If you have the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine, then you may be familiar with a story about women who risk everything to migrate, full of memorable stories. What you probably didn’t know is that the story was several years in the making and required the talents of eight women photographers, each from a different country. During a National Geographic Live event on April 13th, three of the photographers from this story (Danielle Villasana, Miora Rajaonary, and Saiyna Bashir) were joined by photo editor Jennifer Samuel and moderator Andrew Pudvah for “Women in Migration.” Here is a recap of this educational event, which was also repeated on April 14th.
This event came with a warning that some of the content could make viewers uncomfortable as there would be stories of sexual assault, domestic violence, and terrorism. Each of the three photographers shared stories and photos from the section of the featured article they worked on, with an opportunity for the audience to ask questions at the end. At the conclusion of the event, viewers got an update on several of the women discussed during the event to see how their situations have changed since the photographers stopped documenting their stories.
Danielle Villasana traveled throughout South America where she wanted to focus on trans women. Honduras, she shared, is one of the most dangerous places in the world for LGBT+ people to live and trans homicides are 80% higher there than elsewhere in Latin America. With an average life expectancy of 35, trans women often attempt to migrate north through Mexico to the United States in search of safety. During her presentation, Daniella focused on two trans women she followed on their migration.
Starting in 2018, Danielle met Alexa, a sexual assault victim who had tried to escape to Mexico, but got deported back to Honduras. With so much prejudice towards trans people, the established migratory routes pose their own set of threats, so most trans women choose other means in their attempt to find a safer place to live. On her third attempt to flee in 2019, she ended up with a broken leg from another assault. As of now, Alexa is an undocumented immigrant in Mexico working odd jobs under the table, still hopeing to one day make it north to the U.S. border.
Another trans woman from Honduras, Kataleya, faced threats in Honduras from her own family, where her brother beat her up so badly that her collar bone was fractured. He vowed to kill her, which is why she left. Unlike Alexa, Kataleya legally sought asylum in Mexico, which was granted to her. Danielle joined her for a day’s long bus ride to Tijuana, which she said was stopped twenty-times by immigration enforcement. Once in El Salvador, she was able to make a friend who helped her get a number to present at the border for asylum. Her number was closed to being called in early 2020 when the pandemic started and everything slowed down. At the time of the article, she was still waiting for her number to be called.
Miora Rajaonary lives in South Africa, having migrated herself from Madagascar. To set the scene, she shared that South Africa’s economy relies on migrant labor and it’s one of the most sought after places for refugees to go, with most of the migrants coming from elsewhere on the continent of Africa. Her presentation primarily focused on Judith in Johannesburg, who majored in English and Geography in Zimbabwe before migrating in 2009. It was then that she discovered that immigrants there lack the required documents to enroll their children in school, so she started teaching a study program to help the community. By 2011, it had grown to its own school and in 2012, Judith was arrested for operating an illegal school, even though she had filed for registration and was waiting on her application to be processed. She did get back to work, though, and by 2020, her school’s 8th grade class had a class of 350 students. She keeps her fees as low as she possibly can, around $30 USD per month. On the side, she sells Tupperware to make ends meet, but the future of the school is on shaky ground.
Saiyna Bashir’s coverage was from Islamabad, Pakistan where she focused on Hazaras, a Persian-speaking ethnic group from Afghanistan and A Shiite religious minority who have been persecuted and massacred for centuries by extremist groups. Those who had escaped to Pakistan are kept within a compound and still face discrimination and violence, rarely allowed outside of their confined walls. Within the compound, there’s just one middle school and high school, both of which are outdoors. Against the odds, she followed several young women from the Hazara community who were achieving higher education in college.
Having been raised in a patriarchal community with so many restrictions for women, the conversation touched on mental health, with Farheen sharing that K-Pop music helped her overcome her anxiety and depression, something she wasn’t even allowed to talk about before leaving her home in the compound. Farheen and the other Hazaras women studying in Pakistan have to work side jobs to pay for their school, but love the independence they feel taking public transportation. They still face descrimination and are unable to hide their Hazara lineage, with facial features that prompt staring and questions about where they come from. But in Pakistan where only 47% of women are literate to begin with, higher education is opening up new doors and allowing their dreams to take them far.
All of the stories told were included in that February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine, but the photographers were able to expand on the stories, sharing coverage that wasn’t included in the article and some personal stories, as well. But for anyone who was hooked by the article and attended this virtual event, one of the highlights was getting updates from several of the women.
- Kataleya – Just a few days before the event, Kataleya’s number was called and she’s now in the U.S. legally. It was a bittersweet moment as she had to say goodbye to her boyfriend Angel, but she’s now on her way to Washington D.C. from San Diego to work towards becoming a U.S. Citizen. She also shared that a guard at the immigration office was very respectful, asking for her chosen name.
- Judith – The pandemic has worsened the situation for her school, which is currently in debt and faced with a closure if they can’t pay it off.
- Farheen – Still studying, the pandemic has made things challenging because she lost her preschool job and is currently unemployed, but she is optimistic that things will turn around.
One of the interesting questions during the Q&A concerned how these photographers stayed safe while following these women on their journey. Part of their protocols included checking in with photo editor Jennifer Samuel when they were out in the field, and as part of her job, Jennifer also briefed each photographer on the risks of the areas they were heading into. They also shared that it was important to take a risk assessment and have a plan in place to get out if needed.
If you enjoyed this recap, be sure to visit nationalgeographic.com/events to see their upcoming schedule of offerings so you can take part in a future event.