War, Women and Healing the Wounds from the Past

“As long as we share our stories, as long as our stories reveal our strengths and vulnerabilities to each other, we reinvigorate our understanding and tolerance for the little quirks of personality that in other circumstances would drive us apart. When we live in a family, a community, a country where we know each other’s true stories, we remember our capacity to lean in and love each other into wholeness.” – Christina Baldwin in  Storycatcher: Making Sense of Our Lives through the Power and Practice of Story 

This quote, for me, reflects the atmosphere at the private meeting on Youth and Reconciliation organised at the World Conference on Youth a week ago, bringing together a handful of international social media fellows and delegates on one hand, and Sri Lankan survivors of the civil war from the Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim communities, on the other. The war began in July 1983 and led to 25 years of fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the independent militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 

It was obvious from the beginning that the meeting would be a solemn one, despite the continuous reminders that we were there to hear stories of peace, reconciliation and rehabilitation. However, it is also a glaring truth that one does not easily forget and discard the past for the comforts of the present and hopes for the future. In reaching out for peace and reconciliation, memories of the past are evoked and in this case, they were neither beautiful nor happy. 

With little knowledge on the Sri Lankan civil war, I sat quietly as our friends shared their stories, ready to learn as much as I could from these people who lived through the daily realities of the conflict. I was particularly marked by the narrations from the women in my group, who shared their memories through translators, punctuated by shy smiles and cast-away looks.

Women in conflict

War and conflict are generally portrayed in masculine terms- a place where men oppose each other in a show of power and domination. When women are included in the story, they are more often portrayed as victims and indirect/secondary participants. The reality was different for these women in the room, who sat next to men they had fought with and against in the battlefield. For some, it was a choice. For others, fighting in the war was a moral obligation.

Seated right opposite me, in a beautiful red sari, was a young lady- perhaps my age or younger. Next to her, was her husband. They had recently tied the knot after leaving their respective rehabilitation centers set up by the Sri Lankan government to facilitate their transition back into civil life. A happy ending for this young couple, whose love story grew from the results of conflict.

Our young bride, a Tamil, was forced to join the LTTE in 2009 as a moral duty to her community. She revealed that one member from each family had to join the LTTE at the time. As all her siblings were married and raising their own families, the onus was on her to represent them, in respect of the rule. Consequently, she spent all her time living in bunkers with other recruits, awaiting their turn to go to the battlefield. The opportunity to fight never came; she was arrested after the war and kept under government custody, where she underwent the rehabilitation process for a year. 

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Vinothanayagi Kulanthaivelu, 39

Vinothanayagi Kulanthaivelu, 39, is still under rehabilitation. She joined the LTTE in 1995 together with other girls and went through light training for about 3 months. She would later become responsible for data entry, keeping track of all information from Tamil areas. This kept her away from the battlefield, up until the final moments of the war, when the LTTE needed more fighters. Everyone had to get on board and Vinothanayagi found herself fighting for about 6 months. 

She, however, revealed that women had been in the battlefield since the beginning of the war, fighting side by side with their male counterparts. Where women are generally subject to inequalities based on gender in our different societies, the situation was different in the battlefield. Men and women were treated as equal and the latter “were acting like men and had the power to fight” and there was no male domination.

The women fighters executed their duties without the worry of domestic responsibilities, made possible by the LTTE’s rule that prevented married women from getting recruited. This rule would eventually be ignored when the need for more fighters arose and married women were forced to join the group. Vinothanayagi could not tell us what happened to their children- if they had any- but remembered that no one below the age of seventeen (17) was allowed to join the LTTE. 

Asked about the safety of women and girls in the camps, especially on the subject of sexual violence, Vinothanayagi dismissed the stories as rumours. In all 14 years of her time with the LTTE, she had never experienced or come across a case of sexual violence against women. In fact, there were few women during her stay there, as the society was not yet ready to accept them. She added that LTTE soldiers who wanted to get married left the camps and spread false stories, leading people to believe that women were being harassed. 

