15 Minutes on COVID-19 in Vulnerable Communities

Episode Transcript

Lama Alsafi: 00:01 Hello, and welcome to 15 Minutes to Change the World-where in 15 minutes, you can learn a bit more about the world and how you can help change it.

My name is Lama Alsafi host of this podcast. COVID-19 has had drastic effects on the day to day lives of Canadians. We continue to adjust to our new normal, as some services start to reopen and as we work to ensure the safety of friends, families, essential workers and Canadian public. COVID-19 affects us all, but not equally. In crowded refugee camps for refugees or internally displaced persons, self isolation and physical distancing are nearly impossible. The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is increased in these environments, where overcrowding, a lack of health infrastructure and poor sanitary conditions increases infectious disease risks.

Our guests today are Najeeba Wazefadost and Bárbara Romero. Two of the five co-founders of Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders, GIRWL. GIRWL is a group of refugee women led initiatives, networks, and advocates that work with and for refugee women. Thank you so much, Najeeba and Bárbara, for joining us and for taking the time to speak with us today. Welcome to the podcast.

Bárbara Romero: 01:48 Hi Lama. It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you very much for inviting us.

Najeeba Wazefadost: 01:54 Thank you very much, Lama for having us. We are very thrilled to be part of this podcast.

Lama Alsafi: 01:59 Bárbara and Najeeba. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and how you became advocates in the space?

Bárbara Romero: 02:04 I’m a psychologist. I’m a Salvadoran woman. I have worked in women’s rights since the year 2006. My platforms mostly have been on women’s rights, LGBTI population and social inclusion. I began to work on migrants and internal mobilization, people in El Salvador around 2017-18, but since I had to flee away from my country, I had to become myself a refugee in the year 2018. I began to understand a little bit more about the diverse realities and is another layer of vulnerability that women might face when they are going to a new place and the start in a new life. Here I am starting over and trying for the rest of my colleagues and women all over the world to have a voice on their own.

Najeeba Wazefadost: 03:08 I actually came to Australia as a refugee as well, when I was almost 11 years old. I left my country Afghanistan, due to decades of war and conflict and persecution, I was a prisoner of my own sex. I have had very limited rights to my basic needs, which included more importantly, the education. I always had a dream to be able to go to school and to be able to graduate and become something and an independent woman of my own. But these were all far away dreams to achieve for me while I was in Afghanistan. And it basically left us with no choice in seeking asylum and coming to Australia by boat. We went through a very dreadful journey, just like many other asylum seekers. We actually had to travel from country to country, sometimes by barefoot. Sometimes during the night. We then eventually arrived.

So my own personal journey as a refugee and the sufferings that I experienced back in my own home country, all basically pushed me not only to advocate for my own people, but also to understand how I could integrate my own journey and try to become a voice for the voiceless people. I could see that not everybody could understand the circumstances and situation that refugees were fleeing from, and as I started advocating, I started to realize how important it is to share my story and to go beyond storytelling. And that’s when I started to enter into a real advocacy world and try to work and come together with other refugee women, activists and advocates and community organizers. We do see symptoms of a broken system more and more people are forced to leave their homes due to conflict, persecution, violence, states failure, climate change, and environmental degradation. These are the reasons that made me to become an advocate, not only to talk and to bring my own story, but also to amplify on the voices of the unheard voices.

Lama Alsafi: 05:05 Bárbara and Najeeba can you tell us about GIRWL, the organization that you’re representing today and how it came to be?

Najeeba Wazefadost: 05:11 I think the most important reason that we actually have initiated or formed GIRWL is because we saw a clear absent of refugee women representation and refugee woman participation in many of decision making forums that we were actually trying to appear and advocate. We wanted to be in the room. We wanted to be part of the policy discussion. We wanted to be making an impact, meaningful refugee women participation in refugee policy making. We wanted this to be the norm, not the exception. There was a clear need for women to come together under an umbrella network, under a platform where we could share a common vision, where we could share our common issues as well as common solutions and learn from one another.

Bárbara Romero: 05:55 We want GIRWL be a platform, not just for our own journeys, as Najeeba shared, but for others-other women from all ages, all realities too have the platform to have their voices and their stories heard.

Lama Alsafi: 06:11 So how can we ensure that women’s participation, and especially refugee women’s participation is more active and visible in the policy making space?

Bárbara Romero: 06:23 I think that it’s important to create spaces for women to become empowered of their own voices of their own stories. Women usually are told that they are, since they are the one staying home, since they are the one taking care of people, that the other the counterpart, the other one is the one that needs to talk. In this crisis and this emergency, the truth is that according to United Nations, around 70% of caregivers are women and we are not involving enough women to have their voices heard in how the pandemic can be attend and the realities that they are facing is if they are front line, who is taken care of the rest of their families, we are not taking care of these women completely. We need to understand the realities of women are not the same realities as men. We need to give them the voices we need to give them the spaces. And we need to make them participants in all the decision making process in all the stages, the community base, but also the political decisions.

