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Christina, empowering refugee women to achieve their dreams

Written by Kimberley Ho
Edited by Olivia Ayes

Coming from a background of poverty, Christina Moreno dropped out of high school at 16, became a mom at 18, and was on social benefits with no promising future at all. Yet after a life-altering event with her case worker she decided to pursue a degree in law. Today, she is the founder and CEO of She Matters, a social enterprise recruitment agency working towards the social and economic empowerment of migrant and refugee women.

In 2017, she was invited to give a Hague Talk on inclusive justice, just as President Trump’s travel ban was in the news. Christina argued that the travel ban was not only a violation of international human rights law, but it also denied access to social services for those who needed it most: people in poverty or situations similar to what she had undergone.

After telling her story, she met with several refugee women who were in the audience that night. They invited Christina into their homes and shared their own experiences. One of the women she spoke to used to work as a seamstress but had to close up shop after she lost her husband who was killed whilst serving for the regime army.

“It became too dangerous for them to stay. She even ended up selling her wedding ring to fund the dangerous journey to Europe with her kids,” Christina shared.

Moment of clarity

There were three similar stories to that, but rather than feeling pity for the women sitting in front of her, Christina was touched. What she saw was the epitome of the unbreakable human spirit. Yet she was surprised to learn the answer to a question about what their dreams were, now that they had reached their host country: all they wanted to have was a job.

“Dreams shouldn’t just be working hard; dreams should be that your children develop the next big technology or end up owning a house. Why should having a job be part of that dream?”

One of the women she spoke to had obtained her PhD at home but, after having passed her integration course and whilst taking extra Dutch lessons and volunteering to keep her skills fresh, she still could not find a job in the Netherlands. Following this, Christina developed an insatiable appetite for learning and craving more information about women and employment issues. She spent the rest of her summer researching all there was to know about the refugee crisis, next to working her day job at Global Rights Compliance.

“Women and children make up half the refugee population but they’re not getting support. In the camps, there’s no gynecologist,” she discovered.

Looking at the problems here in the Netherlands, she found that there wasn’t a lot of data on women specifically, so she opted for outreach instead. “I would go to events and speak to women, asking about the problems and challenges they face here.” Again, women mentioned the need for employment.

Effecting change

Through all of that, she found the core issue for which she could help effect change, building on her own experience of rising out of poverty and overcoming adversity. “I can never fully understand their journey, but I do understand the feeling of having a child and wanting a better life for yourself and your child. I understand the feeling of not being supported.” Later that summer, she resigned from her job as a lawyer and founded She Matters.

Together with her colleagues, Christina works to implement change in a number of ways: “Getting them jobs but also changing policy and public perception – there’s a lot of work to do.”

One way is through the Lotus Flower Programme. Every year, refugee women can apply to the program without any initial criteria for educational or work experience. Focusing on the individual participant and aiming to maintain the quality of the program, the program recruits 8 to 10 women and matches them with companies.

“We ask the organisations to just give the women a shot. They have 12 weeks to try out the position to see if it works out. The companies can, in turn, experience a person who will add diversity to the workforce. Meanwhile, she can practice her Dutch, learn new skills, and network.” The refugee women attend weekly workshops on professional development, interviews, gender norms, managing their finances, and other dimensions that give her the knowledge to succeed in the Dutch labour market.

The need for support

Yet the foundation of the program is emotional and psycho-social support. “I believe that you can give someone all the hard skills that you can give them, but if you’re not okay in your heart it’s not going to be sustainable. Research shows that women are twice as vulnerable to sexual gender-based violence, modern slavery, and human trafficking from the time they leave their country of origin to the time they reach their host country. They have all these experiences— how can we not include this support?”

As such, the participants work together with an expert who helps with the program and offers support. The women also work with local mentors, native Dutch women who can help navigate this culture and society but also look over her CV or go for a coffee.

“It’s the women with each other that create a support network. Maybe they’re not from the same country, but they share an experience. If someone misses a workshop they will get a call from me but also from the other women. It makes them feel like they’re not alone.”

At the end of the program, Christina and her team will contact the organisations to ask how things went. Even if the organisations do not choose to continue, the refugee women still have relevant experience, which are added to her CV when pitching to a new company, as an alumnus of the Lotus Flower Programme.

Resilience and collaboration

Despite the word ‘refugee’ being a loaded term, Christina insists that the word should not be removed from the tagline. “It’s a conscious choice because I want to create a paradigm shift from all those negative images and associations about the refugee crisis. I try to humanise the word ‘refugee,’ especially when I go to the organisations. If people could see what I have seen, and hear what I have heard, they wouldn’t see a refugee as being vulnerable or weak. People would see them as strong, capable, and resilient. A lot of people think that refugees don’t want to work and that they would rather collect benefits, but that is not the case at all. They are not here for a holiday; they have fled human rights violations and conflict. That is why we don’t hide it. We’re using the word exactly because they overcame adversity, because they are here, and because they want to work. I want companies to know that their previous experiences will add so many benefits for the community.”

Not all her colleagues at She Matters come from a background in (human rights) law, but Christina says it does help. “My background gives me legitimacy to address certain issues – I know the law when it comes to human rights, migration, and refugees. That sort of validates me,” she admits.

What’s more important, especially when they approach the companies, is that She Matters uses evidence-based justifications. “I tell them that research reports that only 11% of refugees since arriving here in the Netherlands are employed, and since the number is non-segregated you can only imagine what the number is for women. Only 4 of the 2459 refugees in Rotterdam are employed fulltime. 95% rely on social benefits for housing and living expenses. You cannot deny these numbers. Does my background help? Absolutely, I can navigate policies better. It makes it extra challenging that as an American I want to influence policy in the Netherlands, but I am happy to collaborate with anyone who wants to tackle this problem with me.”

And collaboration is needed. So far, issues concerning women refugees haven’t been a focus of policymakers, and only recently have things started to change. Christina aims to implement She Matters in the four cities of the Randstad by the end of 2019. “I see the possibilities and the progress that we are making, and this gives me hope. It’s only the beginning, but I think to make real change and to have a lasting impact, it has to be on the policy level.”

She believes that better policy in terms of integration and support will trickle down to their families, their communities and, ultimately, their host country. “The municipality of Amsterdam gave us funding, but we need help from other municipalities and for them to be on board with us. It’s much easier to work in collaboration than to work in silos—that’s why we should break out of isolated fields to work together with NGOs, companies, civil society, and governments. Together we can cross-collaborate to create programs and rely on each other’s networks. It’s a long-term challenge that is going to take time. We need everyone on board.”