Post-conflict rehabilitation

When the war finally ended in May 2009, focus was shifted on reconciliation and the rehabilitation of soldiers and survivors. There was a general consensus in the room, hinting at great satisfaction with the rehabilitation program and the government’s provisions for housing and employment opportunities after release.

Our young bride told us that living in the rehabilitation centers was “better than living at home“, as she was able to go to school, take up vocational training and eventually started teaching. Similar sentiments were echoed from the group. The rehabilitation programs include training in Information Technology, agriculture, masonry and tailoring, as well as counselling and spiritual assistance. 

Vinothanayagi still lives in the center and expects to leave in June. She has undergone training in English, Sinhala, Computer skills and tailoring. With no clear indications of getting a job after her release, she plans to set up a home business, using her tailoring skills to make a living and help support her siblings. Eventually, she will decide if she wants to get married or continue living single. 

Some of the rehabilitated persons receive loans to start their own businesses, while students are encouraged to go back to school, moving up to University level. Others have gone on to join national sports teams. 

But…

…rehabilitation does not seem to be the healing balm to the emotional wounds for these soldiers. Vinothanayagi shared the grievances of her friends, who have been cut off from their families, especially those living abroad. This is further fueled by rumours that the LTTE will strike again, reviving the war in Sri Lanka. Family members become scared to talk to the ex-soldiers, thinking they are still monitored by the government. She expressed her concerns on the effects of breaking family ties due to the fear that still reigns in the hearts and minds of the people. 

For Vinothanayagi, the chances of another war breaking out are very slim. She hopes this will never happen because it will mean losing everything they have managed to build in the past few years, through the rehabilitation program. She lost her father during the battle and could not see his remains. This is a situation she does not want to relive with the rest of her family. The general feeling among her colleagues is “to move on“. 

Letting go of the past

From our experiences as humans, we draw lessons or live with regrets. For some, it is easier and more convenient to forget the past and focus on the present. For others, the stories and memories from past experiences, no matter how gory, stay relevant and are constant reminders of where we have been and the journeys we have made. 

I was interested to know the current perceptions of the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslim present at this meeting. What lessons did they take away from their experiences as soldiers in the civil war? Reconciliation and rehabilitation are important, but do the scars of war ever go away? 

It was evident that they all wanted the same thing: to move on with their lives and forget the past. Remembering, though important, has become too painful for them. They believe they were all dragged into an unwanted war and now that it is over, all they want is peace. To them, Sri Lanka is one country and they should all work together to make sure history is not repeated. They have moved on to live with each other in rehabilitation centers and hope to promote this spirit of peaceful coexistence, devoid of misunderstandings and hatred. 

The gathering remained solemn, with eyes saying more than words could. Theirs, reliving the moments of the war as they tried to bring us into their world. Ours, filled with questions and wild imagination, turning to pity and empathy as the narrations went on. Together, hope for a better and peaceful future.

Away from the general buzz of the Conference, these are the stories that touched my soul. These are the stories I brought home with me. 

Is the World Conference on Youth Truly for the Young People?

Following a grand opening ceremony at the Magam Ruhunupura International Convention Center in Hambantota, serious deliberations have kicked off for the World Conference on Youth in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The WCY2014 is meant to focus on “Mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda”. There are over 1500 delegates from all over the world representing different interests. Two days into the consultations, are youth voices really being heard?

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I just got out of the round table session on Youth Employment and Entrepreneurship, which featured panelists from various departments as well as youth delegates with a vested interest in the theme. This session, like all the others I’ve attended and covered as a Social Media Fellow took the usual format of panelists speaking for about 5-7 minutes after which delegates given time to ask about 2-3 questions, only for attention to be returned to the panelists, so they can answer questions. This imbalance in the allocation of time and attention to the concerns of the youth delegates is quite telling of the need for better representation of our voices where they really matter.

The world’s youth are hopeful that their representatives at this global gathering will not only present their challenges and problems but also work hand in glove with policy makers and the relevant stakeholders to come up with action-driven solutions which will be included in the outcome document of the Conference, The Colombo Youth Declaration.

