“If I don’t speak out, nobody will” – Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf

Mariam Ibrahim Yusuf, campaigner, public speaker, choir singer and mother has been awarded Woman of the Year by the United Nations refugee agency and U.K. nonprofit Migrants Organise. The ceremony will be held in London on March 11, 2016. Yusuf risked her life to leave war-torn Somalia with the help of smugglers to the U.K. eight years ago. Separated from her children and having been repeatedly rejected for asylum in the U.K., Yusuf is a fearless spokesperson for the rights of women—especially those fleeing war and violence—despite her legal limbo status. Huffington Post’s article, “Somali Who Overcame Horrors To Fight For Refugees Named Woman Of The Year,” details her journey from fleeing Somalia’s civil war in 1991 to the Jomvu refugee camp in Mombasa, Kenya. Forced to marry an older man whose other wife physically and mentally abused her, Yusuf entered a deep depression. After the camp closed in the late 1990s Yusuf, at the time a mother of two, and her family returned to Somalia where clan warfare intensified and her brother was killed. In light of this danger, her father told her to flee to Europe, promising to follow with her two children. However, since her arrival in the U.K., she has not been able to contact her father or children, despite attempts through the International Red Cross.

Living in the U.K. without asylum or refugee status means Yusuf cannot work, and for her first three years in England she was homeless. Moving to Manchester, she found a place to live with other female asylum seekers through a local nonprofit, the Boaz Trust, which allows her survive through a small allowance. At that point, she got involved in the support network and campaigning group Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST), taking a leadership role and spearheading petitions on both the local and national level to change policies for asylum seekers. WAST provides a drop-in center for female asylum seekers and organizes awareness campaigns. As Laura Padoan, a UNHCR associate and one of the judges of the Women on the Move awards states: “Rather than give up hope, she dedicates all her time to helping other women and making sure that something positive comes out of her experiences of detention and destitution…Mariam refuses to be beaten by the grim hand that life has dealt her; instead she radiates strength and resilience.”

Have you been following the refugee crisis’ that are happening throughout our world? What ways have you found to support refugees and asylum seekers, in the US and abroad?

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