©IOM 2018/S. Desjardins
“Happy and safe”: Mariam Fights for her Future Back Home in Sierra Leone
Following the death of her father, Mariam was forced into an arranged marriage at just 16 years old. Soon after she left her country, Sierra Leone, to follow her husband who wanted to go to Mauritania. “When I left home, newly married, I was only a child who was afraid,” Mariam recounted.
Now 32 years old, she has spent most of her life away from home. Her husband left her and their two daughters behind and went to Europe, seeing no other solution to support their family after several difficult years. Mariam hasn’t heard from him since. Alone, in a foreign country and without a proper support system, she has raised her daughters with dignity thanks to her incredible strength of character. She used to sell Bissap (a sweet drink made from hibiscus plant leaves) on the beach in Mauritania to make ends meet; determined and combative, she always found a solution to feed her children and take care of them. Nevertheless, circumstances eventually forced her to consider returning home.
“I arrived in Mauritania with all my papers in order. Unfortunately one day, I lost my identity card and I did not have enough money to have it redone, so I became irregular. I lived in worry, I was afraid to meet the police, I was afraid of being harassed, I was afraid for my daughters.” Mariam explained. Her children have not been educated because they do not have birth certificates or identity cards either. They have never been registered in the Mauritanian National Civil Status System. “Now, in Sierra Leone, I am free. I can walk in the street without fear, no one can stop or expel me, I am at home and my daughters have a status.”
Mariam benefited from the IOM-funded reintegration programme funded by the European Union. She can now provide for her two daughters thanks to the public transport activity she has developed in Sierra Leone. With reintegration support, she was able to invest in two motorcycles, one that she uses to operate a taxi business. Thanks to the money she earns through this business, her children go to school, eat every day, and live in a healthy environment.
Being back home has allowed her to reminisce on the opportunities she didn’t have when she was younger, and to plan so that her children have more options- “Nobody could pay my school fees, I did not really go to school. For me it is very important that my daughters can have access to an education,” Mariam explained.
Mariam is proud to have always stayed true to her values, and proud of her strength as single mother and woman entrepreneur. For her, the role and place of women in society are very important. “I cannot help but be afraid for the future of my daughters. I want them to succeed and their lives to be [easier] than mine.” She wants her daughters to have the choice to marry or not, but if they choose to she wants them to marry people that they love. She wants them to be happy and, above all, safe.
Mariam herself has many abilities — through she was not formally educated, she speaks several languages fluently. “I’d like to know how to read and write, it’s my dream. Sometimes I’m lost, I do not know how things work but I’m strong, I fight. I had a lot of hard times but when I stand in front of my mirror I have to be a proud woman and show it to my children,” she added.
“I did not fall into smuggling networks, nobody used me for money. I have been [propositioned] many times by men but I always refused because I knew that my destiny was to use my ideas, my brain and my strength of character to get money, not my body,” she continued. As she points out, many women face this kind of scenario, and sometimes they are strongly advised to leave home in search of work, but what really awaits them are the pitfalls of human trafficking. She recalls the memory of her father’s words that taught her to never agree to use her body to survive, to always respect herself and to use her intellectual abilities to develop projects. “It’s my turn to convey this message now. As a human being we have rights, I know it even if I have not been to school, I know I have the right to say no,” Mariam concluded. After having lived abroad for a long time, many returnees testify to the difficulty of reintegrating into their country of origin. Mariam’s once familiar references have evolved, but she has gradually regained a place in a society. “Now I am rebuilding myself, I have a family here in Sierra Leone. I have support, we stand together,” she said proudly.
Drawing from the lessons of her migratory experience, Mariam is now raising awareness in her community: “I tell my story to everyone, every day, and I inform people. I [also] hear a lot of stories [from others] about migration, the money it takes to leave; huge sums that could be invested here in our country.”