Activism starts with a story

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Youth Forum Ecuador - #Youth4Migration
#Youth4Migration young leaders from all around the world at the GFMD Youth Forum 2020.

It all started when…

I left my home, in Romania, almost four years ago. It was due to various reasons, but the main one was the wish to escape the broken system that kept getting in the way of my dreams. I did not leave for economic reasons or for a western version of the American dream, but for the lack of perspective and the feeling of being powerless every time I wanted to fight for something I believed in. I can assure you no one leaves their home if everything is alright. I would not have left either if things were different. But sadly, they were far away from that.

I was desperately trying to change something in a country where corruption thrives in every system from education to health, basically everywhere, and after countless failed attempts I decided to pack my bags and my hopes and just leave. I know many would argue that if everybody leaves, where will the change come from.

I understand their point, but I can assure it would have been exhausting, frustrating and power-consuming for me to stay, because every time I fought for something, every time I have worked hard to achieve something, hurdles appeared in my way and my dreams and efforts were slowly put to sleep by a system that does not easily let you make a change as a young person. I have got to admit I was tired, tired of not having my voice heard and being told that I am too young to know better. I left everything behind, my family, my friends, my entire life to start fresh and perhaps be able to start the change I wasn’t able to start back home.

My country lost more than a third of its young people as a result of the system problems.  It is the second country after Syria when it comes to the numbers of citizens having left the country since 2007, with almost 17 percent of the population living far away from home. Seeing these numbers, I knew I was not the only one who got tired and decided to leave. Many people my age ask themselves why they should have to be stuck in a system that does not look out for their future and does not even realize that young people are indeed the future.

I will stop here with analyzing the situation of my home country, because that is another story.

I was stuck between two countries – the one I left and the one I was starting to consider my home – asking myself where do I belong now? I did not want to put my life and my desire to make the world a better place on hold until my home country gets better and until my host country accepts me.
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UNICEF Experiences
Short throwback to my special activism moments

This one is about how you can make your voice heard. About how I did.

Fast forward, I left to Germany on a scholarship for studying social sciences, to get the skills I needed to be able to be a changemaker in my community, to stand up for what I believe in and to understand how politics and change work.

But the story – of course – doesn’t end here, because the road to Germany wasn’t easy at all. Romania is a European country, so a lot of you might think that it must be easy to move around, to study whatever I want, wherever I want, and that should protect me and make the journey as smooth as possible. Or at least easier than other young people have it to get to Germany. Yes, I got to Germany on a plane. That was the easy part – but from then on, the list of challenges grew longer every day.

From the first time I set foot to Germany, I began to discover new sorts of challenges that come with the new label given to me: migrant. It gave me the “chance” to experience having my calls rejected when looking for an apartment – maybe one of the best examples. I can still recall one lady agreeing to rent me an apartment, but also how everything backfired as soon as I sent her a copy of my passport. I didn’t even get a response; I was just ignored.

I did not fit in their pattern – not having the right citizenship, they did not recognize my scholarship as income, my parents couldn’t guarantee for me and so it was impossible to get a place to stay.

This is where the “fun” began.

If you do not have a place to stay, you cannot register at the city – without this paper from the city, you cannot enroll at the university, get a job, have an insurance or a bank account. No bank account – no scholarship for me on time. So, you are stuck at the age of 18, as I was, in a city you do not know, without any money, with your parents far away and feeling helpless and scared.

Instead of receiving support and guidance, all I got was “you are missing this, you still need that to do that, come again tomorrow, maybe another time, sadly we cannot help – you can always go back home”. 

It is a vicious cycle, if you are missing one thing, you cannot move on, evolve, you are stuck there, and nobody really tells you why it doesn’t work. It feels like you do not even deserve an explanation – this was the moment I realized that these episodes are not just misunderstandings or bureaucratic rules – they are strong attitudes with strong roots in the community.

This missing support was experienced by many in my situation – the feeling of not being wanted, everybody being scared of you based on prejudice, stereotypes, the idea that we come here to cheat or steal their jobs and so on. It felt like people not only didn’t want to support you but were waiting for you to make a mistake and go home.

I can assure you no one leaves their home if everything is alright. I would not have left either, if things were different.
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As Youth Delegates at the GFMD in Morocco.
As Youth Delegates at the GFMD in Morocco.

Not only the start was hard.

I have lived in Germany for a long time now and have often heard sentences like: When do you eventually plan going back home– the friendly version-, or just go back to where you came from – the real and widely experienced version.

Besides the spoken words, I have often felt excluded, not fitting in at the university -you know like in those high school movies-, but especially outside of its walls. I remember calling my mom after an episode in class, when the university professor told us that foreign students do not stand a chance in his class. I told my mum that I am not good enough, that I do not feel that I belong here and that I will come back and settle for what I had at home.

Luckily, I didn’t give up back then, but it was the moment I realized that in order to achieve what I want, I had to work ten times harder than my colleagues, give up a lot to spend extra time learning, concentrating on fitting in, on integrating and, the saddest part, on hiding where I came from. I was trying not to stand out, but always also thinking, if not everything is in vain - that even if one day, even if I won’t act or look foreign, this migrant label will follow me my whole life.

I applied for projects and jobs that were very important to me, to opportunities that could have gotten me one step closer to my dreams but was denied a lot of chances, often because I had a foreign passport. I slowly began losing my identity, questioning who I am and how my life is going to look like.

When I wanted to do something in Germany, represent young people, participate in decision making or join projects, I was often told that I have everything they are looking for, except that they do not have spots for young migrants and I should look for opportunities like these for youth in my country of origin –two scenarios result from that– either there are no such opportunities for young people back home or I was not able to join anymore because they are only available for people living in Romania – one condition I stopped to fulfill when I left the country.

