It has been two years since I started working with IOM and I would not even call it ‘work’. These have been two of the best years of my life – building great experiences and relationships with colleagues and migrants from many different cultures and backgrounds.
I have documented many touching stories through the lens of my camera and this picture was no different. The experience of meeting the woman in this picture has stayed with me. Even if 10 or 15 years go by, I believe I will still be able to recognize her from her eyes and the look she has in them.
On a hot summers day this June, we were on a work assignment in the Libyan city of Zintan. I was there to support our team and collect audiovisual material on our work and to document the needs of migrants that are held in detention centres. At the time, we had scheduled a charter flight for migrants wishing to return home to Mali through IOM’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme.
A woman, between 28 and 30 years of age, caught my attention. Women from every corner of the detention centre were coming to her, throwing their arms around her, with warm hugs and tears, I watched in wonderment. She too, was crying, as if bidding farewell to her family and relatives. It was a very human moment, and I was compelled to lift my camera and take a photo. In the eyes of this woman I saw the faces of all the women living inside the detention centres - I saw desperation and sadness.
As soon as she finished saying goodbye to all the women, I approached her: “Comment allez-vous? Je m’appelle Mohammad Ibrahim, de OIM.” Talking to this woman I used the language of humanitarianism, of respect and admiration, since I do not really know how to speak French. I tried to use a little bit of English, a little bit of Arabic, and some sign language to try and make myself understood. Later, French-speaking colleagues asked for her consent to share her photo and story with the world.
I came to learn that she is a nurse, who worked briefly in Mali. I heard about the struggles of migration in her words. She had been in Libya for almost a year, moving around from one detention centre to another. In each of these locations, she provided some kind of care to migrants, especially to women. She acted as a midwife – delivering babies of women inside the detention centres, usually strangers until a few hours before the birth. She provided basic health care using the most basic preliminary tools that she had in her possession; hot water, cloths and compresses. She was very successful in her assumed role, despite the obvious challenges. With her simple tools, humanitarian spirit and good heart, she gave whatever help she could to these women asking for nothing in return. She was able to garner the respect and admiration of the people she helped and while speaking with each other she also gained mine.
Held in migrant detention centres, she also needed to be cared for, yet she attended to the needs of people before her own.
People were crying out of happiness that she was leaving the detention centre but also out of sadness that they were being left behind. It was time for their nurse to leave as it was the day of her IOM flight back home. I saw one lady - whom she had assisted with her delivery only a few days ago – go down on her knees ‘please don’t go, please. Stay here with me. Help me.’ She was not asking for help from us – the international organizations – but was asking for help from a fellow detainee.
The nurse left the detention centre and I went with her. We travelled from Zintan to Tripoli to meet other migrants from Mali, who would be returning home. They then continued on together to Mali on board an IOM charter flight. I will not forget her simple words to me ‘Merci, monsieur Mohammad’. How powerful these words were coming from such formidable and strong person, who brought light into dark detention centres for many migrants.
With her selfless and loving spirit, she was able to do a lot for those migrant women and inspired me to do more and strive to be better in my work.
This blog by Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Hmouzi, Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) Operations Assistant with IOM Libya, was posted in the lead up to World Humanitarian Day, 19 August 2018.
Humanitarian workers are #notatarget
Migrants are #notatarget