Meet some of the millions of women who migrated recently, risking everything

In fear, hope, or desperation, these women left home seeking new lives. Some found opportunity; others found more uncertainty—or worse.

Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic
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After washing clothes in a roadside puddle, a woman walks home through a parched field in drought-stricken Somaliland. A changing, more extreme climate has upended millions of lives in the Horn of Africa. As cattle, goats, and camels have died off, seminomadic pastoralists like her have had no choice but to move, often to displacement camps or cities.
Photograph by Nichole Sobecki, National Geographic
This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. It was created with additional support from the National Geographic Society.

Raxma Xasan Maxamuud never wanted to leave her home in Somaliland. But a relentless cycle of droughts turned rivers to dust and dried up the grasses her livestock depended on. In Honduras, violence drove Kataleya Nativi Baca, a transgender woman, on a perilous journey to the United States border.

Women make up about half of those who migrate internationally and within their own countries. Some are pulled by the promise of a better future, but for those who face famine or danger in their home countries, migration is a gamble for their very survival.

Here, photographers with The Everyday Projects—a global network with a mission to challenge stereotypes by presenting diverse perspectives—explore how hardship and obligation, violence, poverty, climate change, and other forces undermine women’s lives, spurring them to make life-changing journeys.

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A young camel tugs at Cadar Maxamed’s hijab in Xinjiinle, in northern Somaliland. The camel was named Baruud— “tough”—because its mother survived years of drought, unlike most of Cadar’s animals. Camels and other livestock are the basis of pastoralists’ wealth in the region.

The International Organization for Migration reported that 272 million people—130 million of them women—were living in a country not of their birth in 2019. More than 60 percent of those migrants live in Asia and Europe. Most international migration, however, is regional, with movement to and between countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa growing fastest.

In recent decades women increasingly have migrated to wealthy countries to become breadwinners themselves, rather than to join family members. They’re taking jobs in child- and eldercare and domestic work, as well as manufacturing and agriculture—a shift described as “the feminization of migration.” Migrant women living abroad are more likely to be overqualified for these jobs and earn less than men, and they send more of their incomes to families back home.

For women escaping violence or poverty, the clandestine routes they take increase their vulnerability to sex trafficking, assault, and rape. And for women going to countries with weak laws, or for women who are undocumented, securing basic rights may be impossible.

Crossing borders

War, famine, and a search for opportunity long have spurred men and women to leave their home countries, as these maps of millions living abroad in 2019 illustrate. For the past two decades, women increasingly have been traveling independently of other family members, usually for education or work. In destination countries, women migrants’ participation in the labor force exceeds that of nonmigrant women by 15 percent. Traveling alone compounds the risk of exploitation and gender-based violence, but often the decision to leave is not a choice.

Origin countries

More women than men moved away

About the same

Fewer women than men moved away

India has the largest number of its citizens living abroad: 17.5 million. Women and girls account for a third of those migrants, with 1.3 million, the greatest share, living in the U.S.

Destination countries

More women than men moved here

About the same

Fewer women than men moved here

African migrants tend to go to neighboring countries, especially in West Africa, where 84 percent of female migrants moved within the region.

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF;

KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI.

SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; UNHCR

Crossing borders

War, famine, and a search for opportunity long have spurred men and women to leave their home countries, as these maps of millions living abroad in 2019 illustrate. For the past two decades, women increasingly have been traveling independently of other family members, usually for education or work. In destination countries, women migrants’ participation in the labor force exceeds that of nonmigrant women by 15 percent. Traveling alone compounds the risk of exploitation and gender-based violence, but often the decision to leave is not a choice.

Origin countries

Destination countries

More women than men moved away

More women than men moved here

About the same

About the same

Fewer women than men moved away

Fewer women than men moved here

India has the largest number of its citizens living abroad: 17.5 million. Women and girls account for a third of those migrants, with 1.3 million, the greatest share, living in the U.S.

African migrants tend to go to neighboring countries, especially in West Africa, where 84 percent of female migrants moved within the region.

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI.

SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; UNHCR

Crossing borders

War, famine, and a search for opportunity long have spurred men and women to leave their home countries, as these maps of millions living abroad in 2019 illustrate. For the past two decades, women increasingly have been traveling independently of other family members, usually for education or work. In destination countries, women migrants’ participation in the labor force exceeds that of nonmigrant women by 15 percent. Traveling alone compounds the risk of exploitation and gender-based violence, but often the decision to leave is not a choice.

Destination countries

Origin countries

More women than men moved away

More women than men moved here

About the same

About the same

Fewer women than men moved away

Fewer women than men moved here

India has the largest number of its citizens living abroad: 17.5 million. Women and girls account for a third of those migrants, with 1.3 million, the greatest share, living in the U.S.

African migrants tend to go to neighboring countries, especially in West Africa, where 84 percent of female migrants moved within the region.

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI.

SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; UNHCR

Crossing borders

War, famine, and a search for opportunity long have spurred men and women to leave their home countries, as this map of millions living abroad in 2019 illustrates. For the past two decades, women increasingly have been traveling independently of other family members, usually for education or work. In destination countries, women migrants’ participation in the labor force exceeds that of nonmigrant women by 15 percent. Traveling alone compounds the risk of exploitation and gender-based violence, but often the decision to leave is not a choice.

GENDER GAP IN MIGRATION

NUMBER OF FEMALE MIGRANTS LIVING

OUTSIDE THEIR BIRTH COUNTRY (2019)

Destination

100,000

More women than men moved here

1,000,000

About the same

Fewer women than men moved here

5,000,000

Origin

More women than men moved away

10,000,000

About the same

Fewer women than men moved away

European Union nations host 31 million female migrants. Almost two-thirds came from countries outside the EU, many for work or asylum. At the same time, 19 million women and girls originally from an EU country live abroad.

A green circle indicates the number of migrant women

in a country. In the U.S. the circle is a large one— representing 26.4 million women. The color fill shows that more women than men entered the U.S. The number of women who left the country—2.4 million—is indicated by the purple circle. Light shading signifies that roughly the same number of women and men left the U.S.

Russia

NORTH

AMERICA

Ukraine

Canada

European

Union

Kazakhstan

EUROPE

ASIA

Turkey

Kyrgyzstan

United

States

China

Afghanistan

Syria

Pakistan

Nepal

Bangladesh

Mexico

Myanmar (Burma)

Egypt

India

Vietnam

AFRICA

Lesser

Antilles

Yemen

Honduras

Philippines

Venezuela*

Somalia

Thailand

Singapore

South

AMERICA

Bolivia

Paraguay

Zimbabwe

Argentina

Australia

South Africa

Five million girls

and women from Mexico live abroad, 97 percent in the U.S.

