In honor of World Refugee Day, Anila Noor joined us for an interview about her experience as a refugee and work as a Gender Migration Policy Expert.
We don’t have to look far to find strong, inspiring women around us, but what stands out the most about Anila is her story. Anila says she has been a feminist since the day she was born. She continued to foster those values all throughout her early life and career, working as a human rights activist in Pakistan and becoming the first person in her family to attend university, later continuing on with her masters degree on scholarship in the Netherlands. But due to unimaginable events, she was forced to claim political asylum and quickly went from researching human rights violations, to living them.
The moment that she went from student to asylum seeker, her accomplishments no longer appeared to matter. She was no longer the “amazing student” that everyone praised. She became a statistic, making her feel as if she didn’t exist.
“You become just like a number, and your story’s not your story anymore. I don’t even hold my own individual number, I am part of my husband’s.”
Anila was forced to claim asylum in the midst of the 2015 refugee crisis. She was part of the wave where the European refugee reception system collapsed, and witnessed all of it. Shifting around from camp to camp over the course of the following year, she saw and interviewed many young women like herself. Most of these women were coming because of the lack of opportunity in their country; running away in hopes to access a secure future. The girls she interviewed were as young as 18 or 19, some even younger, but who lied about their age to better their chances of entry.
Within a year Anila began writing policies for the city of Amsterdam. Here, she continued to work with and interview women, and quickly saw that there was no system that really helped migrant and refugee women. All she encountered were organizations that brought them together to cook and eat. Anila quickly realized how removed migrant and refugee women are from the policy debate, and that maybe Europe isn’t as far ahead of Pakistan in women’s rights as she thought.
“In Pakistan, when you are a daughter no one asks you what you want to do. Their investment in you is to find you a husband because they feel like they are securing a future for you. You are a burden to them. This is the system. But in Europe it is the same; no one asks you what you want to do or what is your experience. They are either pushing you to work in some stereotypical low-profile job or to stay at home and make babies.”
To date, Anila has achieved three masters degrees and is currently working on her PhD. She is a former member of the European Advisory Board, former fellow of Open Society Foundation, core team member of Global Refugee Led Network (GRN), co-founder of GIRWL, Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders, and has created her own successful platform for migrant and refugee women. Anila is a daughter, a sister, a wife, an activist, a specialist, an advocate, but the label that continues to define and follow her is ‘refugee’, which is what she has spent much of her career trying to change.
“I always tell people to imagine a refugee woman. Close your eyes and what image comes to your mind? It’s usually a woman crying, helpless. Now imagine any woman, and we all know a powerful woman that would come to our mind. That is what I am trying to challenge.”
Anila recently created her own platform, New Women Connectors (NWC), to address this problem by giving voice to migrant and refugee women living in Europe. It seeks to translate policy discussions in a way that women can understand, so that they can actively participate in the issues that affect them. It seeks to create a network of change-makers, helping women to see their power and then giving them a place to share it. NWC is seeking to change the refugee narrative in Europe through visibility.
They are working to create this visibility by highlighting, discussing, and promoting role models who are refugees, so that when we imagine a refugee we imagine resiliency in place of helplessness. They are promoting and training women to help bring awareness to their work, so that people will stop underestimating them.
“I am not trying to push every woman to go and work, but every woman should have the power to go and make her own decision, and before making her decision she should have all of the information.”
“What we are doing at NWC is talking, because when you are talking it means that people are listening to you, and that you are generating new ideas and thoughts. We are all refugees at some point. We shouldn’t take them as someone who needs help, but someone to lead the discussion. They are here. They are doctors. They are engineers. They are more than just refugees, and it’s time we stop talking about them without them.”