Whose opinions are being represented in this outcome document that is expected to help in creating a better world for young people?

During the Question and Answer session at the aforementioned round table discussion, a youth delegate questioned the absence of key words relating to vocational training and education, relevant to shaping the future of the employment and employability status of young people, adding that no one is listening to what the youth are saying.

The designated facilitator for this session interrupted, telling him to ask his question to the panelists. The disapproval among the youth delegates was quite evident and a pair of them, from two different countries in the world, stood up in solidarity with their colleague. One declared that he will not support an outcome document that did not represent the voices and concerns of the young people present at WCY 2014, an echo of the voices of many young people who could not make it to Colombo. This was received with much applause from the delegates present.

I spoke to one of the African delegates who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, and he believes that the World Conference on Youth and its consequent Colombo Declaration on Youth ‘will not change anything’. There are irregularities in procedure, and withdrawals from the negotiations,

He further highlighted the under-representation of youth voices at these negotiations, where their voices truly matter and can make all the difference. This delegate seemingly echoes the voices of many others, adding that the situation is worse for Africa, due to the unequal representation of government delegates from the various African countries. The large delegation from South Africa, in his opinion, cannot fully represent and cater for the interests of other African countries with little or no government representation at the negotiations.

The Conference has been publicized as a gathering for the World’s youth, giving them an opportunity to meet with policy makers and their government officials to chart a way forward for the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

But young people are being pushed aside even within the negotiations. As my fellow social media fellow Chris Wright highlighted this morning, young people are being sidelined within their own negotiations.

While no other negotiating groups were asked to sit in specified areas, young people were ‘requested’ to remain at the back of the negotiating hall. They were also asked not to publish specific country positions during the drafting of the Colombo text.

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“It is great to see that young national delegates have the opportunity to discuss the text, but it is shocking that the Chair has asked for the negotiations not to publicised. These negotiations need to be transparent so that young people around the world can hear what is going on in their own Declaration”, Chris adds.

Is there any hope for change and different results from the MDGs if youth at WCY 2014 continue to feel excluded and sidelined in their own conference?

Will the future, or even the present, be any better for the world’s youth, especially in relation to the specific foundations and themes being discussed at this Conference?

How much importance are we giving to young people if sessions focus more on their questions than comments and some of their recommendations get withdrawn after review by the leaders here?

Will the voices of youth be fully represented in the Post-2015 Development Agenda if they already feel sidelined in the one space where they are expected to come up with recommendations for said Agenda?

I have so many questions on my mind and will continue to follow the proceedings, but more importantly, the reactions of the youth delegates here in Colombo. Hopefully, by Friday, when the outcome document will have been finalised, I will have answers to my questions.

A Chat With Sana Afouaiz, International Delegate From Morocco

Delegates from all over the world are putting in final preparations ahead of the World Conference On Youth, hosted by Sri Lanka. The main theme of the Conference is ‘Mainstreaming Youth in the Post 2015 Development Agenda’.

From North Africa, representation at the Conference has already been determined. Sana Afouaiz is one of the International Delegates from Morocco. She is the Regional Coordinator of the Moroccan Youth Climate Movement and the Project Manager of Advocacy Learning, which uses innovative service-learning to promote competence in advocacy and provide access to tools for self-development and challenge social oppression. Linguere caught up with Sana for a brief chat, ahead of the gathering In Colombo.

Blog 2 Sana Afouaiz photo

 

Linguere: Congratulations on being selected to represent Morocco at WCY 2014. Out of the many applications, yours was successful and I believe it’s because of a proven record of hard work in relation to the theme of the conference. Can you share a brief background of the work you do?

Sana:Thank you!I’m a journalist working with the Voice of Women Initiative to promote gender equality and oppose the perpetuation of gender discrimination. I use innovative approaches by encouraging women to tell their stories through the media, as a way to stop violence and inequality.