Half of the 1.2 million female migrants in Argentina came from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay.

African migrants tend to go to neighboring countries, especially in West Africa, where 84 percent of female migrants moved within the region.

India has the largest number

of its citizens living abroad:

17.5 million. Women and girls account for a third of those migrants, with 1.3 million, the greatest share, living in the U.S.

*An additional 3.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced abroad but are not counted as refugees.

CHRISTINE FELLENZ, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; UNHCR

Forced migration of refugees and asylum seekers rose by an average of 8 percent a year from 2010 to 2017, compared with less than 2 percent for international migration. Of the 33.8 million people forced to migrate abroad in 2019, nearly half were women. That year another 33.4 million people, more than half of them women, were forced to move within their own countries, 75 percent of them because of natural disasters. (This is what 50 years of human migration looks like.)

The World Bank estimates that in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented 20 percent drop in global remittances to home countries. Fear, anger, and poverty are inflaming resentments and xenophobia, and migrants are often scapegoated as disease vectors or blamed for social ills exacerbated by the pandemic.

The stories that follow illustrate facets of the relocation experience for women migrants: the decision to leave, the hope and hardship of the journey, the adjustment to a new life, and more.

The sheep were the first to start dying. Unable to find enough grass to eat, they’d grown thin and listless, their bleats fading. “They were just dying around us like something poisoned,” Raxma Xasan Maxamuud says. Pastoralists in the village of Haya, in central Somaliland, an unrecognized, self-declared state within Somalia, Raxma and her family raised 300 goats and sheep and 20 camels. Within four weeks of drought in 2016, all their animals had died.

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Looking skyward, a woman watches a swarm of locusts in central Somaliland. Weather extremes have led to the largest outbreak of crop-destroying desert locusts in 22 years.

Seminomadic Somali pastoralists, who tally the passage of years by the regular arrival of the rains, began to notice that during the past 20 years the rains were erratic, no longer aligning with other rhythms of life, such as when their animals gave birth. “If anybody still doubts climate change,” says Sarah Khan, head of the Hargeysa suboffice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “they just have to come here.”

Raxma says she’s about 36 years old. She was born in the year her community named biyo badan, “a lot of water.” In her lifetime, severe droughts used to occur about twice a decade, but punishing drought in 2016 and 2017 destroyed an estimated 70 percent of Somaliland’s pastoral economy, the primary industry. Rain-fed rivers and lakes that had sustained generations of pastoralists disappeared. In Haya in 2016, the wells went dry for the second time in five years.

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Sabad Cali Axmed, 28, takes down her family’s shelter at a camp for displaced persons near the airport outside Burco, where they’d lived for three years. The government was moving seminomadic families in the camp to a more permanent community nearby.

The town hired trucks to bring water in from another city, but mostly “we felt thirsty,” Raxma says. Villagers didn’t wash their clothes. And unlike during the year of plenty Raxma was born into, they didn’t name the bad years, hoping those times would be forgotten. “The life we had before was like living in a castle,” Raxma says. “We sold goats and had meat and butter. We didn’t need anybody’s help. We used to help others because we had too much.”

Somali pastoralists measure wealth not by what they can buy but by the size of their herds. Losing your livestock is akin to having your house burn down, your car stolen, and your bank account emptied on the same day.

In Haya the smell of death from thousands of rotting carcasses hung in the air, but for three months, as the drought of 2016 deepened, Raxma’s family held on. Families with surviving camels shared milk with those whose herds had died. As food dwindled, adults saved the largest portions for the youngest children. Diarrhea spread, Raxma says, and people feared for their lives. With all their animals now dead, the villagers pooled their money and rented a truck to take them to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp near Burco, in central Somaliland.

Moving for work

Migrant workers accounted for almost two-thirds of the 271.6 million people living in foreign countries in 2019. Nearly 48 percent of international migrants were women.

International migrants*

271.6 million

(47.9% women)

Migrant workers

164 million

Students

5.3 million

41.5% Female

workers

Children

37.7 million

Asylum seekers

3.5 million

Registered refugees†

25.9 million

(48.3% women)

Working women

Most women who leave home for another country are 20 to 50 years old.

Female international migrants

Female world population

70+

9.2%

60-69

9.6%

50-59

12.8%

17.4%

40-49

30-39

20.5%

20-29

16.5%

10-19

7.9%

6.1%

0-9

*Categories are not mutually exclusive.

†An additional 3.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced abroad but are not counted as refugees.

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; ILO; IOM; UNESCO

Moving for work

Working women

Migrant workers accounted for almost two-thirds of the 271.6 million people living in foreign countries in 2019. Nearly 48 percent of international migrants were women.

Most women who leave home for another country are 20 to 50 years old.

Female international migrants

Female world population

International migrants*

271.6 million

(47.9% women)

70+

9.2%

Migrant workers

164 million

9.6%

60-69

Students

5.3 million

12.8%

50-59

17.4%

40-49

20.5%

30-39

41.5% Female

workers

16.5%

20-29

Children

37.7 million

7.9%

10-19

Registered refugees†

25.9 million

(48.3% women)

Asylum seekers

3.5 million

6.1%

0-9

*Categories are not mutually exclusive.

†An additional 3.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced abroad but are not counted as refugees.

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; ILO; IOM; UNESCO

Moving for work

Working women

Migrant workers accounted for almost two-thirds of the 271.6 million people living in foreign countries in 2019. Nearly 48 percent of international migrants were women.

Most women who leave home for another country are 20 to 50 years old.

Female international migrants

Female world population

International migrants*

271.6 million

(47.9% women)

70+

9.2%

Migrant workers

164 million

9.6%

60-69

Students

5.3 million

12.8%

50-59

17.4%

40-49

20.5%

30-39

Registered refugees†

25.9 million

(48.3% women)

41.5% Female

workers

16.5%

20-29

Children

37.7 million

7.9%

10-19

Asylum seekers

3.5 million

6.1%

0-9

*Categories are not mutually exclusive.

†An additional 3.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced abroad but are not counted as refugees.

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; ILO; IOM; UNESCO

Moving for work

Working women

Migrant workers accounted for almost two-thirds of the 271.6 million people living in foreign countries in 2019. Nearly 48 percent of international migrants were women.

Most women who leave home for another country are 20 to 50 years old.

Female international migrants

Female world population

International migrants*

271.6 million

(47.9% women)

70+

9.2%

Migrant workers

164 million

9.6%

60-69

Students

5.3 million

12.8%

50-59

17.4%

40-49

20.5%

30-39

Registered refugees†

25.9 million

(48.3% women)

41.5% Female

workers

16.5%

20-29

Children

37.7 million

7.9%

10-19

Asylum seekers

3.5 million

6.1%

0-9

*Categories are not mutually exclusive.

