By Claire O’Brien
I was in a drug store in Alexandria, Virginia, when I witnessed the unhappy moment in an immigrant woman’s experience. She was young, 19 years old, maybe. She stood at the register, wearing the store’s blue polo shirt, her hijab framing her pretty features. She spoke English with confidence as she assisted shoppers purchasing deodorant, birthday cards and beer.
It was a busy afternoon, and a line formed at the checkout. A dozen customers and I did a decent job reflecting the ethnic diversity of the Washington, DC, area while waiting to pay for our items.
Then, the screaming started.
The customer appeared to be in her 60s. A white woman, her impeccable clothing and jewelry hinted at her wealth. But her rage — directed at the young woman in the hijab at the register — ignited from her frustration with being unable to purchase the paper towels she preferred.
It was unclear what happened exactly. Maybe the product was out of stock, or the young clerk had misunderstood this woman’s request. Still, the customer’s contempt for the young clerk’s existence was undeniable. With words dipped in venom, the older woman attacked: “Learn to speak English if you’re going to live here.”
The other customers and I stared, paralyzed by what was unfolding before us. The young clerk remained silent. Her lowered eyes welled with tears as the angry customer concluded her rant by marching out of the store.
In the United States, we begin absorbing immigration’s complicated role in our national identity from our first day of school. If you’re from an immigrant family, and 19 percent of Americans like myself are, the education starts even earlier: translating your parents’ accents to your friends, celebrating ‘extra’ holidays and that summer spent overseas meeting strangers called “Auntie” and “Uncle.”
“Half of today’s 272 million migrants are women and girls, and even though they’re 50 percent of the displaced population, female migrants face much higher risks of violence and discrimination. Despite these statistics, migration is rarely seen as a feminist issue.”
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1980s and 1990s. A cultural tapestry of pride, shame, struggle and appropriation wove itself through school lunches that served Mexican-style street tacos one day and Vietnamese noodle bowls the next.
Classroom lesson topics were a mash-up of Ellis Island, the first Thanksgiving and the American Dream versus the Trail of Tears, slavery and Japanese-American internment camps. We studied Spanish, French or Japanese and spent weekends attending classmates’ bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras, Irish family weddings and Indian barbecues.
Diversity is celebrated. And it’s not.
In absolute numbers, the United States has the largest population of immigrants in the world, 47 million foreign-born people in 2015. However, that number is dwarfed by the 272 million people globally that the United Nations classified as migrants in 2019.
But human migration isn’t a new phenomenon.
Inextricably linked with our deep evolutionary history, women’s global movements are traced back millennia. By studying our mitochondrial DNA — the genetic component we all inherit unchanged from our mothers — scientists follow the maternal lines of inheritance of modern humans back to our origins in Africa, and the subsequent migration of women and their descendants around the globe.
Half of today’s 272 million migrants are women and girls, and even though they’re 50 percent of the displaced population, female migrants face much higher risks of violence and discrimination. Despite these statistics, migration is rarely seen as a feminist issue.
With over one hundred million women on the global move at one time, it’s impossible to characterize a ‘typical’ migrant. But it’s also equally impossible to live in the world and not bear witness to their stories.
In the early 1970s, my mother emigrated to the United States alone. She was in her early twenties, the only child of a coal miner. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities in her working-class town in Northern England, she enlisted in the military as a way out. But fate intervened in the form of a postal strike, preventing the acceptance letter from reaching her. Ever resourceful, she answered an advertisement in the back of a magazine. Instead of joining the Royal Air Force, my mother found herself in Boston, Massachusetts, as a child carer for a British family.
My mother moved to the U.S. in pursuit of a higher standard of living, which, by the UN’s categorization, made her an ‘economic migrant.’ In 2017, 164 million migrant workers sought economic opportunities abroad. A recent UN report explains that women now represent a significant proportion of economic migrants and an overwhelming majority of migrant domestic workers.
Not only are female migrant workers facing double the discrimination as their male counterparts — xenophobia, plus sexism — women are consistently marginalized, undervalued and seen as disposable for the work they perform. They’re also at risk from sexual exploitation, trafficking, violence and lack of access to medical care. However, policies aimed at providing support to migrant workers rarely consider the specific needs of women.
To combat gaps in government services, non-profit organizations focused on serving women migrant workers have been established by women, often immigrants themselves. They recognize that empowering these vulnerable women strengthens the community overall.
