Refugee and migrant participation in civil society is growing, with the emergence of organisations led by the very people they seek to support. We met six individuals to discuss the power of their voice, challenges facing refugees and migrants in Malta, and how they are working to carve out a better future for their communities.
It is getting dark when we set up for the photoshoot at the studio in Rabat, our participants preparing to have their portraits taken. The atmosphere is lively, some sharing tips about navigating the sometimes challenging reality of being a refugee or migrant in Malta.
Our six interviewees left their homes for different reasons: from seeking more opportunities for their family, to escaping a conflict-ridden country. Yet they now face somewhat similar situations. They are working, studying and building a life in Malta, and like other refugees and migrants, they sometimes face obstacles integrating into a society that is unfamiliar, and not always welcoming.
What they also have in common is that they are taking matters into their own hands. Umayma Elamin, Mohammed Mousa, Abdiwahab Ali Nour, Ali Konate, Asma, and Mohamed Hassan (Moe) all form part of organisations and associations in which they take an active role, empowering and advocating for refugees and migrants. With first-hand experience of migration and displacement, they have a particular understanding of their communities’ needs.
They shared some of their thoughts on the importance of giving refugees and migrants the opportunity to lead.
“Most migrant communities get help and support [from local NGOs]… but I wanted to find an explicit role for migrants”, says Umayma Elamin of Migrant Women Association Malta (MWAM). Launched in 2015 with the support of SOS Malta and the Voluntary Commission, the organisation provides English lessons, projects related to violence against women, and is soon to launch SAHA! – a food catering enterprise – following a fundraising campaign.
"We aim to support any woman who has decided to move to Malta for any reason. To empower her, give her the opportunity to be independent, and to raise her voice." Umayma Elamin, Migrant Women Association. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
"It is necessary for migrants and refugees to start their own organisation or community group because no one feels the pain of the migrant as much as the migrants themselves." Mohammed Mousa, Sudanese Migrant Association. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
"A community is about finding a voice for your people… we can understand the needs of our people, and we can reach them, in a way that others, like the government, cannot." Abdiwahab Ali Nour, Somali Community in Malta. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
"We believe it’s more than setting up an NGO or creating a community, it’s about being authentic, and representing some people who might not be able to do so without the help of the community." Mohamed Hassan, Spark15. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
"It’s always good when people know the importance of their freedom and dignity, and what they stand for, with the help of supporters." Ali Konate, Migrant Network for Equality. © UNHCR/Joanna Demarco
Umayma feels she has a responsibility to inspire women to find their voices. “My cultural background is Muslim, African and Arabic at the same time, so I find myself as a person who encourages other women from the same cultures to speak up.” Umayma mentions that MWAM have been fortunate enough to receive support from the government. Besides official recognition as an NGO, another priority was establishing a base, and they now operate from an office in Mosta.
For the Sudanese Migrant Association, having a space of their own has also been crucial. They organise English, Maltese and art lessons at their community centre in Hamrun, where they also host meals and events.
Mohammed Mousa, their president, explains how the space brought the community together: “Some of the Sudanese diaspora in Malta did not know each other… so we needed a place to talk about our problems, share our ideas, get together and feel more united.”
At the same time, he emphasises that it’s not exclusively for Sudanese, “We open it to all nationalities… in the English classes we have students from Eritrea and Ivory Coast.” Locals are welcome too, indeed the volunteer teachers are Maltese, and locals have attended various activities, including a documentary screening.
One recently established organisation, though still without its own permanent space, is the Somali community. They are already an active group, vocal within UNHCR-facilitated discussions on asylum issues and integration. Abdiwahab is a new member of the Somali community in Malta and motivated to support other refugees. A big issue facing him is that several members of his community have no long-term residency options here. Additionally, for people who have never known stability in their home country, Abdiwahab observes that “a lot of the young generation [of Somalis) are struggling to find a job because they don’t have the skills needed, or language skills. We want to find a way for them to develop”.
Perhaps the most pressing issue for these communities is social inclusion, and some of their projects aim to tackle that in a practical way. “Sometimes we feel there is a wall between migrants and Maltese” says Mohammed Mousa, “When you make a community you can communicate… through culture or events”.
Ali Konate, from Mali, has a similar view. Members of refugee and migrant led organisations, he says, “create a bridge between migrants and Maltese, for them to get to know each other, and to understand cultural differences.” Locals also gain respect for refugees and migrants when they see that they are becoming active in society.
In 2009, Ali and other activists set up Migrants’ Network for Equality. He organised protests in 2012 that challenged the conditions in migrant reception centres. This was following the killing of Mamadou Kamara in detention, a tragedy that inspired the group to act, and with their actions they aimed to address a number of issues facing the refugee and migrant community at the time: limited access to rights, racism, and lack of opportunity. Now Ali maintains contact with NGOs, reacting to policy or developments on migration and asylum.
Ali strongly believes that refugees and migrants should recognise their strengths: “The challenges involved are sometimes a lack of understanding of why we should stand up and help ourselves, not only expecting others to do things for us, but working together.”
This is a view echoed by Asma, who has been in Malta since 1999, and one of the founding members of LIBICO – a Libyan community organisation. When asked why LIBICO was set up, Asma reflects that “it is often the case that many projects aimed at bettering the livelihood of migrants and their integration are led by entities and organisations that do not embrace migrants within their team… they are detached from reality.”
The idea is to create unity, no matter where in Libya their members come from, their legal status or their political affiliations. LIBICO meets regularly for educational, cultural, social and youth projects.
Sometimes an initiative sparks from a single issue that affects a generation. This is the case for Spark15, a youth, refugee-led organisation, which addresses access to education, among other things. Moe, one of the founding members says: “We are collaborating with Integra, Dr. Giuliana Fenech of University of Malta and volunteer teachers on a project that ensures access to Foundation Studies at university.” The project prepares refugees and asylum seekers for their IELTS (English language) test, a requirement to enter higher education.
Spark15 is made up of young people with an energetic spirit. Appealing to the younger generation means communicating with them in a creative way. They recently launched SparkMedia, a video channel which so far includes interviews and reflections on current affairs and local culture – including Maltese buses. The idea is to inform, educate and entertain, while challenging local perceptions of refugees and migrants.
The increase in refugee and migrant participation is promising; members of communities are becoming more empowered. Through self-representation, refugee and migrant-led communities are making and will continue to make an impact both within their communities, and with the wider public.
They are also instrumental in the work of UNHCR Malta, which has increased its engagement with refugee and migrant-led communities, regularly involving them in activities, connecting them with policy makers and the public sector, and giving them support to reach their potential.
We believe we should appreciate the resilience of those displaced amongst us, as well as recognise the positive contributions they are making towards a more socially inclusive society.
*This article originally appeared in the Malta Independent on Sunday, FIRST magazine, June 2018 issue.