†An additional 3.6 million Venezuelans have been displaced abroad but are not counted as refugees.

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCES: CLARE MENOZZI, UN POPULATION DIVISION; ILO; IOM; UNESCO

The World Bank estimates that by 2050, 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be forced to move within their own countries because of climate conditions. Today Raxma and as many as 600,000 people in Somaliland are stranded in camps, dependent on humanitarian aid to eat and drink.

Raxma hasn’t given up hope. She named her youngest daughter, who was born in the camp, Barwaaqo, a word that evokes prosperity, abundance, and the happiness felt when the herds are healthy, the rains plentiful, and the lands green. Raxma lost nearly everything, but her daughter’s name is an expression of gratitude that her family’s survival is its own kind of wealth. Back to top

Nichole Sobecki is a photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya, who focuses on humanity’s connection to the natural world. Follow her on Instagram @nicholesobecki. Asma Dhamac contributed reporting in Somaliland.

Before Kataleya Nativi Baca left Tapachula, Mexico, she called her sister from the apartment she was sharing with two other migrants from Central America. “Tomorrow I’m going to be a lot farther away,” she said.

Kataleya, 28, a transgender woman, was a pariah in her hometown of San Pedro Sula, in Honduras. Her mother rejected her. Her brother beat her. In a country where spiraling violence is fueled by machismo—exaggerated expressions of masculinity—hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people are harassed, often violently. A network of rights groups found that more than 1,300 of these individuals have been killed in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2014, 86 percent in Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras. For many, braving the dangerous journey to seek asylum in the U.S. is preferable to facing dangers at home.

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Kataleya Nativi Baca, 28, a transgender woman, fled Honduras after enduring years of violent harassment. Here, after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala by river raft, she continues her long journey to the U.S. border.

Tapachula, a border city in southern Mexico, is a hub for migrants from Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Kataleya spent four months there until she received a visa to transit through Mexico to Tijuana, at the U.S. border.

Before boarding the bus, Kataleya said bittersweet goodbyes to people she passed on the street, the security guard at her favorite fast-food spot, her roommates—strangers who’d become friends in the shared challenge of escape. “Finally I’m out of Tapachula,” she said.

The bus was full—mostly men, women, and children dreaming of a new life. The driver flipped the air conditioner on and off to save gas. Cell phones hung from shared power strips overhead. The riders made grainy video calls.

Immigration officers soon stopped the bus to check the passengers’ papers—the first of 20 stops and checkpoints that set a rhythm of disruption and anxiety for the next 72 hours and 2,500 miles. Many migrants who can’t secure transit papers through Mexico hitchhike or walk to avoid authorities and the risk of jumping a train. They’re exposed to gang violence, sexual assault, extortion, recruitment from organized crime, and kidnapping. Kataleya was lucky: She had papers.

By the third day, the smell from the toilet was so bad that people clapped cloths over their noses each time the door opened. Backpacks and purses bulged with rumpled clothes and toiletries. Kataleya cleaned herself with wet wipes and reapplied her lipstick. Hours out of Tijuana, the bus roused in a commotion. The migrants pressed against the windows, squinting at a metal line snaking across the expanse of yellow grassland—the U.S. border fence.

In Tijuana, Kataleya was given a number to have her asylum case heard: 4,050. At the time, the authorities were processing 2,925. Six months later, and roughly two weeks before her number was supposed to come up, the U.S. government closed the border to immigration because of the COVID-19 pandemic, halting asylum claims.

Facing uncertainty and violence at the border in Mexico, and rejection at home, Kataleya finds that the hope that propelled her on her journey to the U.S. has been replaced with a dread in the pit of her stomach she can’t escape. Her limbo has included being robbed and beaten in shelters for LGBTQ migrants. At other times, she’s depended on support from different men. Despair has set in. “From morning to night,” she says, “everything fell apart.” Back to top

Danielle Villasana is a photojournalist and National Geographic explorer whose work focuses on human rights, gender, and health. Follow her on Instagram @davillasana.

On Ngoc Tuyen’s wedding day she was surrounded by strangers. She sat on a wooden bench in Singapore’s botanical garden, in a red dress with black lace trim and a headband with beaded daisies. She’d met the groom two months earlier, and his family only after she arrived 16 days before. A marriage broker translated the ceremony into Vietnamese, and they sealed their commitment with a stiff kiss on the lips. After a flurry of paper-signing, Tuyen’s marriage was official. “It’s such a good start,” Tuyen says. “I want to work soon.”

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This Vietnamese woman—who married a Singaporean man 11 years ago and has two children by him—is in an unhappy marriage. She’s afraid to divorce him because she, like other marriage migrants, depends on her husband to renew her residency, and she risks losing custody of her children.

Tuyen is a marriage migrant—one of tens of thousands from Vietnam during the past decade, most of them women. It often starts with marriage brokers who alert women in villages and provincial towns about men visiting from South Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore. This is how Tuyen, 34, met Tony Kong, 45. His photo popped up on a broker’s Facebook feed, with an address in Ho Chi Minh City and a date when he’d be viewing and interviewing potential wives. The terms are clear: Women come prepared to negotiate stipends for themselves and their families, and the men state their salaries. In exchange for their beauty, youth, and companionship, the women want financial stability—and in Tuyen’s case, the chance to work and send money home to her family. Remittances are crucial in poor, rural parts of Vietnam.

“It’s not about love,” says Mark Lin, a matchmaker and proprietor of the Singaporean marriage agency True Love Vietnam Bride. Asked if his male clients are handsome, Lin grimaces before arriving at a diplomatic answer: “It depends.” Lin knows that his industry trades on economic disparity. In Singapore, the average annual income is $92,000; in Vietnam, it’s $7,750. Whatever flaws prevent his clients from finding Singaporean women to marry, at least they have more money than their Vietnamese counterparts.

Tuyen asked Tony for a monthly stipend of $370, which he negotiated to $220, the amount she’d earned working at a food stall back home. It’s not enough to support her family, but she’s hoping that if her work permit is approved, she’ll find a job at a nail salon and be able to send money back to her parents and her five-year-old son.

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Tring Thi Diem Phuong (in pink shirt), 28, and her cousin Ly Hang, 35, traveled seven hours from their hometown of Ca Mau, in southern Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City to talk with a prospective groom from Singapore. Here the cousins look for something to eat after the meeting, which was arranged by a marriage broker and didn’t result in a match.
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Vietnamese mothers take a selfie during a break in an English-language class at Emmanuel Christian Church, a community hub for marriage migrants in Singapore. The church offers language classes as well as weekly bilingual Vietnamese-English services. Many of the women from Vietnam met their Singaporean husbands online or through a friend.

