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Image credit: Myriam Thyes

Farah Abdi's blog: The power of complex identities

Farah Abdi's blog: The power of complex identities

Vulnerability within vulnerability

Refugees tend to be a vulnerable group. Imagine fleeing everything you know and finding yourself in a new environment where you have to start life from scratch. Most of the time, starting over is even harder because of the physical and psychological trauma suffered on our way to safety.

But there is an interesting concept of vulnerability within vulnerability. This is a situation where a refugee who is already a minority in their host nation, finds themself on the margins of society because of another aspect of their identity. Women refugees and Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) refugees fit this criteria.

In Malta, for example, Muslim refugee women who wear the hijab have a difficult time finding employment simply by exercising their right to practice their faith. There have been cases where employers have thrown their CV's in the trash whenever they have tried to apply for a job. So you have a situation, for example, where such a woman finds herself in an abusive relationship, which she has to stay in because she can not work to take care of herself.

I wanted to shine a light on this oppressive situation when I contacted Zainab. Zainab is a Somali woman who used to share an apartment with me a few years ago. I was a primary witness to the struggle she was going through in the job market. In fact, she had to move out of the apartment because she was unable to pay the rent after not finding employment. She is now living in Hal Far, a trailer park open centre where refugees who can't afford to rent houses in the community are housed in old shipping containers.

 Shipping containers behind barbed wire at Hal-far Refugee camp

Shipping containers (trailers) behind the barbed wire at Hal-far Refugee camp.
Photo by Myriam Thyes

We agreed to meet there on Thursday the 5 May. The strong seasonal May wind was howling through the camp when I arrived. The corridors were bustling. The trailers were cluttered. There was noisy chatter here, noisy chatter there. Friends were greeting each other with a hug or a playful punch while newcomers stood looking scared. The grass was damp and covered in a thin layer of frost. As I walked my footprints were embedded, leaving a piece of me in the cold ground. I managed to push past the constant stream of people, finally making it to Zainab's container.

She was sitting in a big wicker chair on the porch. Her legs neatly tucked under her and hidden from sight. Today her hair was woven into braids, nothing fancy, just to keep it out of her face.

Looking at her, I could see a woman who was ready to give up on life. She was in her late 20s but held herself like her upper spine was rubber, shoulders falling forwards in a way that would be more befitting a grandmother. She had a primrose cotton dress on that was styled in a way that suggested it was homemade, and not by a skilled hand either. I guessed she had to resort to making her own clothes because she couldn't afford to buy new attire.

“Hey Zainab!” I began our conversation. Excited to catch up after months of not seeing each other. We talked for approximately 30 minutess before we got to the conversation at hand. “Are you frustrated with the lack of opportunity due to the fact that you are a Muslim woman?” I asked.

The masked smile she had been wearing on her face earlier on began to melt as she tried to explain her true emotions.

“As a young Somali woman, I have been conditioned by close kin and friends from an early age to dream of nothing more than to be a housewife. As a young Somali woman coming of age in Malta, there was another whiplash of cultural confusion that I had to recover from again and again: that trying to work for a better future doesn’t necessarily mean that the wider Maltese community, with its own preconceived notions of what constitutes a 'valid' identity, will embrace me any more welcomingly than my own prejudiced kinsfolk do.”

With this, it was clear that sadness and hopelessness was sitting inside her like the germ seed of depression – waiting for the right conditions to grow, to send out roots and choke the hope of a better tomorrow. My advice to her?

“Before giving up on your dreams, pinch your skin, tug at your hair. Remind yourself that you are alive. Remind yourself to step outside and greet the morning. Remind yourself of the old English saying, 'It gets darker before dawn!'”