"Refugee is not my name. My name is Eden."
This weekend UNHCR recognised two exceptional refugees for their outstanding work to empower refugee and migrant women in the UK. Taking centre stage at Southbank Centre’s WOW - Women of the World Festival in London – which attracts an audience of 25,000 people each year - were young British-Yazidi woman Rozin Hanjool and Eden Habtemichael, who fled Eritrea when her life was under threat.
Journalist and awards host Samira Ahmed explained why the Women on the Move Awards, organised by UNHCR and Migrants Organise and now in their sixth year, are so important. “Our winners tonight speak out against hate and prejudice,” she said. “They show us what refugees are able to achieve with a little a bit of good will and welcome from us, and a lot of hard work and resilience from them.”
Woman of the Year Eden fled from Eritrea to the UK in 2001 as a single mother with her two year-old daughter and applied for asylum. Alone and scared, at one point she became homeless and destitute.
“I loved my country, I loved my life. But I lost everything,” she explained. “I didn’t plan to come to the UK, but as a refugee you don’t have a choice. I gave what I could to the smugglers and they left me at Heathrow airport. In Oxford I just sat in the park while my daughter played, and I counted the cars. I didn’t know how to raise my daughter. I felt I had to end my life."
All my life I have fought. Even if I wanted to, I can’t stop - it’s in my blood to do this kind of work.
Once granted refugee status, she resolved to help other women and children in the asylum system. Eden has since worked indefatigably to find families in Oxford with spare rooms willing to host a refugee so that no one has to face destitution like her and her daughter. Two teenage boys she found sleeping rough after arriving from Calais are now heading to university after getting A*s in their A-levels, thanks to Eden’s work in helping them find a family.
She is also a tireless campaigner against female genital mutilation, working with the National Health Service on a pioneering smartphone app to educate doctors, medical staff and communities of the dangers of cutting young girls. She has consistently taken a stand and given women a voice, even though she has been beaten and ostracised for doing so.
“It is not in our culture to speak out, but hundreds of children are dying in the sea. And we are human beings, we can contribute too. All my life I have fought. Even if I wanted to, I can’t stop - it’s in my blood to do this kind of work.”
Friday night’s ceremony also recognised nineteen year-old Rozin Hanjool as Young Woman of the Year. Part of the Yazidi minority group from northern Iraq, Rozin was just ten years-old when her family fled to the UK after attacks from extremist militants.
It was while still finishing her A-levels in Coventry that Rozin started an online petition appealing to the UK Government to support and protect abducted and enslaved Yazidi girls. Within 24 hours, the petition gathered 25,000 signatures and two years on it has now amassed over 260,000 signatures.
Rozin explained what drove her to take action: “When I saw that girls as young as nine were being enslaved by ISIS, I thought, that could have been me. They don’t have a voice in captivity, but I can be a voice for them.”
They don’t have a voice in captivity, but I can be a voice for them.
Rozin is determined to bring the petition back to the UK government and secure a commitment to extend urgent assistance to Yazidi girls in Iraq. She studies law and human rights at university and campaigns actively in her free time.
The awards were presented by UNHCR’s Representative to the UK Gonzalo Vargas Llosa, alongside Anita Rani (Countryfile, Strictly Come Dancing) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey). The Sue Lloyd-Roberts Media Award was presented to Christina Lamb, Senior Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times, for her outstanding reporting of the refugee crisis. Recognition was also given to former child refugee Lord Alfred Dubs as Champion of the Year for his campaigning to provide sanctuary in the UK to unaccompanied refugee children seeking protection in Europe.
In the context of escalating conflicts, a rising death toll for refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe, and restrictive asylum polices, the Women on the Move Awards are a showcase for how local activism can have a positive impact on people’s lives. As Lord Dubs declared: “There’s no point in just talking. You have to do something. Now go out and do it!”
The ceremony’s last word went to Woman of the Year 2017: “I would like to change how people see refugees. People call me refugee, but refugee is not my name. My name is Eden. This is me, I can do something. We can work together, and if we cannot change the world, we can change what the world thinks about women and refugees and children too.”