Day during the COVID-19 health emergency. Globally, migrant women have been and continue to be frontline workers, pouring themselves into supporting their communities as healthcare staff, scientists, professors, and service providers – many working in essential services. Women are holding families and communities together as societal safety nets are threatening to unravel.

On this International Women’s Day, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) pays tribute to women’s leadership during the COVID-19 response as they continue to fight for a more just and equal world.

Programme participants in IOM’s various initiatives across the world show how women and girls on the move expand their horizons and brave challenging paths to success.

 

Voices from a migrant camp in Greece

Zahra M. and Sakineh R., two women born and raised in Iran to Afghan parents, today are living in a migrant camp in Greece. They decided to take matters into their own hands when educational activities had to be shut down due to COVID-19. “At first, we stayed home, we didn’t know what to expect. We followed the health protocols, but as the time went by, we decided to create a more educational and entertaining environment for our kids. I teach English for beginners as a volunteer. I feel happy and proud, because through this difficult situation I was able to rely on my own strengths and contribute to my community,” recalls Sakineh.

With the support of the IOM team on-site, Zahra and Sakineh launched classes, taught by around 30 people living in the camp, on subjects such as English, Farsi, mathematics, and handicrafts, while strictly following COVID-19 health and safety guidelines and protocols.

“No one missed any of our classes. We feel happy and content for contributing [to] our community. The lack of education was among the reasons that we left Iran. We didn’t want the same thing [to] happen here,” explains Zahra.

She sees herself as a leader who would like to “serve my community and be by their side in the most difficult situations” and noted that she found women leaders to be “confident [and] work with courage and patience to achieve the best for the society.”

READ  Covid-19: IOM supports health actors, builds  90 quarantine shelters in Nigeria

Zahra and Sakineh believe that migration gave them the opportunity to find themselves, and “opened a whole new world of opportunities,” and they are not going to let COVID-19 get in the way of anyone’s education in the camp.

Zahra and Sakineh are just two of the many women around the world who migrate for better educational opportunities.

Fatima H. is a 29-year-old mother of three born in Pakistan, also from Afghan migrants. She, too, is living in a camp in Greece with her 9-year-old son. Meanwhile, her daughter, 15, and another son, 12, live in a shelter in Germany.

Fatima. Photo: IOM

Fatima believes that “women are the leaders of their own world” and sees herself as a leader as she is able to “guide [her] family to help them create their own success stories.”

When she was 13, her family told her that she had to leave school to get married. While she could not prevent that outcome, she knew she could prevent the same thing from happening to her daughter.

“My husband and our families thought that it was time for her to get married. I could not let that happen. This time, I managed to do something about it. I decided to move to Europe with my children. Even though I knew that it was going to be a difficult and very dangerous route, [and] I was not sure that we were going to make it, I had to take a leap of faith. Not for me, but for them,” said Fatima.

She started studying online, reading books, and taking classes offered at the camp. She now has a diploma in English and, thanks to encouragement from IOM personnel, she began working as a translator in the camp.

She is now able to “give tips and ideas to [women] (…) on how to behave during this period, ensuring that our children follow their classes, and keeping them entertained at home.”

Fatima has not seen her daughter or her son in a long time, and while the separation has been more difficult amid COVID-19, what matters to her the most is for them to “live safe and be free to choose their own path in life.”

READ  Almost 400 migrants relocated from Italy since September

 

Voices from migrant communities in Libya

Around the world, there have been numerous stories of migrant women who step up to ensure that their communities were well informed of the health measures imposed due to COVID-19. Collectively, they found ways to make sure no one was left behind.

Nuha M., a Sudanese who arrived in Libya 26 years ago, manages to meet with young Sudanese migrants in open spaces, following health regulations, to help fight against feelings of isolation linked to the pandemic. Many of them crossed the desert and the sea, and saw their loved ones die. Nuha shares that she showed up every time, with no exception.

“Even if I had nothing to help them with, I sat and listened. I talked to them. It made us feel together and not alone,” she explained.