For a migrant wife to stay and work in Singapore, she must first apply for a long-term visit pass, which is renewed by her husband every one to two years. If he doesn’t, the woman loses not only her papers but also possibly any children born from the marriage. Courts routinely grant custody to the Singaporean parent, as children benefit from being Singaporean citizens. Their mothers, who depend on their husbands to remain in Singapore, may endure abuse, neglect, and infidelity, according to news reports and organizations that provide support services.

Tuyen, who speaks halting Mandarin with Tony, says she doesn’t know what her new husband needs from her, so she cooks for him and keeps him company. She doesn’t know if or when she’ll get her long-term visit pass. That depends on the husband’s monthly salary, and Tony has been out of a job. Tuyen doesn’t know if her son will be able to join her in Singapore or if she’ll be able to support him.

But on her wedding day, Tuyen was willing to play the role of a newlywed. “I’m very happy,” she said. Then, once again, she asked the translator when she’d be allowed to work. Back to top

Amrita Chandradas is a Singaporean documentary photographer who focuses on identity, the environment, and social issues. Follow her on Instagram @amritachandradas.

At first Sajeda Bahadurmia, then 26, didn’t know if the men in uniform would hurt her. It was 2013, and she’d spent 14 days, from April 23 to May 6, in a boat with her husband, Nayim Ullah, and four children, sputtering across the Timor Sea from a port city in Indonesia to Darwin, on the northern tip of Australia.

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Sajeda Bahadurmia, 32, embraces the eldest of her six children, Asma, 16, on a beach near Sydney. Sajeda is wrapped in a white scarf her mother gave her as a safety charm before their grueling three-month journey six years before. As Rohingya Muslims, they fled persecution in Myanmar. But the haven they found in Australia is an uncertain one because they don’t yet have permanent residency.

The 150-foot boat was packed with more than 100 migrants—Rohingya people like them, fleeing oppression in Myanmar, as well as dozens of Bangladeshis and two Somalis. Each time a powerful wave crashed against the hull, she held her breath and kept her year-old son tied tightly to her waist as sharks circled in the dark water. Her daughter, Asma, who was 10, asked, “Are we all going to die?”

“That’s ingrained in my brain,” Sajeda says. “I thought: If Allah saves me, I’m never putting my children in danger again.”

When the Australian Navy picked them up, she didn’t know if the sailors would beat her, insult her, or grope her the way the Myanmar military had back home. But they were gentle, she says. They respected Muslim customs, and women carried out health checks on the refugees, who were taken to a detention center in Darwin.

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Sajeda, at center, protests to demand rights for refugees in Australia, where many have remained on temporary visas for years without permanent residency and others are held in detention centers. “I want our women, like other women, to have opportunities,” she says. “I want everyone, like me, to fly.”

The Myanmar government has long persecuted the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Violence starting in 2012 prompted Sajeda and her family to leave, and by the end of 2017, about a million Rohingya had fled to neighboring Bangladesh and elsewhere. (See the refugee babies born with nowhere to call home.)

“You can’t trust the nights,” Asma, now 16, recalls of the times when military men would burst into their homes. They violated women and dragged men into the street, arresting them or sending them into forced labor. The Myanmar government banned the word “Rohingya.”

During their three months at the detention center, Asma and Sajeda were offended that the authorities addressed them by numbers according to the boat they’d arrived on: ROM006 and ROM007. Even so, they soon began stepping into their new life. When Asma started going to the public school, she didn’t speak English, but she smiled and laughed across the table with her Australian classmates as they ate sausage sizzle.

“I became very obsessed with it in Darwin,” Asma says.

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Sajeda (in the cream hijab and blue outfit) joins friends Khaleda Fazulahmad (in pink), Kyi Kyi Myint (purple hijab), and Ruhaida Ruhaida (brown hijab) walking along Sydney Harbor on their way to a youth intercultural soccer tournament.

Eventually Sajeda, now 32, and her family were resettled in Sydney under an Australian program that paid for their flights and subsidized their first months of living expenses. As refugees, they were eligible for government aid. Sajeda discovered ketchup and fell in love with Australian barbecue. She volunteered at a community kitchen, got a part-time job at her children’s school, and learned to drive. The family moved into a new home in Lakemba, a Sydney suburb where Rohingya was spoken in the streets. She saw the joy in her children’s eyes when they opened the door to their first house.

“The word ‘freedom’ just came out of nowhere,” Asma says. “I’m meant to be here. That sense of belonging was overflowing in me.” In Myanmar, those who spoke out could be killed. In Australia, Sajeda heard people voicing their thoughts, and she did the same. Standing outside the mosque in Lakemba, seeing Muslims spilling out into the street after prayers, she marvels at the sight: “I’ve never got to see that,” she says. Back to top

Mridula Amin is an Australian photojournalist based in Sydney who explores identity, migration, and social justice in the Asia-Pacific region. Follow her on Instagram @mridulaamin.
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After an abrupt divorce, Zhibek Turgunbaeva moved to Moscow from Kyrgyzstan in 2007 to support her two toddlers and her parents. When xenophobic attacks left her reeling, she bleached her hair blond to look less Kyrgyz. Foreigners in Moscow often have trouble finding places to rent, and Zhibek bounced from one place to another, even spending several weeks sleeping in the streets.

Zhibek Turgunbaeva, 37, who arrived in Moscow from Kyrgyzstan in December 2007, knows the hatred that being an outsider can elicit. And the kindness too.

“You churka [literally ‘block of wood,’ meaning Central Asian moron]!” she says a woman on the subway called out one September day in 2019. “Stand up!” the woman snarled. “It makes me sick that you are sitting here.” Immigrants are “like sheep. They are stupid,” the woman went on. Then came threats: “I will find you,” she told Zhibek. “If not, the people from your country. I will ask someone to beat them up and kill them. We’ve had enough. Moscow isn’t for your kind.”

As the train pulled in at the next stop, passengers took hold of the woman and hustled her onto the platform. A Russian man soothed Zhibek, who was crying. She says the man told her there are many idiots around, and that she shouldn’t let them weaken her.

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Tahmina K., 25, cleans up after guests at a chaikhana, or Central Asian teahouse, in Moscow. Tahmina sends money back home to Kyrgyzstan to support her mother, who cares for Tahmina’s four-year-old daughter. This is her second time living and working in Russia—her first, a six-year stint, began when she was 13.

Russia’s booming economy has drawn a flood of newcomers from Central Asian countries during the past two decades. Of the 11.6 million foreigners in Russia in 2019, the greatest numbers were from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Most came looking for work and took jobs in the construction and service industries, says Anna Rocheva, who researches Central Asian migration, gender, and integration at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, a university in Moscow.

Citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, member countries in the Eurasian Economic Union, are permitted to work in Russia with the same standing as Russian citizens. Those from other Central Asian countries must secure work permits, which cost 5,000 rubles (about $65) a month. (Since COVID-19 took hold, Russia’s borders have been closed to most Asian countries.)

“Migration is a win-win” in the economic sense, Rocheva says. But many migrants have been met with xenophobia—fear or hatred of the “other”—hostility, and discrimination, she says. They’re denied jobs and apartments. Some have been beaten and killed by marauding gangs.

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Zarina U., 19, takes care of brothers Elyor, five (at right), and Elnur, three, in a village outside Moscow. Zarina’s mother and the boys’ grandmother, friends back in Uzbekistan, arranged for Zarina to go to Russia to stay with them while their parents work. Zarina’s mother is saving Zarina’s wages to build a family house in Uzbekistan. Zarina was supposed to return home in 2020, but after the border was closed because of COVID-19, she moved to Moscow to work.

According to Rocheva, Russian police often harass migrants, demanding their work permits, threatening to detain them for hours, making them late for work. This is illegal, but migrants unaware of their rights—who may fear being fined by their employers or fired for being late to work—may pay bribes to be released.

“When Central Asian migrants come, they are Muslim; they are not Russian,” Rocheva says, describing part of what explains the violence and vitriol leveled against them. Russians complain that migrants don’t speak their language, spoil their culture, and take their jobs, Rocheva says. “In this sense, every country is the same—when people are xenophobic, they say the same things.”

According to the Moscow-based Levada Center, which conducts annual polls tracking Russian sentiments toward foreigners, xenophobia peaked a decade ago and then declined somewhat.

Largest gender gaps among migrants

More Women Than Men

Most of the women who leave these countries do so in pursuit of a job or education. Many of the countries do not have gender-specific social or legal barriers to migration.

6

Women

(Gap)

Men

5

4

3

2

1

0

Fewer Women Than Men

Some countries have gender-specific laws or social norms that restrict women’s travel. Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt, for example, have laws that make it more burdensome for women than for men to get passports.

Men

(Gap)

Women

11

10

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCE: UNHCR

Largest gender gaps among migrants

Men

Women

0

1

2

3

4

5

6 million

More Women Than Men

Russia

China

Ukraine

Philippines

Canada

Thailand

Kazakhstan

Germany

Dominican Rep.

Brazil

1.4 million

0.8

Most of the women who leave these countries do so in pursuit of a job or education. Many of the countries do not have gender-specific social or legal barriers to migration.

0.6

Gap between men and women

0.4

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

Fewer Women Than Men

Yemen

Indonesia

Nepal

Mexico

Myanmar

Egypt

Syria

Pakistan

Bangladesh

India

-0.4 million

Some countries have gender-specific laws or social norms that restrict women’s travel. Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt, for example, have laws that make it more burdensome for women than for men to get passports.

-0.5

-0.5

-0.8

-0.9

-1.0

-1.4

-2.0

-2.6

-5.4

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11 million

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCE: UNHCR

Largest gender gaps among migrants

Men

Women

0

1

2

3

4

5

6 million

More Women Than Men

Russia

China

Ukraine

Philippines

Canada

Thailand

Kazakhstan

Germany

Dominican Rep.

Brazil

1.4 million

0.8

Most of the women who leave these countries do so in pursuit of a job or education. Many of the countries do not have gender-specific social or legal barriers to migration.

0.6

Gap between men and women

0.4

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

0.3

Fewer Women Than Men

Yemen

Indonesia

Nepal

Mexico

Myanmar

Egypt

Syria

Pakistan

Bangladesh

India

-0.4 million

Some countries have gender-specific laws or social norms that restrict women’s travel. Syria, Pakistan, and Egypt, for example, have laws that make it more burdensome for women than for men to get passports.

-0.5

-0.5

-0.8

-0.9

-1.0

-1.4

-2.0

-2.6

-5.4

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11 million

MONICA SERRANO, NGM STAFF; KELSEY NOWAKOWSKI. SOURCE: UNHCR

But by 2019, hate was on the rise again, despite increased police enforcement against extreme racist groups. A Levada Center report that year found that one out of two people supported the slogan “Russia for Russians,” while 71 percent said there were too many foreigners in the country.

In a statement at the time of the report’s release, Karina Pipia, a sociologist with the Levada Center, said that growing concern about poverty among Russians during the past three years may have contributed to negative attitudes toward migrants, whom some Russians blame for a shortage of jobs.

“I didn’t know there were ‘wrong’ nationalities,” says Guliza Akmatsiyaeva, who was 22 when she moved to Russia from Kyrgyzstan during an economic crisis in 2007, hoping to earn money to send back to her family.

She says she learned that hard lesson in Moscow, where she thought she stood out because of her Asian features, typical of Kyrgyz people. At the shop in the market where she worked, strangers walked up to her, hissing, “Go home!” and hurling racist slurs. “I felt like everyone around hated me,” Guliza says. “I was afraid that literally anyone could come and hit me in the face.”

One evening in 2016, Guliza says, masked assailants stole the money from the shop, smacked her with a gun, and beat her. When the shop owners arrived, she recalls their suggesting that because Guliza wasn’t Russian, she had organized the robbery—and her own beating—by migrant friends.

She says the police dismissed her report with a similar argument, despite closed-circuit security video that showed the assailants forcing their way into the shop. When ambulance workers arrived, they refused to treat her, Guliza says.

“They said I didn’t have the right citizenship,” she says. “They were just standing there laughing; then they left. It was horrible.” A policeman she knew from the neighborhood gave her a sedative. Guliza never went back to the shop, and it took her more than a year, she says, to recover from the trauma.

“Even now when I look for an apartment to rent, I go to the websites, and the listings say, ‘No Asians,’ ‘Asians don’t bother,’ or, ‘Only for Russians,’ ” Guliza says. “They were saying very openly, Your face doesn’t fit.”

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Shahrizada plays with eight-month-old Kagan. She started the Aiymdar KG organization to help other Kyrgyz women in Moscow navigate life in Russia and to provide a safe space to talk about relationships and family matters. A dozen women run the organization, which serves some 200 women and raises money for scholarships for 10 orphaned children back in Kyrgyzstan.

Newcomers to Russia often grasp for ways to cope and stay safe. Zhibek bleached her black hair blond to try to shield herself from racist attacks. Since she did that, she says, police have stopped harassing her, though other migrant women she works with from Moldova and Ukraine continue to be targeted.

