Dispatch

26 April 2013

Running in Fear, Sprinting Towards Hope

Migrants tell their stories at the UN Commission on Population and Development
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After getting an education in The Netherlands, Fatumo Farah was eager to give back to her country by helping the girls of Somalia.

UNITED NATIONS, New York — In an increasingly interconnected world, more individuals than ever before are leaving their homes to begin a new life somewhere else. Since 1990 the number of migrants has increased from 155 million to around 214 million, with women making up an increasing proportion of that total.

Sometimes running in fear, other times sprinting towards hope, migrants take off for reasons as varied and complex as the stories of each individuals. This point was pressed home to the delegates attending the 46th Commission on Population and Development as they listened to the testimony of Fatumo Farah, Harold Fernandez and Natalacia Rocha Tracy — all migrants, each with a unique story to tell.

Running from conflict


Fatumo Farah speaking to the Commission on Population and Development. Photo © UN DESA/C. Sawyer

Fatumo Farah was a teenager studying at the university in Mogadishu, Somalia when she was forced to flee her home country. "I didn't choose to move to The Netherlands, but because of the situation in Somalia, I needed to escape. The conflict had made things very bad. There was lots of violence, including rape and sexual violence," she told delegates. "Moving wasn't easy for me, the climate and the culture of The Netherlands was very different to home, but as things go it was a pretty good place to end up.

"When I arrived I still dreamed of graduating and continuing my studies. But not knowing the language that was difficult for me. By accessing local support from agencies like the Refugee Council I got help with language lessons and I was able to graduate. After that I had two priorities, first was finding a way to help other girls back in Somalia to get an education, second was sending money home to my family."

Dreaming of becoming a doctor

All three migrants on the panel spoke of education as a key to integrating into a new culture. For Dr. Harold Fernandez, who arrived in the United States at the age of 13 after enduring a life-threatening boat journey from the Caribbean, the dream of becoming a doctor and making a contribution came as close to sinking as his rickety boat.

"When I got here I studied hard at school and got into Princeton and was sailing along in my medical studies. I had just received a letter from the Dean telling me I was in the top 2 per cent of students. Then, two weeks later another letter arrived, this time asking me to come and see the dean and to bring my papers with me.

"Of course my documentation had been obtained on the black market, I knew what this could mean, so I decided to go and tell my professor about my situation. The easiest thing for him to have done would have been to tell me that I had broken the law and the rules of the college and that I would have to leave. But he didn't. He decided to help me so that I could complete my studies."

Seeking higher education


Natalacia Rocha Tracy shared her story with the Commission. Photo © UN DESA/C. Sawyer

Natalacia Rocha Tracy's migration to the United States was fueled by the desire for an education as the key to a better life. "In Brazil a person like me would not have easy access to education — for women of Afro-descent my chance of an education was about 4 per cent. So I came here, I worked all night and studied during the day.

"I paid all my own fees, right up to Ph.D. level and you can imagine how much that has cost. But as a mother I wanted to be a model for my son. I wanted to show that if you work hard you will prevail."

Giving back to their communities

Armed with an education all three panelists were committed to giving back, both in their country of residence and in their country of origin. Fatumo, a 'born activist' works with the Somali diaspora to provide practical support to women and girls in Somalia.

"In the Somali community and culture, boys are preferred to girls. When I came to The Netherlands I believed that education is a weapon that can make women strong. I believed that if I didn't do anything for girls, what have I really achieved? "

Together with other Somalis, Fatomu has helped send around 1500 girls to school. She has also used her understanding of the culture, language and local situation to campaign effectively to end female genital mutilation and to end child marriage.

Highlighting the importance of female empowerment

Natalacia Rocha Tracy now works at the Brazilian Immigrant Centre in Boston, Mass. A campaigner for the rights of female domestic workers, she described the challenges that women migrants face on a daily basis and how their legal status makes them particularly open to exploitation and abuse. "Many female domestic workers arrive on a household visa that makes them completely vulnerable and dependent on their employer." She described domestic workers as being regarded more like pets, than as a human being with fundamental rights.

All panelists agreed that migrants in general, and especially women and children migrants — face tremendous hardship throughout their migration journeys. They relate stories of being robbed, having unintended pregnancies, and being physically and sexually abused, not only in developing countries but in their country of origin. According to Natalacia protecting women migrants comes down to focusing on female empowerment, providing women with the information and support they need to defend themselves by moving safely.

What was clear in each person's story was how opportunities can be forged out of challenges, how economies, culture and families can be enriched if policies enable people to move safely and pursue their personal development in our increasingly mobile world.

  ---reported by Anita Wiseman