International Women’s Day at UNHCR Malta
Two women dream and rebuild their lives in Malta, despite obstacles faced.
© UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
On International Women’s Day, a day allocated to celebrating women and raising awareness about their rights, The Malta Independent and UNHCR Malta meet up with two women who, after fleeing war and conflict, are rebuilding their lives and marching ahead, despite the challenges of a new community. Eman and Maram face various obstacles, including discrimination, yet still get on with their days. Heads held high, make-up carefully applied, and hijabs neatly placed, they are seeking to improve their lives and those of their family members, while making the world a better place.
Eman stands in the middle of her newly-relocated hair and make-up salon in Hamrun. She has moved merely a stone’s throw away from her previous shop, but this one is better; more light, more space, and more customers, hopefully. Back in Libya she built a career around journalism and design, but here in Malta, she is looking to pursue a career linked with another passion of hers; ‘making people feel beautiful’, as she puts it. Her shop is for women only, a space where clients can chit-chat and talk about personal issues in a welcoming environment, whilst getting their hair or make-up done. What makes it even more special is that it is the only one of its kind within the locality.
We ask her what she likes about her profession. “Many, many things,” she replies, with the help of a translator. Her body language presents her as confident and head-strong. She laughs out loudly frequently; that type of laugh which makes you laugh, even when you do not understand the joke. “I’ll tell you, (when a customer) comes to my salon and changes her style, and she starts to feel happy about that, you know, this makes me really happy as well. When I see this happiness in the eyes of my customer I feel really happy and proud of myself!”
She is close to fluent in Maltese, but the translator is there so that Eman, a Libyan national, can express herself more comfortably in her mother tongue.
Eman has been living in Malta since 2015 and has, like many other refugees and migrants here, lived through a beginning which was tough. Migrant Women Association Malta helped make Eman’s experience in Malta better, as she found herself meeting people who she can relate to, making her feel less alone in her circumstances where it was hard to get up on her own two feet and fit in the society she found herself in.
Her salon feels like home for the Arab community, who enjoy a sense of familiarity in visiting Eman’s shop. “This was a strong point for me,” she said. “(The clients say) that we feel like we’re in our homeland.”
Eman has Maltese clients too. Some are surprised at her knowledge of the Maltese language, which Eman claims to have learnt in merely three months, by mingling with elderly locals. She believes that her Maltese clients choose her services because of a natural hair treatment done within Arabic culture, which is not so common in Malta.
Maltese women who entrust Eman with their hair are mostly elderly women, and having them choosing her has helped her feel more integrated to an extent. She even has an elderly Maltese neighbor who occasionally takes food over to Eman’s house.
On the other hand, Eman speaks of the “younger” women in the street, who walk past her without a blink of acknowledgement. “Old ladies are surely friendlier than the young. My elderly neighbor used to bring me food sometimes. The younger women don’t look at me, they don’t care about me. Sometimes they look at me badly,” she said. Eman adds that she thinks migrant men have a much easier time to integrate than migrant women.
Eman’s position as a business owner is not the norm amongst the female refugee and migrant community. Due to various barriers, most work in cleaning services, and illegal employment is common. “Some more educated women maybe find it easier to find work, but others, still ‘fresh’ or new to this environment still do not know what to do in this society. They are also scared to communicate with men… there are some women who never spoke to strangers, or to men (other than family members) before they came to Malta.” She suggests that this cultural factor may be one of the reasons as to why men find it easier to find work. However, wearing a hijab is also a hindrance, as it can inspire hostility. In their recent encounters with refugee women, UNHCR have noted that some have had negative experiences when working or looking for employment, especially because of discrimination towards women for wearing a hijab.
Eman’s dream for the future is merely to excel in her business. She credits her mother, a teacher by profession, for instilling in her the priority to be independent, and to take pride in education and work. For Eman, her beauty salon is a source of empowerment. “You have more freedom when you open your own business, I’m in control” she smiled.
Maram walks up the stairs of MCAST to meet us next to her faculty, where she is pursuing a diploma as a pharmacy technician. From where we are standing, two buildings rise up higher than the rest but in line with each other; the mosque and the church; a fitting juxtaposition for the conversation we are about to have.
She is 22 years old and sports a nose ring, smart clothes and eyeliner which looks like it requires patienceand a steady hand to apply. Originally from Eritrea, Maram’s family migrated to Saudi Arabia before she was born. The family then went to Norway when Maram was 15, and to Malta a year later. In a soft-spoken voice, Maram tells her story in fluent English, where influences of her six years in Malta are evident in certain nuances within her dialect.
Like many other students within the college, her goal in the foreseeable future is moving on to the next stage of education, and ultimately starting that career you have been longing to pursue. For Maram, that is furthering her studies at university to eventually work as a pharmacist. “I am interested in preparing and giving medicine,” she explains. Currently gaining experience through a placement at Mater Dei pharmacy, she lights up as she says how she loves meeting different people through the job.
Maram is part of the refugee-led NGO Spark15, who organize events in order to help people with similar backgrounds to her connect within the local community. Her need for activism was ignited through her own occasional bump-ins with intolerance, of which she is the target. But how bad is it on a day to day basis?
“I am facing a lot,” Maram nods. Although she has been in the college for four years now, she still cannot say that she has a friend who is Maltese. Her group of friends is limited to people from her community. When she just started MCAST four years ago, she was the only girl in the school wearing a hijab.
“When I was younger I didn’t have the confidence to speak up,” she said, saying that over the years, her confidence has grown, and she has more courage to stand up for herself. As the multicultural community within the school grew, Maram now feels more comfortable with other people from similar backgrounds in her class.
Nonetheless, sneering behind her back is frequent, and her learning of the Maltese language means that now she can understand exactly what othersare saying. Maram recalls a time when a teacher stood up for her, she points towards him as he passes us in the hall, and speaks highly of him remembering his kindness.
Having experienced life in Norway, Maram compares the two European countries, and, despite belonging to the same continent, Maram cannot correlate the two when it comes to integration.
“Norway is completely different to Malta when it comes to racism,” she said. “It is like the sky and the ground.” “How people treat you there is very different. In Norway, in one week, I felt that I was part of society, with neighbours and friends; I (even) had Norwegian friends. When I came here, I was surprised to be honest.” Schemes in Norway make it compulsory for migrants to learn Norwegian in order to help them find work and integrate. Malta only recently launched an integration framework aimed for the integration of migrants in Malta.
Echoing Eman’s words, Maram raises the difficulty to find a job when wearing a hijab, as well as being declined the possibility to rent a place because of your nationality. She also recalls her experience in the Hal Far camp, where she did not feel safe. “We always had to go to the bathroom with my brother, who would wait outside for us.”
Also like Eman, Maram sees her mother as a person of inspiration, along with human rights activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai. “My mum always reminds me to be patient, especially with those who don’t like me,” she said. With her honesty and gentle nature shining through, the end of that sentence seems somewhat strange, and we find it hard to come up with a logical reason why anyone would despise Maram.
Asked for her own advice for people who may be going through similar situations, Maram says “do not give up, stand up for what you believe, continue education, speak up, and know your rights.”
In fact, education and speaking up are two factors which are repeatedly used to encourage migrants to rise above discrimination and persevere. Umayma Elamin, another inspirational woman here in Malta and founder of Migrant Women Association Malta, also speaks of these factors. “We encourage women to raise their voices, and to empower them enough to share their skills. One of the keys to this is to look for opportunities regardless of their situations.” Both Eman and Maram’s stories bear testament to this as they continue to pursue, with hard work and determination, a fulfilling life in their new home.
*This article originally appeared in The Malta Independent, 8 March 2018.