I’m also a government visitor in the Middle East Partnership Initiative program. Through this program, I explored diverse issues around leadership and civic engagement in United States. As a member of the steering committee of the Moroccan Center for Civic Education, I help to encourage volunteering, spread democratic principles and engage others to become effective in their communities.

I represented Morocco in the Regional Model Arab League Stimulation held in Tunisia. There, we debated about policy-relevant issues among the government institutions, civil society, and citizens in the Arab world.

I currently work as a volunteer assistant with Injaz Al Maghreb too, contributing to the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs. I also execute duties as a member of the national steering committee of United Nations UNV Youth Volunteering in Arab States.

Linguere:The Conference will gather over 1500 participants from all over the world, representing different organisations and groups. How prepared are you for the deliberations?

Sana: I’ll be attending the Conference as a representative of the Voice of Women Initiative (VOW). We are currently working together to produce a document on the recommendations for youth in our communities, which is the aim of the World Conference on Youth. I have great connections within youth organizations from different parts of the world. This has helped me in gathering the needed information to amplify their voices, share their opinions and demands. We plan to share these at WCY 2014 and look forward to seeing our voices represented in the Post 2015 Development Agenda.

Since VOW focuses on women’s issues, I’ve already written a document with important recommendations which I will present in Sri Lanka. These include the situation and status of women in the political, economic, and social spheres.

Linguere: Which key foundations and thematic areas will you focus on at WCY 2014?

Sana: Taking into consideration my background and the organisation I’ll be representing, my focus will be on two main Foundations: Gender Equality and Inclusive Youth Participation at All Levels.

For the themes, I have Realizing Equal Access to Quality Education and Full Employment and Entrepreneurship.

Linguere: In addition to representing VOW at the Conference, you are also recognised as one of the Moroccan International Youth Delegates. Shifting attention to the national scale, how would you describe the current situation in Morocco, regarding youth participation in leadership and development?

Sana:I would say that in the past few years, Morocco has witnessed an increased participation and engagement of youth in the political and decision-making process, in civil society and other public affairs. For me, this confirms that young people in Morocco participate in the development of the country in different fields.

However, there is still room for improvement, especially in the area of representation in Parliament. Young people will be able to share their voices, inform and influence public policies if they are fairly represented at this level.

After the social movement in 2011, the country has seen a huge number of subsequent protests, demanding parliamentary monarchy and advocating political change. More young people have become more interested than ever in determining the policies of the country, to make a positive change. This expresses the leadership sense that Moroccans have, which they want to apply to develop their communities.

Linguere: Has there been any other remarkable improvement following the February 20th movement, influenced by the Arab Spring?

Sana:Unlike other countries in the Arab region, Morocco has faced both street activism led mainly by the February 20th movement and an institutional revolution led by youth wings of political parties and civil society organizations. This led to a political communications and advocacy campaign, putting pressure on state and political parties to establish a quota for youth representation in the parliament.

This political dialogue also led the new election code, voted by the parliament, creating an electoral list for women and another for youth. Now, we have 30 seats guaranteed for youth in our Parliament.

The new constitution also included several theoretical reforms regarding youth and civil society, with various articles promoting youth participation, the freedom to create civil society organizations, formulation of draft legislation, among others. The government also promised to open public debate with youth and civil society, facilitate the creation of the Consultative Council of Youth and Community Work and improve a national integrated youth strategy in the policy plans and supporting associations working in rural areas to guarantee transparency.

Linguere: The majority of young people in the world will not be at WCY 2014. How will you, as a delegate, ensure that details of the outcome document of the WCY are widely spread, especially among young people?  

Sana:I intend to share the experiences, stories and advice gathered from WCY 2014 with other young people and experts. This will be done through social media and the organizations I work with, both at the national and international levels.

Furthermore, I will strengthen the inclusive youth participation in the decision-making processes, by inspiring them and enhancing their importance. This will be through sharing ideas, experiences and innovative approaches for effectively contributing to the post-2015 development agenda and its implementation.

I also intend to organize workshops for other youth to make them aware of their importance in the social, economic and political level when it comes to the decision of government officials. Those decisions should correspond to youth’s needs.