She also managed to help them reconnect with their families. Nuha believes women have no choice but to be proactive when faced with difficult situations.

Similarly, Aurelie A., a migrant woman from Benin, described how, while society pressured her to stay home and keep quiet, she helped establish a WhatsApp group to provide emotional support to migrants. She feels that her group creates a space for self-expression during the pandemic despite physical distancing. In this group, women share everything, from cooking lessons to guiding each other through childbirth.

“My name started being passed around among other West African and Sub-Saharan communities and church members, to ask for help and to support,” shared Aurelie.

Through her initiative, she reached out to IOM and raised awareness about the different needs of the various communities she was supporting to overcome these stressful times.

In addition to providing social and emotional support, migrant women have also filled tangible gaps that were necessary for the overall safety of all.

Vida, a migrant from Ghana, came to Libya in 2014 and dreams of owning a “big fashion shop.” Vida identified a critical need for masks in her community. She realized quickly that many migrants could not afford masks, and that the masks available were not very fashionable. She therefore taught herself and three other migrant women how to sew four different styles of masks.

READ  UNESCO, UNHCR plead for young refugees' education

Vida. Photo: IOM

Vida mentions that she “learned how to make the protective masks when we were in the most need of masks and many couldn’t afford [them].” After an initial success, and although women do not often venture there alone, she bravely “went to the Media [downtown area] to purchase more crafting and sewing materials” and made so many masks that they could regularly distribute them to those in need.

Vida. Photo: IOM

As Zahra, Sakineh, Fatima, Nuha, Aurelie and Vida boldly show us – by leading their own initiatives, whether in a camp in Greece or as part of migrant communities in Libya – that during this pandemic migrant women and girls are leading the way their own way!

Through their actions to better the lives of their families and communities, they have shown us that there can be many types of leadership, and that all efforts, no matter how small, can have a lasting impact during a global crisis.

IOM wishes all migrant women and girls on the move a Happy International Women’s Day 2021.

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Risking it all crossing the Darien Gap, a treacherous trek no one should tackle

 In the notorious Darien Gap spanning the Colombia-Panama border, a young pregnant woman and her husband from Haiti were left alone to face the unforgiving jungle along one of the world’s most dangerous irregular migration routes.

No roads, poisonous snakes, steep mountain ranges, raging rivers and groups of armed robbers had  deterred Jean Horima, 25, and his wife Rose from risking their lives as thousands of desperate people from countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh or Somalia do every year trying to reach the United States, Canada or Mexico.

More than 42,000 Haitians, including thousands of children, have tackled the perilous journey so far this year, hoping to gain refugee status and better futures. Many have not made it and Jean and Rose know they are lucky to have survived, especially as the baby came early.

“The jungle is brutal; it’s really, really tough. The hardest thing for me was to climb the mountains and cross the water,” says Jean. ”There are also people in the forest who will rob or kill you. I know some who got killed. Yes, people who left before me and when I arrived, I found them dead in the woods.”

The couple had started the week-long slog from the Colombia side with 50 others, but when the first hill loomed, the group abandoned them. After several days tackling the dense rainforest, Rose went into labour in the middle of nowhere.

“I was with my wife, and she told me what to do to help and save her,” says Jean. She gave birth and told her husband to cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors. “I also had a black string, so I told him to use it to tie the baby’s umbilical cord. Then, we used a t-shirt to make a bag to put the baby in,” says Rose.

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Jean Michelet hugs Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since their arrival at the station three days ago, while his other children play. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

Wesley and Michelanda, the middle children, play on the playground slide. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

The birth of a healthy baby boy gave them the courage and strength to continue and three days later, the exhausted but relieved family emerged at the Migrant Reception Station (ERM* by its Spanish acronym) in San Vicente, Panama, which is managed by the Panamanian Government with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

Vertulo Renonce and Guerline Mettelus from Haiti have also survived the Darien trek. They had travelled from Chile with their three-year-old son Louvertir, and crossed Colombia’s border with Panama in February. The couple has five other children and hope to join their two eldest in Guatemala. The other three are still in Haiti.