One such woman is Arielle Kandle, a French immigrant to the United States. She believes that vast potential exists in every immigrant woman’s contribution to the city’s fabric, regardless of her national origin, cultural background or educational level. She founded the non-profit organization New Women, New Yorkers to ease the experience of immigrant women who’ve recently moved to New York City through workforce development, networking programs, community building and storytelling.
In December 2019, the organization hosted a storytelling event called “Finding a Job in America — A Night of Comedy and Horror, presented by Immigrant Women.” Dozens of women from China, Colombia, Ecuador, Guinea, India, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine bravely stood before the large audience and shared their narratives through much laughter and tears.
Climate Change and Disaster Displacement
Over a hundred years before my mother boarded her transatlantic flight, my great-grandmother left her small village in Ireland alone. She had never even seen a train before. Yet she made her way to Dublin, then across the North Sea, fleeing famine and poverty for the chance of a new life in Wales.
Swap out Ireland in the 1840s for today’s food crisis in Southern Sudan or the 500-year storms regularly swallowing communities on America’s Gulf Coast, and my great-grandmother’s “leaving home” story is recreated thousands of times every day.
In 2010–2011, more than 42 million people were displaced in the Asia-Pacific region alone by storms, floods, heat and cold waves, droughts and sea-level rise. One recent study found that women make up nearly 80 percent of these climate refugees. Women are also more susceptible to the harmful effects of environmental toxins, pollution and other health problems.
Organizations like MADRE recognize that climate change, while a global threat, hits poor, rural and Indigenous women the hardest. Food shortages, droughts, floods and disease impact these women sooner and with greater severity — yet MADRE believes that these women are not victims. They are sources of solutions whose voices should be heard in economic and environmental policymaking spaces, and MADRE provides them the means to do just that.
In Sudan, for example, a country ravaged by drought and war, MADRE co-founded the Women’s Farmers Union. The program now assists over 5,000 Sudanese women in securing loans for seeds, buying land and training in adaptive agricultural techniques, such as water harvesting, to mitigate against the inevitable realities of climate change in this harsh environment.
In 2005, I moved to Bosnia for a two-year international work project. As an expatriate, I grappled firsthand with loneliness, learning the language and forging a place in a new community abroad.
In the small Balkan town, being instantly recognizable as a foreigner stressed me. But, it also allowed me opportunities for new acquaintances. The Roma population in this particular town was sizeable, with a few thousand residents, although they lived separately away from the city center.
Believed to have left India 1,200 years ago, Roma communities exist in all European countries, with significant populations in the Americas as well. Traditionally itinerant and considered stateless, the Romani people are historically subject to social exclusion, discrimination, poverty, even forced sterilization. They are often evicted from their communities and forced to relocate, as occurred recently in Italy, Bulgaria and Hungary.
In Bosnia, I never saw their homes and rarely any adults, just the children. When they saw a foreigner walking through town, they’d race over sensing (correctly) an easy target for spare change. One girl was older than the others, and a foot taller. She spoke basic English. But it was her fearlessness when approaching strangers for money that impressed me, mostly because I loathed conducting even the most basic transactions with my shaky Bosnian language skills.
The local Bosnians sometimes teased my international colleagues for giving the children money. I’ll never forget the pained look on my Canadian colleague’s face as he shrugged, “Yes, well, she doesn’t have any shoes.” She wore flimsy plastic slippers taped to her feet, offering only the most minimal protection from the street.
Traditionally, Roma culture is male dominated, with strongly defined gender roles. Because of the social expectations to take care of responsibilities inside the home, Romani women leave school much earlier than both Romani men and the non-Romani women in the broader community. Their lack of education means they suffer much higher illiteracy rates than Romani men and therefore have few marketable job skills, making them vulnerable to prostitution, sexual violence and poverty.
But attitudes are slowly changing, both externally towards the Roma and from within the communities themselves. The Decade of Roma Inclusion, which kicked off in 2005, is an initiative from 12 European countries (including Bosnia) to improve the socioeconomic status and social inclusion of the Romani people by emphasizing education and breaking the poverty cycle.
In Rome, Italy, a group of entrepreneurial Romani women, originally from Romania and Bosnia, bucked their traditional roles of housekeepers and mothers as the first from their communities to start a business. With support from a local non-profit, Arci Solidarietà, they started a catering company selling Balkan delicacies to earn enough money to leave their government-constructed settlement camp and pursue better opportunities.
