UNICEF celebrates refugee and migrant girls’ leadership towards a more equal world
UNICEF met with five inspirational refugee and migrant women and young girls living in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Serbia who are leading this change
Women stand at the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis as health workers, caregivers, teachers, community organizers and as some of the most effective leaders in combating the pandemic. The crisis has featured their contributions and the disproportionate burdens carried by women and girls, including those who are refugees and migrants. Gender inequality is present in the daily lives of women and girls in their communities and in their homes. They face systemic risk of gender-based violence (GBV), exacerbated by displacement. UNICEF works with partners and women and girls themselves to advance gender equality, prevent GBV and ensure support is available for survivors.
This year, the theme for International Women’s Day (8 March), “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in forming a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. UNICEF met with five inspirational refugee and migrant women and young girls living in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Serbia who are leading this change. Here are their stories.
Born and raised in war-torn Afghanistan, Silsila, 25, has overcome challenging life experiences with resilience and determination.
Defying social norms and expectations in her home country, Silsila successfully completed her studies in Engineering. However, she soon turned to her real passion to work in the media. For a few years, Silsila was TV and radio presenter in Afghanistan where she moderated a music programme as part of a UNICEF-supported project. She used her platform to reach out to other young people, encouraging them to pursue their dreams.
Six years ago, Silsila arrived in Bulgaria. She enrolled as a student in Economics. Besides that, Silsila worked for a civil society organization providing support to vulnerable groups.
“I liked my job very much and I was happy to help make positive impact in the lives of others and guide them towards their own success,” said Silsila.
With the support of UNICEF’s partner, the Council of Refugee Women in Bulgaria (CRWB), Silsila became a member of the Refugee Advisory Board in her new country. Her engagement in numerous activities allowed people to see refugees beyond the label “refugee.”
“I am not only a refugee; I am much more than that. It’s only one part of me, not my identity”
“UNICEF develops and implements programmes supporting women, especially girls and young women, throughout the world,” said Diana Yovcheva, Refugee and Migrant Children Programme Officer at UNICEF Bulgaria. “These programmes offer opportunities that enable them to tap into the wealth of their own potential wherever their life path leads them.”
Last year, with her newly acquired knowledge from her Economics studies, Silsila started her own business. She employs refugee women to make clothes and art pieces by hand. The products reflect elements from the women’s own culture and life experiences. Most importantly, they symbolize the pursuit of dreams and serve as motivation for other young people striving to reach all they can imagine.
“This business generates income for refugee women, and they become independent,” explained Silsila.
“I decided to take my life in my own hands, I raise my sons on my own and nobody can limit me.”
Asifa is a 27-year-old young woman from Afghanistan who left her country, crossed Iran and Turkey, and arrived in Greece with her baby boy in her arms several years ago. Even if she had initially wanted to continue her journey, she now has a happy life in Greece. She speaks Greek fluently. She imagines her future with her two sons in Greece.
“Asifa had been facing the struggle of living in a refugee camp but was also eager to do her best in every circumstance,” said Zoi, a facilitator at the UNICEF-supported Female Friendly Space run by the Greek organization, Solidarity Now.
“Asifa had the sparkle to enhance her life and we were there to encourage and support her,” said Zoi, recalling when she first met Asifa a few years before. “The Female Friendly Space was very welcoming for me and my little boys,” said Afisa. “We spent time in the comfortable space together. We relaxed, played and made friends. I have many good friends who met there!” said Asifa.
At the Female Friendly Space, Afisa was able to improve her Greek language and take part in sewing and drawing. But it soon became much more to Afisa. And Zoi became much more than a facilitator.
“We discussed a lot about my toddler’s nutrition and the importance of breastfeeding and baby care. It was helpful!” explained Afisa. “I wanted to find a job and there was nobody to take care of my children. Zoi told me about daycare services in Greece and helped me to apply for it in the city.”
Zoi was also able to support Asifa to find work by connecting Afisa to Solidary Now’s employment services, offering information sessions on employment workshops and help to write a CV and look for vacancies.
“Asifa made an important decision when she left her old life behind and resolved to build a new one for herself and her children,” said Zoi.
“Nowadays, I live a peaceful, happy life with my sons in Greece. I can’t think of a better place for my family!” Asifa said.