The parents have had difficulty communicating with their children since they arrived at the migrant reception centre in Lajas Blancas, but life there is not just an emotional drain.

Jean François and his childhood best friend travelled from Brazil with their families. They cook rice and beans in front of their tents in Lajas Blancas. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

“The can of milk Louvertir drinks costs USD 4.50 and about every two days I have to buy a new one,” says Guerline. The room in the Guatemala hostel where her children are staying is USD 20 a night, and her children in Haiti have missed school for more than a month because their fees have not been paid.

They arrived in Panama with USD 400 they had hidden from three armed attackers who had robbed their group of 14 people along the way and have only USD 3 left.

READ  Internal displacement exceeds 100,000 in 2020

Lajas Blancas looks like a small neighbourhood where up to 500 people can be sheltered. Near the only entrance is a small kiosk where people gather to buy refreshments and biscuits and to charge their mobile phones. Off to the right are tents, showers and toilets. Down by the river is the quarantine and care area for people with COVID-19, where access is restricted.

Outside his tent, Jean François, who left Haiti in 2015, is grateful for the respite in his journey from Brazil with his four children. He greets a childhood friend who dumps firewood collected from the riverbank to prepare rice and beans.

A member of the National Border Service walks to IOM’s tent in San Vicente. Photo: IOM/José Espinosa Bilgray

“The food they give us here is not bad, but it is not made with love. That’s what we need,” says Jean François. They had survived a week in the jungle with very little food and travelled from Necoclí, Colombia. “Among the 230 people who crossed the jungle, there were around 100 children. It hurts to see them; the children don’t deserve this,” he says.

In the San Vicente ERM, Jean Paul, his wife and their four children are taking a breather on their way to the United States. After the perils of the Darien Gap, they must still travel through Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

They travelled by boat to the border of Colombia and Panama, where they paid a “coyote”, or migrant smuggler, to walk them through the jungle in groups of hundreds of migrants, most of them Haitian nationals.

Jean Kerens, Rose, and baby David are standing inside their tent at the ERM in San Vicente. They travelled from Chile and arrived in Panama in the middle of July. Photo: IOM Panama

On the swings and slide in San Vicente, three of Jean’s young children play.

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It’s noon. The officers of the National Border Service are handing out the food and people are crowding at the entrance waiting for their turn. Jean Michelet is sitting with a plate of food in one hand and, lying in his arms, is one-year-old Alejandro, who has not wanted to eat since they arrived at the station three days earlier.

Jean Michelet made sure the three eldest children had eaten and took them to play, giving his wife who sleeps in one of the houses a break. Unsuccessfully, he keeps trying to get his baby to eat. In his face you can see anguish – concern for the future and the pain of remembering the nightmare of the merciless Darien Gap.

*The ERM was built by the Government of Panama with support from international cooperation, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and private enterprise to reduce overcrowding in La Peñita, another ERM. San Vicente provides dignified conditions in which physical separation and other biosecurity measures can be maintained to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. 

Story written by José Espinosa Bilgray, IOM Panama.

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Stitching hope: Empowering women in South Sudan towards self-reliance

It is only the first day of training in hand-sewing and the women already have big plans about how they are going to use their newly acquired skills to support their families to gain independence.

“Once I get the hang of hand-sewing, I will learn how to sew with a machine. From there, I will make bedsheets, curtains and tablecloths to sell and use the money to provide for my children,” says 50-year-old Adut Akwar.

Adut and 14 other women from the Hai Masna Collective Centre, an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp in South Sudan’s Western Bahr el Ghazal state, are part of the selected group to be trained by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in an array of techniques including sewing, business and entrepreneurship as well as leadership skills. The group comprises women living with disabilities, young mothers and female-headed households.

Fifty-year-old Adut Akwar, a member of IOM CCCM’s Women Participation Project. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

Adut lives in Masna with her six children. They fled their home in 2017 when renewed fighting rocked their village in Jur River, forcing thousands of people, including women, children and the elderly to flee to save their lives. Many found refuge in Hai Masna (hosting 3,850 IDPs) and other collective centres around Wau, while the majority of the displaced sheltered at Naivasha IDP camp, formerly known as the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Wau.

