Migrants’ Take: Learn How Mariam is committed to giving young women a voice through art
While finalizing her first studies at a university in Sierra Leone, Mariam (33) could never have guessed that “Street Art Together” would struck her that much.
“Street Art Together” is a new innovative and creative awareness raising activity developed by IOM in West and Central Africa in partnership with Street Art Sans Frontières. As a volunteer for Migrants as Messengers (MaM) in Guinea, Mariam quickly saw the opportunity to create a space for young adults where they can meet, socialize, and express themselves through “Street Art Together". Mariam experienced first-hand how these gatherings often boost their potential to create, interact and break existing perceptions around migration, health and the role of women in their community.
Mariam joined the Migrants as Messenger Guinea Volunteer team in early May 2020, after returning from a migratory journey that kept her in transit country Morocco for four years -from 2014 – 2018. She never made it to her sister in Germany, the instigator and sponsor of her travel project. At that time, she was a single mother who had entrusted her children with her grandmother in the hope she could give them a better life once she reaches Europe. Being trapped in Morocco as a single black African mother made her quickly realise that not only the journey would be an ordeal but also the stigmatisation - because of her colour, gender and origins, she experienced to during her journey.
Mariam is trying to make herself feel more confident day by day. Witnessing how she is having the same impact on other women and how her experiences can contribute to a better understanding of the role of women in her community fuels her personal development. As a result, Mariam became a facilitator of the Street Art Together initiative focusing on engaging young women to express their voice through art.
Safe migration for a single woman
To Mariam, the spirit that the Street Art Together provokes, allows her to participate in discussions, that were long taboo to the community (but not to her): on how migration for women can be a way to increase access to productive assets – such as land, information, finance, education – and economic opportunities.
On a wall in Conakry passers-by can read: “Une femme épanouie = une société rayonnante et une migration sûre et digne” ; means a blossoming woman = a vibrant society and safe migration). This is one of the direct results of the “Street Art Together” activity organized with local artists, young adults, community activists like Mariam. Some people who solely enjoy Street Art Together from an external point of view, can find it very recognisable. For others who are in the process of creating Street Art Together like Mariam, it can be a visual marker of an aspirational spirit of female independence.
The exit has no direction
Mariam dates a turning point in her life to mid 2014, when, as a mother, she was faced with pressing economic and marital problems. "I was unwillingly married to a cousin of mine who was jobless. And my business wasn't working well either. We were obliged to live on debts to carter for our two children. So, I chose to leave with the hope of changing this situation once and for all" she explains.
After many unsuccessful attempts to reach the European shores through Morocco and with no money left, Mariam found herself in a dead end. This was the hardest part of the journey for her. "I worked for a year in a sub-Saharan restaurant. Being an irregular migrant, I was evidently underpaid. I tried so many jobs to survive. But in a country where our bags are snatched from us, our belongings stolen, we are called many different names, all without being able to lift a finger; you quickly realise that their lies no future for you there. In the end your options are rare: prostitution or going back home.”
Humanity for African women
The moment she managed to return to Guinea and re-joined her family, Mariam saw the impact her experiences had her surroundings. The homecoming was one without glamour and dances of joy. Her family-in-law and even her brother were not able to hide their disappointment. As often happens, loved ones can take the rarest opportunity to express these things they have been trying to get off their chest for a while. One can argue that it can also be the classic breeding ground for the persistence of stereotypes in Mariam’s community: women have their place at home and nowhere else. “These experiences made me realise that there was a pattern of women being placed in very dangerous positions both at home and out there,” she explains. “I want to create the image of confidence and strength to encourage myself to find joy and happiness in my country and within my community.”
“Humanity, for an African woman on the move or at home, should not be overdue,” she says with a laugh and a shrug. “We’ve reserved so much of our time and effort for other people, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t invest that in ourselves.”
Mariam is in no rush to migrate again –and she relishes the freedom to keep experimenting and evolving, venturing into new territory. She now collaborates with local artist platforms and collectives while proudly presenting photos of her work to whom it may please. Being able to revel in and represent the role of women in her society has been transformative. Call it humanity.
This story was written by Tijs Magagi Hoornaert, Communication Consultant for IOM.