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In Farah-Salam, migrant women reclaim their stories one photo at a time

On a “normal” day in Farah-Salam, you might find journalists from Europe-based media clicking away at their cameras capturing images of residents in Casablanca’s migrant suburbs documenting the European migrant crisis. 2020 was anything but normal for the residents of Farah-Salam, one such suburb, and the photojournalists who cover them.

Six years ago, there were barely any inhabitants in this suburb on the outskirts of the largest city in Morocco. Today, it is a melting point for migrants Ivorians, Senegalese, Congolese, Cameroonians, Ghanaians, Nigerians (and Syrians) who withstood arduous journeys through the Sahara Desert to Morocco, hoping for a better life across the Mediterranean. From Morocco, the plan would be to attempt the torturous trip across the sea or through high-walled land borders into Europe.

Over the years, more and more migrants have abandoned their dreams of the West given stricter border laws and security measures. With the Moroccan government renegotiating its position in the African Union and promoting South to South cooperation, as well as subtle permeation of music from countries like Nigeria, more and more migrants are convinced they can settle down in Morocco.

“The migrants live in suburbs where rent is low,” Reuben Yeboh Odoi, a migrant who runs The Minority Globe told AWiM News on a call from his base in Morocco’s capital Rabat. Due to government funding, locals can purchase apartment units at very subsidised rates and in turn rent them out at very reduced costs which migrants are often able to afford. 

“Anytime there’s a new area, you’ll see a bunch of migrants moving to that side.” 

There are other migrant settlements in Casablanca such as Lissasfa, Hay Rahma, Riad Ouelfa and Firdaouss, but Farah-Salam is the most recent. The migrants in Farah-Salam, particularly the women, run small food, tailoring and hairdressing businesses, while others beg on the streets for survival, even though begging is illegal.

Hands on a sewing machine sewing a blue and purple checked cloth
The migrant women of Farah-Salam make a living by selling food, tailoring, hairdressing and begging on the streets | Unsplash

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic marked the onset of panic among the migrant community, especially when a lockdown was announced, leading to a halt in movement and economic activities. 

“No one was prepared for it,” said Odoi, who launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise €4,000 to feed the vulnerable residents of Farah-Salam and other migrant suburbs in Casablanca. The lockdown meant that Odoi, a photographer, couldn’t go to Farah-Salam. He wired the money to community members entrusted with distributing the food, but he had one problem: He couldn’t document the food drive with images.

“I had the receipts, but I needed images to share in the progress reports sent to those who were donating money,” he said.

He asked the men and women he had put in charge of food distribution to try their hands at documenting the food drives using their mobile devices.

“I realised they were taking artistic photos,” he said.

From this, a workshop project, which Odoi hopes will empower the women financially, was born. More importantly, Odoi hopes that by documenting and telling their own stories, minority communities will change the narrative portrayed by Western media.

Migrant song

Joy*, a 25-year-old Nigerian woman who moved to Morocco in 2015, is one of those who documented the food drive in Farah-Salam. Joy left Auchi, her hometown in Edo State, southern Nigeria, with her family’s blessing, at the request of a female relative. She travelled to Lagos, where she met the man who was to sponsor the trip to Europe. She was told she was going to further her education. The journey, however, ended in Morocco, Joy told AWiM News. In Morocco, she worked in her relative’s shop in Farah-Salam and babysat the relative’s son, but after the shop was closed down for unexplained reasons, Joy took to the streets to beg for alms. 

Joy found The Minority Globe through an acquaintance after moving to Farah-Salam. She was first introduced to Odoi who encouraged her to join the organisation and participate in its art projects. In one of these projects, a musical art performance that ran from 2019 to 2020, Joy shared her experience of travelling to Morocco through the Sahara.

“When you are travelling to Morocco, you compose a song to give you courage for the journey,” Joy told AWiM News on the phone.

“A fellow traveller from Congo, and I, collaborated and sang the song in our dialects,” she added.

Different narrative

The images Joy captured for The Minority Globe were unlike those that would typically be captured by mainstream media when covering initiatives like a food drive in a migrant community. For one, the faces of the recipients, mostly women, were shielded from the camera by the items in the care packages they received. 