Linguere:Your expectations for the Conference?

Sana: I expect to use the platform to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, and also to discuss the situation of women beyond 2015.  We need to consider the case of women’s right as a prerequisite for the health and development of families and societies, and a driver of economic growth.

I’ll further love to strengthen inclusive youth participation in the decision-making processes and in the addressing global issues. Youth are the lead; they are the concerned people, and it’s their right to get involved.

I look forward to sharing ideas, experiences and innovative approaches for effectively contributing to the post-2015 development agenda and its implementation, youth rights, and strengthened youth participation at all levels.

Linguere: Thank you for your time Sana. See you in Colombo

Sana: Thank you

#WCY2014 : Different Expectations, One Vision

More than 1500 people will gather in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo from May 6th to May 10th, for the World Conference on Youth 2014. The conference, hosted by the Sri Lankan government, will run under the theme “Mainstreaming Youth in the Post 2015 Development Agenda” and delegates aim to finalize an outcome document which will, henceforth, be known as the Colombo Declaration on Youth. WCY2014 will focus on seven foundations and seven thematic areas, covering a range of issues affecting youth development today.

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Thanks to the internet, a good number of the delegates have already started connecting and breaking the virtual ice, in preparation for Colombo. Isn’t it cool how much we can do with these social networks?

As one of the international social media fellows for the conference, I reached out to some of them, in a bid to know what their expectations for the Conference are. The responses were as varied as their backgrounds and experiences, yet similar in direction and purpose.

From New Zealand, Oliver Ibbetson shows great interest in the many connection opportunities the conference will offer:

 “I think the conference will go really well and we will produce an amazing document, but the most important thing, and the most exciting thing for me is that we are bringing together hundreds of really amazing young people who are all doing amazing things. Because we start to add each other on social media, we will have these friendships and connections for life. So in 20 years’ time, we will still be connected, and we can Facebook message each other, and support each other’s projects, and we can and will make a positive impact on the globe.”

 In the Ghanaian capital, Oko Armah Francis is preparing his contributions to the outcome document, with the hope that the views of young people all over the world will be represented:

“Also expect we young people to prove ourselves to ministers and other delegated officials at WCY that when given the chance, we meaningfully participate and work together to create change. To collaborate with great young change makers in future programmes on global themes reflected in the outcome document. Let’s all remember the conference may be for only a week but the real work begins when we get back home.”

 Diego Callisto is from Brazil and hopes, among other things, that the Conference will help to …

“…strengthen the protection of young women through human rights policies that give visibility to women regarding their rights in order to propose more stringent punitive laws regarding violence against women.”

Liberia will be represented by Jarius Arkie Tarr who had this to share:

I would like to meet new friends, build new collaborative partnership on behalf of my organization and most of all, enjoy my time and participation to the benefit of the youth of the world.”

 

Han Aziza Adil is from the Philippines and while she has great expectations for the conference, she takes time to acknowledge that representing one’s country comes with a responsibility. Her words:

I bet Sri Lanka has high expectations of us as well and let’s prove to them that we can do so much, not only for the future, but also for today. You know what they say, what the heart and mind can perceive and believe, it can Achieve!”

 

Excitement is at its peak as the Conference date gets closer. Delegates can’t wait to get to Colombo and engage in discussions that will influence the state of the world’s youth, post 2015. Expectations are high and the hope is that effective results will be attained by the end of the conference on May 10th.

 

Follow me on Twitter @myzzdiamant for live updates from the Conference.

Linguere in Colombo For WCY 2014

In a few days, I will join over 1500 delegates at the World Conference on Youth in Sri Lanka. The Conference, expected to run from 6th to 10th of May, will bring together young people and stakeholders from all over the world, to discuss strategies ahead of the Post 2015 Development Agenda. This Conference will focus on mainstreaming youth voices in the Agenda and promises to be an important gathering.

I, together with nineteen other youth, will be working as Social Media Fellows at the conference, with a duty to relay proceedings to the rest of the world using our various internet platforms. Through Linguere, I shall produce blog posts about the Conference, from a human interest angle and taking into consideration the blog’s main theme of addressing women’s issues.