READ  Internal displacement exceeds 100,000 in 2020

She is among the 40 women from Hai Masna and Naivasha who have benefited from the training workshops through the Women Participation Project (WPP).  Through this project, IOM’s Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities through vocational and leadership skills training to support them to become self-reliant, encourage them to raise their concerns when they have them and take up leadership roles within the IDP camp and within their communities.

Members of IOM CCCM’s Women Participation Project trained in hand-sewing. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

“I am very impressed by the enthusiasm that the women have shown in learning these skills which will help them in rebuilding their lives,” says Titus Muniri, IOM CCCM’s Community Participation Assistant.

“Some women who participated in previous trainings have even gone up and taken leading roles in the camp’s governance structures. We have four women who completed our training who were elected as members of the Community Leadership Committee (CLC) in Naivasha camp,” says Titus.

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Adut Akwar says that she “has a plan.”

“When I return home, I will go back to ploughing my fields to grow food for my children,” she says.

“That’s not it though,” she adds with a renewed sense of excitement. “I will also use my time to sew bedsheets that I can sell to make an income.”

Adut says that she hopes that as peace holds in Western Bahr el Ghazal, more women will choose to leave the camps and return to their villages.

“When we leave, we can come together and form women-led cooperatives putting to use the business management and craft-making skills we learnt. We can make some real changes in our lives,” says Adut.

Adut was born with congenital upper limb reduction. Photo: IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

Adut, who was born with congenital upper limb reduction, says that she has never been one to depend on others to do things for her because of her disability.

“I guess, being born with a disability, you are also born with an inherent sense that you have to push harder to show the world that you can,” says Adut. “That is why when I was selected for the workshop, I did not think twice about joining.”

READ  Covid-19: IOM supports health actors, builds  90 quarantine shelters in Nigeria

The women support each other. IOM 2021/Liatile Putsoa

“Sure, I may need help putting the thread through the needle, but the rest I can learn and do by myself,” says Adut.

The Women Participation Project (WPP) is supported by the US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) under the global “Safe from the Start Initiative” through which IOM’s CCCM team facilitates women’s access to income-generating activities.

To find out more about the Women’s Participation Project, visit https://womenindisplacement.org/

Written by Liatile Putsoa, Media and Communications Officer.

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Observatory on smuggling of migrants

The Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants is a research initiative funded by the Governments of Denmark, Canada, Japan and Italy, and is being implemented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime since 2019.  The website of the Observatory was launched in May 2021.

Smuggling of migrants is a complex crime involving the facilitation of the irregularly entry of people into a country for profit. Migrants are smuggled across borders with the financial or material gain. In establishing an Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants, UNODC seeks to gather information, collect, analyze and disseminate data to enhance the knowledge on this crime and inform evidence-based policy and law enforcement responses.

The UNODC Observatory on Smuggling of Migrants gathers data on key areas including migrants’ plans and preparations for the journey – particularly in relation to contact with smugglers, key smuggling routes and experiences on the journey, profiles of migrant smugglers and networks of organized crime, prices for smuggling services and mode of payment, and the types of abuses suffered in the context of smuggling.

READ  Fleeing war, poverty, African migrants face racism in Egypt

Building on data collected in Nigeria and other countries in West and North Africa as well as in Europe, the Observatory has already published findings on smuggling of migrants along the Central Mediterranean Route. Upcoming findings will cover the use of migrant smugglers by Nigerians on the move.

See: Key Findings on the Characteristics of Migrant Smuggling in West Africa, North Africa and the Central Mediterranean

Moreover, UNODC is partnering with the Mixed Migration Centre to collect data in transit and destination countries in West and North Africa to gain specific data on Nigerian use of smugglers in the region. MMC has produced a snapshot of emerging findings based on this research partnership.

Support Voice for African Migrants


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Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.

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