Unable to move and take their own photos due to COVID-19 restrictions, international journalists, especially those from Europe-based publications, asked to use the photos, even though they were different from what they would normally have captured. 

“The community is already vulnerable, there is no reason to make things worse. The media comes, takes images and leaves. They don’t think about protecting the people in the images,” said Odoi, adding that none of the photos was sold because the process of putting the workshop project together is still ongoing.

Joy told AWiM News that she shielded the women’s faces from the camera for security reasons. For many of the women, especially those who were lured to Morocco for sex work, exposing their identities could easily put them at risk.

“If your image is in the media, you can be identified easily; we don’t want anything that will cause us problems or harm us,” said Joy.

The Minority Globe, which highlights migrant issues through theatre, music and art, is now looking to launch a photography workshop project to teach women the basics of photography so they can use their mobile phones to better share their experiences as migrants in Morocco, in ways that mainstream and Western media publications often fail to do. 

Migrant stories are often told through stereotypical lenses. There is little documentation of the entrepreneurial spirit, the creativity, and the resilience. Instead, negative one-sided migrant experiences that are not reflective of the whole are the mainstay of mainstream media. It is also rare for photojournalists to seek the consent of the individuals being photographed and they often publish nameless images that strip their subjects of their humanity and dignity. 

“When it comes to migration, there are so many things that we don’t know, so many things we don’t get access to,” said Odoi, adding that the untold stories are best told by women in the community.

Odoi told AWiM News that the photography training would give back agency to members of the migrant community in Farah-Salam and find ways for them to serve as the nuanced bridge between the lived experiences of the community and the stories that are told about them.

Funding dilemma

While women will make up most of the participants in the workshops, men too will be part of the programme. Joy has been fielding interest from women who would like to be part of the photography workshops. While the training would potentially open up opportunities to earn a living through photography, many of the women are resigned to their fate, having fallen into a state of helplessness that leaves them reliant on begging for alms and sex work for survival.

“Most of the girls think their lives are over, that all hope is lost. They don’t want to try anything else,” Joy told AWiM News.

Odoi’s main challenge is finding funds to kick-start the workshops. Funding for the arts is hard to come by, more so during the pandemic. Moreover, private sector donors in Morocco are few, and their ideals have to align with the goals of his organisation.

“If it (fundraising) doesn’t work, I might do it the old way,” said Odoi, referring to how he has sustained The Minority Globe for more than a decade in face of limited funding. He funds the organisation’s activities from income generated from personal projects including proceeds from performing his music around Morocco, as well as by partnering with non-governmental organisations.

Familiar journey

Born in Ghana, Odoi is all too familiar with the migrant journey having travelled from Dakar to Casablanca from 2004 to 2005 to gain firsthand experience of the migrant journey and to cure the discontent he felt in his artistic work. When he first arrived in Casablanca, he found it easier to assimilate into Moroccan society through his music which, at this time, had absorbed influences from the sounds that marked his difficult journey. Odoi founded The Minority Globe (originally a music band) in 2009, to foster the connecting power of the creative arts especially for migrants arriving in Morocco. 

While the North-African country has, in the last few years, made policies signalling that it is embracing migrants, the realities on the ground from the inability to find well-paying jobs, to deplorable living conditions and hostility from locals  paint a starkly different picture.

Odoi hopes that documenting the experiences of migrants in their entirety, will not only create a window into the full migrant experience in Morocco but also encourage real change.

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DR. YEMISI AKINBOBOLA

C.E.O & Co-founder, AWiM

Dr Yemisi Akinbobola is an award-winning journalist, academic, consultant and co-founder of African Women in Media (AWiM). AWiM’s vision is that one-day African women will have equal access to representation in media. Joint winner of the CNN African Journalist Award 2016 (Sports Reporting), Yemisi ran her news website IQ4News between 2010-14.
Yemisi holds a PhD in Media and Cultural Studies from Birmingham City University, where she is a Senior Lecturer. She has published scholarly research on women’s rights, African feminism, and journalism and digital public spheres. She was Editorial Consultant for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 commemorative book titled “She Stands for Peace: 20 Years, 20 Journeys”, and currently hosts the book’s podcast.
She speaks regularly on issues relating to gender and media. In 2021 she was recognized as one of 100 Most Influential African Women.