Amid the hostility, some newcomers find solace—and material support—from fellow migrants and their mosque communities. “The mosque always helps,” Zhibek says. Her mosque gave her money and food when she arrived in Moscow and didn’t yet have a job. And during the pandemic, she says, another mosque has taken in migrants who’ve become homeless and delivers meals to those who’ve lost their jobs. “It’s not just financial help,” Zhibek adds. “It’s the moral support from the mosque that is so important.”

Two Kyrgyz women in Moscow, Venera Bokotaeva, 40, and Shahrizada Adanova, 26, started support and skills training groups for fellow migrants. Venera established one called Bakyt—Kyrgyz for “happiness.” “I wanted to see women with happy eyes,” she says, “and I decided to start this group to help them.”

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Shahrizada and her friend Venera Bokotaeva leave an Aiymdar KG meeting in Moscow. Venera runs another support organization for Kyrgyz women called Bakyt (Kyrgyz for “happiness”). Venera, who has degrees in law and international relations and experience as a dressmaker and seamstress, brought a diverse set of skills with her to Russia when she moved there with her husband in 2017.

About a thousand women are now members of a Bakyt WhatsApp group, where they find a sense of community and arrange get-togethers, such as the time 90 women showed up at a Kyrgyz teahouse in the city, sharing platters of plov, an Uzbek dish of rice and meat. Shahrizada set up an online support group for Kyrgyz and Uzbek women where they can exchange helpful information—recipes, for example—and messages of motivation or empowerment.

Guliza, who studied law in Kyrgyzstan before moving to Moscow, went on to earn a master’s degree in law at the Russian State Social University. That led to a position as a lawyer with a real estate company in the city. She does pro bono work on the side for migrants, helping them recoup unpaid wages and advising them on how to assert their rights when they’re stopped arbitrarily by police. Don’t be rude, she advises—ask about the grounds for detention, and if the officers do something illegal, live-stream the encounter immediately. Guliza also formed a WhatsApp group, where she sends out warnings on days, such as April 20—Adolf Hitler’s birthday—when it may be dangerous for migrants to go out in public.

Zhibek Turgunbaeva says that whatever suffering or unhappiness she encounters in Moscow, the reason for being there remains the same. “I just want to make the money I need as soon as possible and leave. I really want to leave. If I had my own house back home, I wouldn’t have thought about staying even for a second, because I haven’t seen my children grow up.” Back to top

Ksenia Kuleshova is a documentary photographer based in Germany, Belgium, and her native Russia, where she’s working on a long-term project about the LGBTQ community. Follow her on Instagram @ksukuleshova. Veronika Silchenko contributed reporting in Moscow.

Judith Manjoro was a high school teacher in Zimbabwe. She had no intention of leaving her country, but when tensions between the government and an opposition group she supported erupted into violence in 2005, she fled for Johannesburg, South Africa’s boisterous, booming hub of 5.7 million people.

There, Judith, now 55, took on various jobs available to migrants: cleaning houses, doing laundry for families of means, selling Tupperware on the street. Eventually, she was granted asylum.

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Kwanele Nkala teaches her five-year-old students at a primary school in Yeoville, a district of Johannesburg. Kwanele left Zimbabwe, where she studied to be a teacher, and was recruited to work at this school intended primarily for migrant children, who often are unwelcome at public schools.

It was in 2009 during her afternoons off as a domestic worker, she says, that she noticed Congolese, Burundian, and Zimbabwean children out on Johannesburg’s streets and in parks, unsupervised and rootless. She asked them why they weren’t in school.

“Children of migrants, especially those with no documentation, would find it was impossible to get into school,” Judith says.

South African law states that all children should have access to public education. But securing the right documents to enroll foreign children in schools has long been difficult, so much so that in a 2019 report, the South African government identified the problem as a form of institutional xenophobia. As a result, tens of thousands of undocumented children have been unable to go to school.

Judith decided to link up with a fellow Zimbabwean, Siboniso Mdluli, 58, who’d taught primary school back home, “to use our time to take care of this need that we can see.” They started an informal study group for out-of-school children and spent the day teaching lessons the students would have learned in formal school. “Parents saw what we were doing,” Judith says, “so they just kept bringing their kids.”

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Judith Manjoro, who fled violence in Zimbabwe in 2005, stands in the primary school she founded in Yeoville almost a decade ago. The school serves children who often were prevented from attending public schools because they lacked documents such as birth certificates or passports. A South African High Court decision in December 2019 confirmed that all children have the right to basic education, including the roughly one million undocumented South African and immigrant children.

As the numbers grew, their effort attracted the attention of officialdom, and early in 2012, Judith and Siboniso were arrested for operating an illegal school and taken to a holding cell. Judith says she was able to pay her bail and was released but that Siboniso was jailed for several weeks. For about a year, they were in and out of court before their case was dismissed without an explanation.

Judith guesses the authorities concluded that what they were doing was “beneficial to the community” and that they should be allowed to keep going.

The two women began the process of making their school official. “As migrants,” Judith says, “it is for us to make the necessary arrangements for our kids to go to school.” They wanted to give youngsters opportunities to “become productive members of the communities in which they live so they become self-reliant and self-sufficient.” If later on they return home, Judith says, with an education it’s possible to build the future. “You can’t just go back home and become indigent again when you get there.”

Judith and Siboniso rented a building in Yeoville, a neighborhood of Johannesburg where many migrants live, and registered a school under the name Velamfundo, which means “arise with education” in Ndebele, a language spoken in Zimbabwe. By 2019, Velamfundo Primary School had some 350 students in eight grades, most of them children of migrants.

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Women sell vegetables and snacks along the main commercial avenue in Yeoville. After the apartheid regime fell in the early 1990s, white residents fled the area, giving way to a wave of working-class South Africans and migrants from other African countries. Today more than half the district’s residents are foreign-born.

It was a struggle to open the school, Judith says, and “the struggle continues. Money is a huge, huge problem.”

As a private school, Velamfundo is funded entirely by the parents, most of whom have low-paying jobs—as security guards or street vendors eking out a living by selling items such as secondhand clothing.

Judith had hoped to secure funding from NGOs and philanthropic foundations, but no support was forthcoming. She says she keeps the fees as low as possible—450 rand, about $30, a month—and that the migrant community has scraped together enough to keep Velamfundo open.

In 2019, unemployment in South Africa rose to 29 percent, the highest in a decade. Then the coronavirus hit. In March 2020, South Africa imposed a strict COVID-19 lockdown, and schools, including Velamfundo, were required to close their doors and stop in-person teaching until August.

By December 2020, unemployment had increased to 31 percent, heightening the financial strain on millions of South Africans. Many undocumented migrants, ineligible for government food parcels, have gone hungry, and medical care has been out of reach.