Calling themselves the Gipsy Queens, these chefs use the universal language of food to dispel stereotypes. At the same time, they work towards their dream of buying a food truck to expand their catering business. Unfortunately, of the 30 women initially involved with the project, as of 2017, only five remained. The others returned to their home responsibilities due to pressure from their families and communities.
Refugees Fleeing Persecution
Work took me to Bosnia 10 years after the war in the region ended, but the violent conflict had left deep scars on the country. My role as a forensic expert revolved around efforts to identify the men who had been killed in the genocide yet remained unnamed. Bosnian men were killed by the thousands, then buried in hidden mass graves throughout the countryside, hence the international project dedicated to identifying them. But, I learned that it was the Bosnian women who had been subject to unspeakable acts of cruelty, including a systematic policy of rape warfare.
One day, I visited the site used as the barracks by UN Peacekeeping forces in the village of Srebrenica, where, in 1995, over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were executed in the act of genocide. As the site was still abandoned since the war, I simply pulled over on the side of the road and walked through a door. Once inside buildings, I was confronted by the graffiti covering the walls. I remember the murals being large, colorful and well illustrated; however, they depicted Bosnian women in violent and graphic sex acts and were accompanied by racial slurs written in English.
I imagined my family being ripped apart by war, my husband and sons murdered, daughters raped and my house burned. At the same time, soldiers (maybe even the ones intended to protect me) are amusing themselves nearby by creating wall-sized pornography of my misery. I wondered if this was the first time I had shared the room with evidence of true evil.
Over two million people fled their homes in the 1990s during the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, 600,000 from Bosnia alone. Today, that region is largely stable, but spin the globe in either direction and the story plays out again and again. Just five countries account for the majority of the world’s refugees fleeing violence at home: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia collectively have 13 million citizens displaced outside their country of birth.
In 1993, Iraq-born Zainab Salbi was disturbed by the systematic violence and suffering she saw taking place against women during the Balkan War. She had fled Iraq by way of an arranged marriage to immigrate to the U.S. when she was 19. She had also experienced firsthand the effects of the Iraq-Iran War on civilians. So, at 23, she founded Women for Women International to offer support to 33 Croatian and Bosnian women displaced by the Bosnian War. Today, Women for Women International still operates in Bosnia — and seven other countries — and to date has assisted over 400,000 women who have survived war.
100 Million Steps in Every Direction
Several years have passed, yet I still regret not protecting the young clerk from the abuse that day. If I could rewrite history, in the new version, I’ll have tackled the older woman, dragging her out of the store in the name of human decency. Alas, I can’t rewrite the past, and we all must live with our decisions. But I can write down women’s stories, including what happened that day to a young immigrant woman, in a store in Virginia, who deserved so much better.
Every day, all over the world, women flee their homes because they want to survive. She might be searching for work. Or love. Or missing her family. She could be hungry. Or hungry for adventure. Maybe she won the visa lottery. Or got accepted to medical school overseas. Or she lost her home in a disaster. She could be running from her past. Or chasing a new future.
The angry customer in the drug store — her family’s roots in the U.S. likely run shallow, a few generations at most. And certainly, someone close to her, her best friend, her doctor or her child’s teacher is foreign-born. The young clerk’s accent, her darker skin and her hijab allowed the customer to believe that she knew something about her — and that “thing” made her angry.
Would she also be angry at the young Romani woman begging on the street because she must eat? What about my mother, who arrived in the U.S. with her fluent English and white skin? What if the cashier in the headscarf was Bosnian Muslim with a brave story of surviving the terrors of being a woman during war?
While the angry customer’s behavior and my own failure to intervene that day are disappointing, what saddens me more is the lost opportunity. So just once, I’ll pretend I can rewrite history: Two women meet in a store in Alexandria, Virginia. One is in her 60s, wealthy, born in the U.S. — the other, only 19, is from Bangladesh. The older woman shops there often. Every time she sees the younger one, she is delighted. They both smile, ask about each other’s families and share updates about their lives. They become friends. Just imagine what skills and lessons they teach each other. Then, believe we can do that 100 million more times. Everywhere. I hate to be cliché, but we just changed the world.
Read more like this in We See magazine.