Resilience? What does it mean for returned migrants who have survived dangerous journeys?
“To me, resilience means protecting myself and being able to withstand an unfavorable situation,” says Rosamond Erica Johnson, who returned to The Gambia after a harrowing seven-month journey to try and reach Europe that ended in Niger.
Then COVID-19 hit. The pandemic threatened to turn Rosamond’s newly established life upside down in an instant. The crisis is challenging the resilience she built up over months of struggle, putting her grocery shop at risk — her sole source of income.
In late March, shortly after The Gambia’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported, a national state of emergency was declared. Restrictions imposed on everyday life under lockdown, seen all over the world to prevent the spread of the virus, have hit trade and market activity hard. Rosamond had to act fast to keep her new business afloat.
“The business I operate sells attaya (green tea), sugar, milk tin, stationery and other similar items. It was going well, and I was using the profit to pay my rent, cover for my daughter’s education and healthcare and support my family,” she says. With schools now closed, stationery, one of her most popular products is no longer profitable.
With her business on the edge of collapse, Rosamond adapted quickly. “I assessed the market to understand what people want now, then invested in products that are marketable.” With the growing demand for ingredients, Rosamond began selling palm oil and gari (tapioca). She also took advantage of increasing reliance on online activities and is now selling mobile phone credit. “This business is not bad at all for me, despite the pandemic,” she notes, with relief.
Rosamond demonstrates resilience, like thousands of other returnees, who survive life-threatening ordeals to try and reach Europe. Rosamond’s attempt left her stranded in the Sahara. With assistance from the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, she returned home. Along with thousands of other returnees, she has made a name for herself, despite the stigma and whispers of being a failure.
Like Rosamond, Oumie Camara is another returnee grappling with the impact of COVID-19. Oumie is learning how to maximize her profits from a rise in demand for seasonal produce. After nine months of attempting to reach Europe, she returned to The Gambia from Libya. She initially opened a cosmetic shop, using the profits to diversify her market garden. “I was making money growing and selling vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber and lettuce,” says Oumie.
Her business has not been spared by COVID-19. “The vegetable markets are only allowed to open for a very short period, and some of my vegetables are perishable.” Ramadan gave Oumie a glimmer of hope. As the demand for vegetables rose, she worked double-time to grow them in her garden. “I explored this opportunity and made as many sales as I could,” she states. “It shows that even amid the pandemic, we need to grab opportunities when they arise.”
As many returnees innovatively adapt their businesses in this difficult climate, others are finding ways to support their communities. Ebrima Sambou now spends his time volunteering. Ebrima established a grocery shop as part of his reintegration package after returning from Libya in 2017. He passed the shop’s management to his brother as he pursued work at a construction company. With the construction industry at a standstill and his brother overseeing the shop, Ebrima has joined the Kanifing Municipality Red Cross Link to deliver hygiene items and health information to the most vulnerable.
“As a former Red Cross volunteer prior to leaving for Libya in 2015, I already had experience in sensitizing people about Ebola during the outbreak in the region. I even utilized this skill along the backway, providing first aid service to fellow migrants on our route to Libya,” explains Ebrima, highlighting how the skills he has learned as a result of his migration experiences are being put to use in this pandemic.
Ebrima, Oumie and Rosamond all share one skill they are putting to use — a gift for public speaking and encouraging people to take positive actions in their communities. After returning to The Gambia, Ebrima and Oumie joined the Youths Against Irregular Migration (YAIM) association. The organization has embarked on multiple nationwide initiatives to sensitize youth on the risks of and alternatives to irregular migration. Meanwhile, Rosamond has participated in a number of radio programs covering migration.
All three have joined the Migrants as Messengers volunteer network, through which they have eagerly participated in digital COVID-19 campaigns. “I did a handwashing demonstration video,” Ebrima says. He reveals with pride that his friends called him to say they watched his video. “I encouraged them to further learn the proper procedures from the World Health Organization.”
Rosamond accepted the “Stay Home Challenge”, inviting volunteers to show how they stay busy and healthy at home while respecting distancing protocol. Her advice? Sing and be joyful. Oumie took on the challenge as well, displaying her passion for horticulture in a clip of her gardening at home.
“There are people in The Gambia who do not believe the reality of the virus,” laments Oumie. “We are glad to participate in awareness-raising initiatives to counter some of these myths.”
Despite the continuing threat COVID-19 poses to communities, it has done little to quash Ebrima’s, Oumie’s and Rosamond’s resilience.
Ebrima, Oumie and Rosamond received return and reintegration assistance through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration. Their participation in digital COVID-19 campaigns is supported through the Migrants as Messengers initiative.
This story was written by Lamin W. Sanneh, IOM The Gambia’s Media and Communications Assistant.