We can't keep calm, can we?

We can’t keep calm, can we?

My micro-blogging sites: Facebook , Twitter and Instagram will also be used, especially for live blogging purposes at the Conference. This will be my first official task of such magnitude, and I am super excited to get to Colombo.

The delegates come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and I have been able to chat briefly with some of them. Facebook friend requests and Twitter/Instagram follows have been trickling in since the official release of the final list of delegates. The few conversations I have had gave me a glimpse of what to expect at the Conference, and I greatly look forward to wonderful exchanges with people from all over the world.

Seeing as I am not just a blogger but an active youth advocate, my task seems daunting, as I have a vested interest in all of the Foundations and Themes of the Conference. Following them all fully would require cloning my figure, and since that is practically impossible, I will have to effectively manage my time to follow as many discussions as I possibly can.

The great thing- okay, one of the many great things- about the Conference is that I will be meeting up with my sisters from the MILEAD Fellowship, two of whom will also be working as Social Media Fellows. They, in addition to all the other delegates, will certainly make this experience a memorable one.

I look forward to the deliberations and important discussions that will help determine the future of young people. The networking opportunities and the many relationships that can be forged from this Conference will be taken advantage of, as I continue to grow in the work that I do.

Colombo looks like a dream destination and I totally can’t wait to get there and have a feel of the country, its people and its culture. When I eventually leave, I hope to have a lot of pleasant and inspiring moments to reminisce on. Where my mind fails to remember things, the many photographs I intend to take will come to the rescue! Watch out for the #WCYselfie and of course, many Linguere selfies!

Follow the account through any of my social media accounts

Follow the account through any of my social media accounts

Look out for the blogs from our team for live updates and pictures! Meanwhile, I’ll go pack my bags and get ready for the long journey to Sri Lanka.

 

 

 

Till We Meet Again

Love. Memories. Loving memories of all the times we spent together.

When the night falls and the tears dry up, that is all we’re left with. To cherish and hold on to as our source of comfort. Alleviate our pain and fill this void that death has left in our hearts and lives.

When my mother shared the news , she started with ‘sorry’. I stamped my feet, screaming No, No, No in defiance. My spirit rejected the news, my heart got very heavy and I was blinded. That last No led me to surrender… to the truth of your demise, the stream of tears clouding my vision.

I was defenseless and I wished for only one thing: to be home where we would all share the pain and comfort each other just like you would have done. Mother said sorry, but I wanted to be there to tell her it will be alright. I know how much you meant to her, to us. Amie is heartbroken. We all are.

It hurts. It is difficult to come to terms with this new reality.

It is painful to know that when I finally come home, my degree in hand, you wouldn’t be there to cheer me on as usual. I think of this and remember our trips to get me registered into Junior and then Senior Secondary school. My mother left everything in your hands, because to us, you were another Mother.

I draw strength from your words on those trips, where you never hesitated to let me know how proud you were of me. I think of the day I left home and how we held on to each other, unable to control our tears, as you shared valuable advice with me. I listened and I practiced. Now I’m almost at the end of the road and you’re gone.

I woke up today, but the pain was still here. The tears still fall. The void remains unfilled. I try to be strong, because it’s what you would have wanted. I worked hard on my dissertation today… it will be my gift of success to you. My concentration flickered a few times, but I kept on, encouraged by the loving memories I had.

I remember the amazing summers we spent with you in Mansakonko, watching you work and serve the community. You were the nurse everyone came to, for your infectious good spirit alone could make the sick better. We were always reluctant to go back to Kombo, because in your home we found love, warmth and everything we needed.

I remember our trip to Tendaba, the joy you brought into our lives, the patience in dealing with a rowdy bunch of kids excited to be free in that natural environment. You were a natural at giving love and making everyone around you feel comfortable and happy. You were the life of the party and when there was no party, you still made it feel like one.

