Image: Rifat Ahmed
Imagine being surrounded by violence so constant and acute that you had to choose: leave or die. Imagine then having to leave your home without knowing where you were going. Imagine leaving without your friends, family, or even anyone that you recognised. This is currently the reality of millions of people around the world.
So much is written about the refugee crisis that it’s difficult to know how to even begin to understand it. Fundamentally, however, what’s important to know is that globally, 59.5 million people are displaced. That number is so large that it just becomes a statistic. It’s impossible to even imagine what that amount of people would look like. But each and every single one of those people experiences fear, has memories, loves. They’re human beings, not just a number.
In celebration of that fact, the Women on the Move Awards recognises refugee women who have somehow managed to leave their homes and make a new life for themselves here in the UK. Women who are now working to help other refugees, helping them to integrate in their communities, enabling them to feel empowered.
This year’s ceremony takes place in London on Friday, as part of the Women of the World Festival. The winners have been announced ahead of the ceremony, and their stories will inspire you.
Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf is this year’s Woman of the Year. She arrived in this country in 2008, having fled Somalia. As she explains, “My tribe was being prosecuted by the other majority tribes. We were the victims. They were burning houses, raping women, killing the men. It was not safe to be there.” Mariam had to leave without her two children, although she was convinced that they would soon join her. Alone and afraid, she arrived in the UK where, eight years later (and having been detained, destitute and homeless), Mariam has dedicated her time to help asylum-seekers, ensuring they don’t endure the same hardships.
Mariam is being celebrated for her tireless support for women’s rights, particulary for those who have fallen victim to domestic abuse and FGM. Speaking about her win, Mariam says: “If we did not speak out, no one would know what happened to us. It’s important for a woman who is vulnerable to say to the community that she is living in, ‘I am here, I am human’. I have come from a terrible background, but I have come so far. Winning the award means that somebody, somewhere, has been watching what I’ve been doing and my work hasn’t gone unnoticed. It gives me the courage and energy to go out there and do more.” Mariam lives in hope of seeing her children again.
Also among the winners is 21-year old Seada Fekadu, 2016’s Young Woman of the Year. At just 16 she fled her home in Eritrea, East Africa, finding her way to the UK via Calais. She told The Guardian: “In Calais, they put you in a truck, you don’t have a choice. ‘You have to take this one,’ the agent said. I didn’t know where I was going. The truck dropped us near a police station, they found us a translator and after two hours, social services came.”
Image: Rifat Ahmed
Since arriving in the country Seada has become a mentor and role model, volunteering to help young people experiencing similar struggles. “I was in Calais for three days on my own,” she says. “I found myself wearing all the clothes I had because the weather was so cold. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. This is an opportunity to help other people. I want to become a doctor. That’s my dream.”
It may be difficult to imagine experiencing such hardships at all, let alone at such a young age, but Seada seems determined to use her own experiences to change things. “I was always told that even as a girl, you should have the right to speak up, to choose your future and make a difference to your country,” she says. “I couldn’t do that in Eritrea, but here in the UK I want to help others because I have been given a new chance in life. I want people to know that refugees are human too. We may come from a different part of the world but if we help each other we can make a difference.”
Other awards include the Media Award, for which Marie Claire‘s Acting Features Director, Corinne Redfern, was nominated for her story chronicling the journey of Aysha and her two children. Forced to flee her home in Aleppo, Syria, when her street was bombed, Aysha embarked on the perilous jounrey from Syria to Europe pregnant, and with her two small children in tow. Her husband, a doctor, stayed in Syria to try and provide medical help where possible, and Aysha attempted to make it to Germany, where she thought she’d be safe.
Image: Georgios Makkas
“I don’t know what I was expecting when I got to Munich – I was just heading to the safest place I could think of, where we could bide our time before returning to Syria when the war ends,” Aysha said. “Everyone I know wants to go back.”
Reports of people dying as they attempt to enter Europe are now communicated on an almost daily basis, proving that the ‘refugee crisis’ in only getting worse. As world leaders struggle to find a solution, thousands more people die- 56% of whom are women and children- or at best find themselves alone, in a foreign country, without resources, friends or even their family.
Thanks to the work of individuals like Mariam and Seada, refugees arriving in the UK have cause to hope. As Kirsten Van Balen, Communications Trustee/Director at Young Roots, a charity which works to help young refugees says of Seada: “She had to fight really hard both for her official status [in the UK] but also to get her life in order. She did it by herself. To go through all of that and then to decide to share her story and to represent other refugees, that deserves all of our respect and celebration.”