Integration is not at the bureaucratic level, it doesn’t finish when all your paperwork is done, when you are legally a part of the community and you have fulfilled everything on a checklist. It only happens at community level, the level of the people.
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Passport

Wait a minute.

I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t make a change concerning issues that were important to me in the country I live in now, having all the needed qualifications, experience and the motivation and determination needed and only being denied the chances for having another passport. I was stuck between two countries – the one I left and the one I was starting to consider my home – asking myself where do I belong now? I felt powerless, wondering what I can do to make my voice heard, to stand up for things that needed to be changed in Germany – especially concerning the situation of young people and young migrants like myself.

I did not want to put my life and my desire to make the world a better place on hold until my home country gets better and until my host country accepts me. I wanted to stop feeling less than everybody else, stop working ten times harder and still be told it is not enough and having hurdles be put in front of me with every chance just because of the label I have received – the label of a person with migration background that will probably never get the same chances and opportunities as people who belong.

I have seen friends, not as lucky as myself, with no European passport, working hard and doing everything right be put in the position of leaving everything they have built here behind and go home, because their permission to stay just wasn’t approved anymore.

I have witnessed how people instead of helping them, do everything they can to make sure young migrants won’t be able to stay. Going through these experiences through that of my friends I got to see what a burden this label can be and how it can entirely change how a person looks at you. I realized that things needed to change, that this narrative needed to change.

I have had enough.

In this period, I found UNICEF and started volunteering with them. I learned that there are other people in this world living similar scenarios who overcame their situation and achieved their dreams and are now speaking about their experiences and helping others.

I knew then that is I what I wanted to do too. To tell my story and how I managed everything – how I never gave up despite a lot of sorrow, tears and disappointment – that what didn’t kill me, made me ten times stronger. I learned and experienced that it is not only my duty to make sure that I successfully integrate in this new country, that I am not the only responsible.

Integration is a two-way street – and no matter how badly somebody wants to fit in like I did, if the community won’t accept you – there is no integration taking place. There are indeed a lot of integration processes going on but integration is not at the bureaucratic level, it doesn’t finish when all your paperwork is done, when you are legally a part of the community and you have fulfilled everything on a checklist.

It only happens at community level, the level of the people and there are still stereotypes and prejudice that rule in this area and hinder integration. I can assure you – you can speak the language perfectly, not stand out through your way of being or traditions, do everything right – there will always be people that will not accept you once they find out you come from another country – especially one known for corruption, stealing and only negative things. You become a projection of this country and sadly that is all some people see. Been there, done that!

So I made it my mission to fight these behaviors with my work, to help people discover that young migrants aren’t bad people, they are ambitious, talented and dedicated people with dreams and the potential to achieve great things in life, to contribute to their communities, to be changemakers.

So I became one – I started projects connecting young migrants with their host communities through cultural exchange of music, theater, food and stories and have been a witness of the magic of a simple conversation, without prejudice and fear and the power of stories ever since.

I have seen people overcome their fear of migrants after hearing my story, after hearing thousands of moving stories of young migrants and refugees. I have seen instant admiration and respect take the place of stigma and many unexpected friendships emerge.

People were connected by common dreams, things they want to achieve and change and realized that there are more similarities than they would have ever thought, that dreams have no borders, nor do friendships and companionships – neither should communities. These experiences became stories themselves, stories with which I have started my activism for the rights of young migrants, stories that gave me the chance to have similar conversations with decision-makers and change their mind about migration too or at least try to.

Now I am shaping narratives on migration beyond my community and empower other young migrants like me to do the same, because the support I was missing at the beginning of this story, the support I was given to be able to raise my voice is the support I want to give on to the ones who find themselves alone and scared at the beginning of their migration journey. Young migrants who feel like giving up, like I did – I want to be the helping hand and the warm voice that I did not have when I arrived here.

I made it my mission to fight these behaviors with my work, to help people discover that young migrants aren’t bad people, they are ambitious, talented and dedicated people with dreams and the potential to achieve great things in life, to contribute to their communities, to be changemakers.

This was my story.

… it started quite rough, but I have found a way to find my path, to discover my purpose and find my place.

…it was long (and it could have been even longer), complicated and maybe a little bit messy, but it is honest and charged with feelings. It is my story that got me where I am today and the courage to tell it.

Even if my story is not spectacular, even if I have always thought that there are other more valuable stories that deserve my place on the stage, I have been proven time after time that this story can make a change too. That every story can and most importantly many stories together are the way to change these narratives.

My story was about powerful stories that make you feel and relate and about strong activism that drives change.

My story was just one of many others – indeed a lot of stories of amazing changemakers start like this – young people being tired of fighting in vain and wanting to make a change. Be it due to conflict, corruption or natural disasters, they are forced to become young people on the move, looking for a place to belong. I have been looking for this place for a long time and I finally found mine after all these years.

My place is with all of you fighting for a better world, it is with all the talented and dedicated young activists I got the chance to meet from all over the globe trying to change the harsh and unfair narratives on migration, like I do. With all the fellow young migrants whose stories changed my life and way of thinking.

It is with all my friends and family who fight alongside me to make our communities diverse and united – to create communities without borders.

It is with all the people who care.

Every time I am with these people, every time I hear their stories and experience their power, drive and optimism, I get stronger. Every time we work together, unite and make a change, I feel at home.

My place is with all the people who care. Every time we work together, unite and make a change, I feel at home.
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