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Sisters Joaquim Talu (at right) and Christelle Lessa (at left), both from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wait with a friend for customers in a hair salon in Yeoville, reopened after a three-month COVID-19 closure. Customers are scarce because so many people have been hit hard by the pandemic. Joaquim, the salon’s proprietor, was evicted from her apartment during the lockdown; and she and her three children had to share a single room with another migrant woman and her baby. Joaquim got by with food assistance from charities.

Anti-migrant sentiment, which had simmered for decades and periodically erupted in targeted attacks and deadly riots, intensified. In a September 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented new or resurging xenophobic hate groups that blamed migrants for the hardships South Africans faced. Judith says she saw online messages maligning migrants in Yeoville as criminals and openly calling for violence.

Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director for Human Rights Watch, says politicians have inflamed xenophobia by making speeches blaming migrants, who make up 7 percent of South Africa’s population, for the pandemic and calling for policies “to exclude foreign nationals.”

In May, the government began easing lockdown restrictions. Amid the fear, violence, and deepening financial hardship caused by the pandemic, Judith drew on her abundant resolve and self-reliance and scraped together enough money to gradually reopen the school. She’d used up her savings during the lockdown and didn’t have enough money to restart her Tupperware business, so she turned back to cleaning houses and doing laundry for families.

Velamfundo parents who’d lost their livelihoods began raising tuition money by doing odd jobs. Meanwhile, Judith says, the owner of the school building agreed that she should pay whatever rent she and the parents could afford. By August, Judith was hopeful that the school would survive.

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Constance Ncube, 54, works as a live-in housekeeper in a Johannesburg neighborhood. She migrated to South Africa from Zimbabwe in 1997 and uses the money she makes to support her family back home. She’s also building a house for her daughter and grandchildren in Zimbabwe, where she plans to retire. Zimbabwe is the largest source country for immigrants to South Africa.

But in December, a virulent new strain of the coronavirus forced another lockdown and pushed infections in South Africa to 1.2 million confirmed cases and more than 33,000 deaths. Schools, including Velamfundo, which are now on the summer holiday break, are awaiting word from the government about when they can reopen. Meanwhile, Judith says, whatever money parents may have saved for school fees is “going to be depleted. The money will be used for other immediate needs.”

Judith doesn’t turn students away when their parents can’t afford the fees, but her shortfall has been substantial since the lockdown in March 2020. The landlord has been generous, Judith says, but he still has to pay for electricity, water, and other building expenses. “Naturally, he can’t continue to support us from his own business,” she says.

After a decade of fighting for a safe place for migrant children to study, Judith is now faced with the possibility that Velamfundo may shut down permanently. “If the lockdown continues as it is,” she says, “then that risk is really alive.” Back to top

Miora Rajaonary is a documentary photographer born and raised in Madagascar. Through her work, she focuses on identity and social issues in Africa. Follow her on Instagram @miorarajaonary.

HOW TO HELP: For information about schools for migrant children in South Africa, contact organizations such as the African Diaspora Forum and the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town.

The city of Quetta, Pakistan, is surrounded by soaring, snow-dusted mountains. But Farheen, 22, never ventured into them. She avoided the city’s bazaars, made few friends, shunned boys. She loves to dance but only did so in front of the mirror at home; women in her culture can be shamed—or worse—for dancing. “I’m not conservative,” she says. “Just terrified.”

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Bibi Sabar, 22, at left, takes a selfie with a friend outside Islamabad’s Faisal Mosque. Bibi moved to Islamabad to study IT at the urging of her family because the violence against ethnic Hazaras like her in her hometown of Quetta made it dangerous to attend a university there.

Farheen, who has only one name, is a Hazara, a member of an Afghan ethnic group and Shiite religious minority that has been persecuted, discriminated against, and massacred by rival ethnic groups, the Taliban, and other religious extremists for more than a century. Poverty and waves of war and violence in Afghanistan pushed many Hazaras out of the country.

In the 1960s Farheen’s grandparents crossed into Pakistan. They settled in Quetta, now home to some half a million Hazaras. Most live in one of two walled enclaves, penned in by police checkpoints as well as perpetual fear of violence. Since 2003, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Hazaras in Quetta have been killed in targeted attacks and bombings. Hazara culture can be brutally patriarchal. “They talk about honor killing in a very casual way,” Farheen says, referring to the practice of men killing women they believe have shamed the family. “It scares me.”

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Human rights activists hold a candlelight vigil in Islamabad on January 10, 2020, for the more than 90 Hazaras killed in bombings in Quetta on that date in 2013. The Sunni militant organization Lashkar-e-Jhanvi claimed responsibility for the attacks. The annual observance is held to bring attention to the ongoing targeted killings of Hazaras in Quetta.

As Farheen puts it, “When you go to Quetta, your mind starts to close in. Your mind and heart both.” But, she might have added, when you venture away from Quetta, your mind and heart open up. Hazaras chafing against the strictures of life in Quetta may decide that to have a future, they must migrate to countries such as Australia, Iran, and Turkey. For many young Hazaras in Quetta, education has been their path to new confidence, and to freedom. In the Hazara interpretation of Islamic values, education is socially desirable and a religious imperative—a lifelong pursuit for women as well as men. For Farheen that meant leaving Quetta, in 2017, to study literature at the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

There, more than 400 miles from home, Farheen says her fears diminished. She began taking the bus to classes and going to bustling public places. She became more open-minded. When she first heard of K-pop, the musical genre from South Korea, she dismissed it. “The boys looked like girls, and they had makeup on,” she says. But the catchy songs got her attention. She started paying attention to the lyrics, and soon she was hooked. She says she feels bad now for being judgmental. “K-pop has helped me a lot in being accepting towards new ideas.”

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Haleema, 22, at left, a Hazara from Quetta who has just one name, chats with classmates during poetry class. To support her university course work in Islamabad, Haleema teaches preschool. She plans to become a schoolteacher or university professor.
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Another Hazara from Quetta, 22-year-old Farheen, studies English literature in Islamabad. Here, she does homework at a women’s hostel near her university. Above her bed are photos of K-pop stars whose songs she credits with opening her mind to issues such as homophobia and mental health.

Farheen became curious about Korean culture. She studied the language and practiced K-pop dances. The groups sang about homophobia, mental health, and the difficulties of being a teenager, which helped her emerge from years of anxiety and depression.