As my tears fall, I am comforted by the visions of your smile and the echos of your hearty laughter. Death took you away too soon, Aunty Marie. Too soon.

I’ve tried to be strong, to stop crying, to pray for you instead. When it all fails, I turn to my words. It is through writing that I find peace. It is through remembering the many moments we shared, each filled with love, happiness and endless laughter that I find the solace I seek.

I write to come to terms with this. I write for closure. I write because God is the only one I can talk to right now and so I will ask Him to take care of you. I will pray to Him to forgive your sins and welcome you among his righteous servants.

You are gone from this Earth, but we are comforted knowing that you have only gone back home to Heaven, where you belong. The Angels will welcome you in their midst and you will share with them the many gifts you’ve blessed us with while we still had you. They’ve won you now, but we still keep a piece of you in our hearts, where you’ve always been.

Take your rest now. You have done well on Earth and it shall be well with you in Heaven, by God’s mercy and grace. When you look down upon us, know that we grieve but still keep you in our prayers. We will miss you.

Till we meet again, Aunty Marie Forbes. God be with you.

The Cost Of Greener Pastures: An Afternoon On The Streets of Rabat

1:30pm. It’s almost the end of the lunch break. I am on a sidewalk just a few metres from the Place Al Joulane in Rabat Ville. The tram passes by slowly, stops to allow cars to cross, before proceeding to its next stop. People walk past, each in a hurry to get to their destination.

A toddler plays on the pavement as his mother, seated a few steps away, keeps an eye on him while begging for money from passers-by. She extends her palm towards an approaching woman and then digs into her pink jacket to keep the coin she’d just been offered.

Rabat Ville

Rabat Ville

Susan* has been begging on the streets of Rabat for the past four months, to sustain herself and her son Blessed. Hers is not an isolated case, as the Moroccan capital has seen an increase in the number of illegal immigrants begging for survival, over the past few years. Most of them come from various countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but some are Syrian refugees fleeing from the unrest in their country. For many of these Sub-Saharan Africans, Morocco is just a transit point, their destination being Europe, where they go in search of a better life.

It is not Susan’s first time in Morocco. Her first encounter with the Royaume Cherifien was in 2003, when she arrived from her home country, Nigeria. She would eventually spend four years in the Kingdom before finally gaining access into the Spanish capital, Madrid. “I did not have my papers but I made it to Madrid, where I was able to find work. In Morocco, I did not have any chance to work and life was difficult”, she revealed. For Susan, getting into Europe was a dream come true and together with her husband, they were able to make enough money to survive on.

Their illegal status, however, meant they could only get barely decent jobs while hiding from the authorities. After four years of living and working in Madrid, Susan and her husband were arrested on their way out of a bank and sent to a deportation camp, where they engaged the services of a lawyer to plead their case. After 39 days at the deportation camp and a lost case in court, they were deported to Nigeria. “During those four years, we tried very hard to get papers so we can stay peacefully in Madrid and get better jobs. We spent a lot of money -over 5000 Euros- but we were still denied legal residence”.

I had been standing beside Susan as she narrated her story, both of us keeping an eye on Blessed as he tested his recently acquired ability to walk. Moved by her story and wanting to hear more, I sat down on the low brick wall beside her.

Is the grass always greener on the other side?

Is the grass always greener on the other side?

Deportation did not stop Susan’s quest for a better life. She returned to Morocco in 2012, with hopes to get back into Spain, joining her sister who was lucky to obtain legal residence in Madrid. Up until her arrival in Rabat four months ago, she lived in Oujda in the extreme North West of Morocco. “We lived in a forest, where we put up tents and it wasn’t safe at all. The cold was unbearable, so I decided to come to Rabat. I found an apartment in Sale, which I share with other people in the same situation”. She gave birth to her son, Blessed, in Oujda but the little boy was denied a birth certificate because Susan could not afford the hospital bill.

Like many other children of illegal immigrants in Morocco, Blessed’s future looks bleak. With no identification papers even in the country of his birth, he remains one of the 230 million children who do not officially exist, according to UNICEF. This means Blessed could not reclaim his rights and enjoy the benefits of being a Moroccan citizen, one of which is free basic and secondary education.