She added, “I am excited about my new job as an interpreter for Solidarity Now. I decided to take my life in my own hands; I raise my sons on my own and nobody can limit me. And please, from now on, call me by my chosen Greek name: Anastasia, which means “resurrection”!”
UNICEF supports Women and Girls’ Safe Spaces like the Female Friendly Space in several countries. Many who have come have found useful information for their everyday life, a space to relax, be creative, make friends, opportunities to develop and talk about difficult subjects, such as experiences with gender-based violence, and are supported in facilitated disclosure.
"I can keep away negative thoughts… this gives me strength and I can transmit it to other people"
Hannah came to Italy from Nigeria when she was still a teenager. Today, the 19-year-old is a driver of positive social change and design solutions to the challenges she and other young women like her, have faced.
Hannah’s journey to Italy was encouraged by her mother, Fatima, who was forced into marriage at 11 years old and became a mother at 12. Fatima told Hannah to look for a better future elsewhere and so at the age of 16, Hannah decided to leave Nigeria. Hannah’s journey took her to Libya then across the Mediterranean Sea to the Italian coast.
Hannah explained how her life has inspired her to speak up, often through her main passion, writing.
When she met UNICEF over a year ago, she became an ambassador of U-Report on the Move, a UNICEF virtual community designed to connect young refugees and migrants, and to facilitate sharing of essential information, including access to service.
Hannah helps to disseminate critical information on GBV risks and support services available for survivors. This is particularly critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, when migrant and refugee women and girls in Italy and elsewhere face additional challenges in accessing information and support.
As a U-Report on the Move ambassador, Hannah takes forward UNICEF’s values and commitment towards gender equality by actively participating in meetings with institutions such as members of parliament, in which she brings the voice of her peers, like her, have embarked on similar journeys to safety.
Hannah also uses her platform to reach out to young refugees and migrants and take on difficult subjects that need to be addressed. “We need to talk about violence,” stated Hannah. “Violence is something I have witnessed, and it characterizes the experience of many migrant and refugee women and girls before, during and after their migration journey.”
Hannah hopes that by talking about these experiences she will reach young survivors of violence. She hopes that the information she provides helps others to reflect on their own experiences and ask for support. “This is a reason to talk about violence: to say that everyone has the right to be protected and to live the life they dream of.”
“Today, girls can achieve a lot if they are self-confident and focused”
Aya and Sakina* currently live in a shelter for unaccompanied and separated refugee and migrant girls in Loznica, in western Serbia.
The weather was just starting to get warmer and 17-year-old Aya from Congo, was looking out of her window, dreaming about spending more time outdoors and playing football. Aya arrived in Serbia on her own. For her and many other girls like her, traveling alone along migration routes was notoriously dangerous.
In shelters and reception facilities such as the one where Aya and Sakina live, UNICEF and partners focus on sensitizing and enhancing the capacity of frontline workers on issues related to gender equality, gender-based violence and the specific situation of unaccompanied and separated girls.
Restrictions imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 has made it even harder for Aya and other girls to cope with being away from their families and being in a new environment. However, Aya says the measures in place in the shelter made her feel safe. She spends her free time staying in touch with her family and friends online, and also enjoys relaxing with friends.
Aya’s goal is to become a nurse. “I want to be able to help others,” she said.
While she is waiting to enroll to school with the help of her guardian, Aya is studying English and Serbian and attends different workshops.
“I can’t cook, but I hope I can learn while I’m here. I would like to prepare the African fufu dish for the girls who live with me,” said Aya.
One of Aya’s friends is Sakina, a fifteen-year-old girl who is about to start her final year of primary school. Sakina loves drawing and her many interests make it hard for her to decide what she wants to become when she grows up.
“Maybe I will become a singer or maybe even a lawyer, or maybe a stylist because I love drawing dresses,” Sakina said.
Both Sakina and Aya are sure about one thing: you need to believe in yourself if you want to achieve your goals.
“Today, girls can achieve a lot if they are self-confident and focused,” said Aya.
UNICEF works with migrant and refugee young women and girls to ensure their safety, protection, well-being and advance their rights. The stories highlighted here are part of UNICEF’s sub-regional program in Europe ‘Action Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Affecting Refugee and Migrant Women and Children in Greece, Italy, Serbia and Bulgaria’ implemented with the generous contribution from the Government of the United States.
*The names of unaccompanied refugee and migrant girls have been changed for their protection.