She sees her foray into Islamabad as just the first step in discovering a world beyond the confines of Quetta. After graduation, she’d like to visit Canada, maybe study dance in the U.S., or tour Afghanistan, her Hazara homeland. She can imagine living in South Korea. Above all, Farheen is on a path toward freedom from her past and the weight of her culture’s history of persecution. Where she really wants to go, Farheen says, is “somewhere nobody knows me.” Back to top

Saiyna Bashir is a Pakistani photojournalist who covers ethnic violence, health care, migration, and climate change. Follow her on Instagram @saiynabashirphoto.

It was 2017, three years into the civil war in Yemen, when photographer Thana Faroq, then 28, sought asylum in the Netherlands.

In Sanaa, Yemen’s capital and Thana’s home city, armed Houthi rebel militias had taken control and were marching through the streets. A few months later, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition backing the deposed Yemeni government were killing hundreds of civilians and reducing neighborhoods to rubble. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Taizz, shelling damaged her grandfather’s house. Relatives fled the fighting there and piled into her mother’s house in downtown Sanaa, where bombs blew out windows and scattered glass on the floors.

“My husband and I were in a great danger,” Thana says. In their apartment about three miles from her mother’s house, they pulled their mattress into the space between the bathroom and the kitchen, the only windowless place where they could be safe from glass projectiles. “We would go to sleep not knowing if we would be alive by the morning,” she says.

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I made this self-portrait in an antique store in The Hague in March 2020. I don’t like having my photo taken, and self-portraiture for me is an act of confrontation—so much is revealed by just looking at my face in a photograph that it scares me. I sometimes feel that I’ve aged so much from what I’ve been through in the past two and a half years.

Thana says she first dedicated herself to photography when she returned to Sanaa in 2013 after graduating from college in Massachusetts.

She turned her camera to the streets of her city and to the faces of her fellow Yemenis. Photography became a way “to reconnect with the place” after she’d gotten used to life on her liberal college campus in the United States. Yemen is “a very, very male-dominated society,” she says, but the camera gave her a sense of freedom and allowed her to assert an identity beyond the conventional, limited expectations for women as wives, mothers, daughters.

After war broke out in 2014, Thana says she avoided documenting the “madness and the destruction. If I photograph it, then it’s real,” she says. Instead she sought out the normalcy of daily life as a way to deny—and defy—the grim reality: grainy black-and-white photos of veiled women walking in the street together; an old man reading the Quran; hot bread gathered into piles at a bakery; a child’s smile illuminated by a sparkler. That’s how Thana says she made the war “not real—it never happened.”

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In 2016 as air strikes escalated in Sanaa, my husband and I slept between the kitchen and the bathroom to avoid being struck by shattered window glass. We both later got scholarships to continue our master’s degrees in Europe and thought that by the end of the academic year, the war in Yemen would be over, and we’d return. But in 2017, we found ourselves with no choice but to seek asylum in the Netherlands.

In 2016, Thana left home to pursue a master’s degree in documentary photography at the University of Westminster, in London. She believed the war would be over by the end of her academic year and that she’d return to Yemen.

“But that was a stupid dream,” she says. “War never ends—not easily, at least.” Rather than return to the violence in Yemen, Thana flew from London to Amsterdam, where her husband, Jamal Badr, was a student, and entered the Dutch asylum system in September 2017.

That year, 712,250 people from countries ranging from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to Nigeria and Venezuela applied for asylum in the European Union, driven by violence and persecution. During the previous three years, more than three million people had sought asylum in the EU, many of them arriving on foot in unbroken lines of thousands, or washing ashore in Italy, Greece, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean on crowded dinghies.

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The beach glows at sunset in the coastal town of Zandvoort, west of Amsterdam, where I spent a weekend this past summer. Everything seems so magical, almost unreal—so beautiful and quiet.

Thana spent her first four months in the Netherlands moving from one asylum center to another as the government processed her claim, eventually approved for five years, after which Thana can apply for permanent residency and citizenship.

As she grappled with the dislocation and uncertainty of her new life, she reached again for her camera. She photographed the stark, institutional spaces of the asylum centers: the heavy steel doors in one that used to be a prison, the beams of light falling across a row of tables, and the simple bed in the room she shared with a couple of other asylum seekers. “In a way I was trying to analyze my emotional interior landscape through the physicality of things,” Thana says. The solidity of these buildings somehow helped her confront the reality that the Netherlands, not Yemen, was now her home.

Thana says the day she left the security of the asylum center for an apartment in The Hague, where Jamal joined her, was one of trepidation and fear. She had to rebuild her life. “I need to reestablish my existence, I need to heal from traumatic memories, I need to get used to the absence of loved ones,” she remembers thinking. “The list was long at that point,” she says.

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A young girl who lived in my asylum center in Utrecht experiences snowfall for the first time. I’d got up that day to the smell of coffee prepared by my roommates from Syria and Yemen. We sat having breakfast when all of a sudden snow fell. It was a special moment for me and the girl.
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This is the view from the window of my room in the refugee camp in Utrecht. An entry in my journal in 2017 conveys what it was like there: “I was shocked today when I woke up and found out that it was already Friday. The truth is, as a refugee, you are hardly aware of the time or the days. It doesn’t matter if it is Saturday or Monday, or if it’s 7 a.m. or 9 p.m. Days look similar, and so does the time. What matters is that each night around 10 p.m., we know that our names will be listed for either a transfer, another hearing, or for any other purpose. People wait restlessly anxious about what comes next.”

Thana’s photography has allowed her to accept disruption and chaos in her life, and three years after her arrival in the Netherlands, it has provided a path toward acceptance in Dutch society. She says that getting assignments, even mundane ones such as photographing a bridge or a university trip for a magazine, affirms that at least on the professional level, she isn’t an outsider.

Thana is still struggling to learn the language, but she marvels at the tolerance of the Dutch people she meets, their willingness to open up to her in ways that make her feel connected. “I can form a home here. Not right away but eventually,” she says. “I’m happy.”

When Thana led a photography workshop for refugees funded by the Centraal Museum, in Utrecht, she was able to articulate another role the camera has played for her: as a tool for healing. She saw that sharing her photographs with others—who like her are haunted by memories, scarred by harrowing journeys, or nursing the ache of being far from home—helped them acknowledge their pain.

This simple act gave them courage, Thana says. “When you share your pain to others, it can start to feel empowering. You’re not the only one.”

Thana Faroq is a Yemeni photographer and educator based in the Netherlands. Her work negotiates themes of memory, boundaries, and trauma. Follow her on Instagram @thanafaroq7.
Aurora Almendral is a journalist based in Southeast Asia whose previous story for the magazine was about migration culture in the Philippines. The Everyday Projects network uses photography to challenge stereotypes and amplify storytelling worldwide. Eight women photographers came together to document the impact of migration on women around the globe.

The Pulitzer Center has created a companion curriculum for middle and high schoolers.