Lama Alsafi: 07:35 I wonder if you can tell us a bit about how refugee communities are being impacted by COVID-19 and what are the risks that they face that we might not be hearing about in the media?

Najeeba Wazefadost: 07:45 We regularly communicate and consult with grassroots refugee organization, including women and girls. We hit continuously, you know, that unfortunately there’s lack of resources and emergency aid support on the ground in response to COVID-19 or not necessarily all the national house response plans are actually including refugee woman within the response. We’ve heard from a lot of undocumented refugee women, how they’re not part of the National Health Response Plan, and they haven’t been able to actually access any health or any medical support. We continuously heard about the distress and the anxiety and their mental trauma that women are going as a result of self isolation, as a result of the lose of employment. We hear a lot around the suspension of education on their children. In some places there’s lack of information around prevention, infection control.

Bárbara Romero: 08:38 The language barrier is playing a very big role in the response of COVID-19 because people are not aware of a lot of the measures. In a lot of the refugee camps because of the try to protect what is getting into the camps, a lot of support that some NGO’s or other entities are bringing to the camps has been stopped and people are in need of this kind of support because the ones that are provided by the centers itself itself are not enough. The gender based violence it’s considered the pandemic within the pandemic and it’s not taken care of enough, not in the centers, not outside of the centers. And it’s very important to reorganize these shelters and these services. Also is very important to acknowledge that when a pandemic it’s on, and this is not an exception, a lot of the medical services that have been cut are related to women. For instance, they’re related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, pre-conception, all these services in a lot of centers and in a lot of shelters have been stopped. And it is very important to embrace them back again.

Lama Alsafi: 09:51 Bárbara can you tell us a bit more about this? What are the risks associated with cutting off these services?

Bárbara Romero: 09:56 Young women and girls as well that are in need to have these protection. It’s in terms of empowerment that women finally are getting this kind of system of sexual and reproductive health in their own hands. A lot of the times, you know, a lot of cultures in a lot of countries, women don’t have this power. When women finally have the power to negotiate, how many kids do they want to have? How many years in space between one kid and the other they want to have for the respect of their own bodies as well, it’s a win. We really embrace that empowerment of women, but when these services are stopped, they are taking back this power. This is very important to put back in place.

Lama Alsafi: 10:49 What are governments and organizations doing now that they could be doing better to support refugee women around the world and to protect them from COVID-19?

Bárbara Romero: 10:59 I think some of the things we have been sharing already are very important focal points that we, as GIRWL are embracing-the proper information to empowerment their participation in different stages. Some governments are doing more than others. We can not make a generalization, as you may understand, the world is very vast and COVID-19 has touched in some way or another, every single part of the globe, but it’s important that the government, in the urgency of their response, do not ever forget the importance of taking women’s voices in consideration when designing the protocols and the strategies to respond to COVID-19.

Najeeba Wazefadost: 11:40 It’s so important for governments and states to understand that access to health should be a primary support, not only for the citizens, but for refugees and asylum seekers and undocumented, because COVID-19, doesn’t discriminate. The other aspect, which we have been advocating to states and governments that the closure of borders is not really the solution. We have more than thousands and millions of refugee women and girls that are still waiting on the other end to be resettled into countries and we’ve heard how resettlement has been also suspended. So I think it’s really important for governments to consider opening the borders to the most vulnerable people in need.

Lama Alsafi: 12:20 How can someone who’s listening at home right now or in their car take action? What are some tangible things that they can do to create positive change in this space?

Bárbara Romero: 12:29 The first thing that I would like to invite you to do is to rethink all your conceptions of what a refugee is, of what a refugee woman is because we are as diverse as the rest of people that you have known in your whole life. It just happened that we needed to flee our countries, our lands, our umbilical cords because out of safety and otherwise we probably wouldn’t be alive. I will invite you to look for organizations refugee based organizations or organizations work with refugee people all over the ward and look at what they are doing, look at how they are contributing and try to enroll with one of them in the way you can possibly do it with the resources that you can possibly do it. Sometimes are material, but sometimes they can be technical or translating documents, information, whatever you can do, everything is welcome, because we need to embrace the reality, that we are a global citizenship and we are citizenships of the world. And we have to do this together. When the world is a better place for all of us, then it’s a world worth living in.

Lama Alsafi: 13:41 Thank you so much to both of you for joining us today. We’re so grateful to have the opportunity to learn from you and to listen and thank you for your time.

Najeeba Wazefadost: 13:50 Thank you very much for having us Lama.

Bárbara Romero: 13:52 Thank you, Lama.

Lama Alsafi: 13:53 Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in as always, you can stay up to date on our newest episode of 15 Minutes to Change the World on Spotify and iTunes.