A new directive from the Ministry of National Education in October 2013, provides access to public and private institutions of formal and informal education for immigrant children in Morocco. Children like Blessed now have the opportunity to go to school, but the conditions may not be met in many cases, given the absence of some of the documents required for inscription. For some parents, as is the case with Susan, this information is news to them. “It’s the first time I’m hearing of this provision. I haven’t heard any of my friends and neighbours talking about it either. It is good and will help some to educate their children free of charge”. Asked whether she will enrol Blessed in school, Susan tells us that she prefers to send him to a private school in her neighbourhood in Sale, where her friends send their children to learn.

Femi, her neighbour, has a 6 year old daughter who goes to this school, started by a fellow Nigerian. “We pay DH100 every month and the children are able to learn in English. Also, they are not afraid to go to school because they don’t get mocked and called names as is the case in the streets”. For parents like Femi, the safety of their children is worth the fee paid every month. Equally, this Nigerian-taught school ensures that their children learn in English and do not have to struggle with learning Arabic, which is the language of instruction when they enrol in the public schools.

A man dressed in a well-pressed suit approaches us. I cannot see him for I have my back to him. He hands a one-dirham coin to Susan and nudges me on the shoulder. I look up and he hands me a coin too, smiling. We thanked him as he went on his way. I handed the coin to Susan and we resumed our discussion.

Susan doesn’t mind sending her son to a Moroccan school for free. After all he was born here, even if unaccounted for officially.  However, she does not see the benefit of him learning in Arabic and would rather he study in English. “I’ll like him to learn French too, because that one is international and will benefit him more than Arabic. When his father comes we will decide”, she said. Her husband is set to return to Morocco, joining his family as they continue to find ways to get back into Spain.

A passer-by walks past, pauses to play with Blessed and then hands Susan a 1 dirham coin. She smiles and thanks her, drawing Blessed closer, with a faraway look in her eye. Just then a black 4X4 stopped in front of us. The traffic lights had gone red. The driver and his friend in the passenger’s seat lean forward to look at us. The latter lifted his hand and pointed to his ring-finger, his way of asking Susan if she was married. She pointed to her son and they smiled. He gestured in my direction and Susan told him I was also married. I was used to these approaches, having dealt with about three on my short walk from the taxi-park to Susan’s spot, so I had averted my gaze as soon as I noticed the car. The lights turned green and they drove off.

Susan looked at me and smiled. “See what they do. Even when I walk in the streets, carrying Blessed on my back, they stop me to ask if I want fuck-fuck. They think we are all prostitutes.” I commiserated with her, while reminding her that we all suffered the same problem and it always took a lot to remain composed in the face of the perversity.

hopeI prefer to stay in the streets and beg so I can provide for my son. There are some women who accept their demands, but their living conditions are not better than mine. I’ll beg and use what I have to pay my rent and take care of Blessed. I’m just waiting for what God can do for us here. Hopefully, Blessed will go to school and become a great person”, she tells me.

A wish that all parents have for their children, even when the future looks bleak and there is little hope. Susan and her neighbour, Femi, are only two of the many Sub-Saharans who risk their lives, live in difficult situations and sometimes resort to desperate means for survival, while they wait to journey into greener pastures.

I pray he brings you many blessings”, I said to her, smiling.

After a moment of silence, I thanked Susan for her time and for sharing her story with me. As I walked away, I remembered to be grateful for the little I have because many are in worse situations and would consider themselves blessed to have what I may consider little.

For Susan, Blessed and many others in the same situation or worse, I continue to use my voice even as I grapple with my own struggles. Service to humanity gives my life much more meaning and I encourage you to reach out to the next person. It might just be what they needed to get through the day. It was for me. Susan and Blessed were my blessings today.

What are your thoughts on illegal immigration and the risks taken by these immigrants to reach this Eldorado that is not all it’s cut out to be.

(*) – not her real name