Updated: Feb 17, 2019
By Elizabeth Pennington
*The names of the participants in this article have been changed to protect their identity.
October 2018 | RABAT, Morocco — Gabriella was 12 years old, when she fled war and ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. On the second day of our "Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow" (YTT) workshop in the central Rabat, she quietly and politely asked whether she could draw the story of her sister, instead of her own. What she drew will stay with me forever. The now 14 year old had drawn a carefully crafted image, with subtle detail. Her sister, in love with her boyfriend, and, after discovering that she was pregnant, her family forced her to leave the home. It is my understanding that she then committed suicide.
We do not know for sure, we could not bring ourselves to ask... but by Gabriella's quiet, pensive state, there appeared to be no other conclusion.
After Gabriella left, I went and stood on the balcony to stare at the sea, for what seemed like forever - trying, and failing to keep myself present. It was a shocking introduction the reality that migrants face in Morocco. It was something that, if I am a honest with myself, I was not totally prepared for.
I had been in Morocco for two days, in the final week of October last year, continuing work on the art/research project "Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow" established by Irish, Paris-based contemporary artist Bryan McCormack in 2016. With the project focused primarily in Europe, this would be the first time that the project would come Africa. I felt privileged to be there and Morocco felt like the reality-check that I had needed.
The contrast to Serbia, where I had been eight months prior, again for this project, was obvious and raw. There, stories and drawings alike were graphic, some even traumatic and led to a kind of secondary trauma that I never thought was possible. In Morocco though, individual's drawings made me focus in on the challenges within the continent as a whole. They made me question things that I really did not want to confront about humanity. In the evening, our team would talk, drink Moroccan wine and have quiet moments of reflection. Trying to make sense of it all, even though we knew we couldn't.
The reality that I did not want to confront, was that until the wars, political unrest, ethnic violence stop - refugees and migrants will continue to come, they will continue to try, to dream... to die - and who are we to tell them no?
We also met Maria, a 38 year old Congolese woman. Her "Yesterday" depicted the brutal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Her husband had been shot and killed by militia as she and her children fled by boat. Maria then travelled through the desert in both Niger and Algeria, witnessing yet more death, more horror - all, with her children placed precariously on her back. Now, Maria has been living in Morocco for 10 years.
Yet, as I blinked away tears, she shrugged and simply said "C'est mon histoire" (It's my story).
She still dreams of crossing the Mediterranean and going to Spain. We asked her whether she wanted to risk the journey - after all, thousands of migrants have lost their lives during the crossing this year alone. Her reply: "I walked through the desert." "It is a real-world continent" a 19 year old American and aspiring foreign news correspondent told me over a coffee at Madrid airport on my return journey home. The daughter of the country music singer, she had been living in Rabat for four months, studying Human Rights and Arabic. As I told her about the work I had done in Morocco and the, at times, personal challenges that I overcome, it became clear to me that this was what I was supposed to be doing. I remember saying to her in an exhausted daze that: "If we weren't there, who would be?"
I still believe that.
It's been about four months since I returned home, the reality of what I have heard still hits at unexpected moments - in the supermarket, eating breakfast, speaking with family who want to hear of my time doing "exciting work in Africa." Although to me, it's more of a compulsion, a desire to listen and to witness. To me, it is meeting people who have given up everything, some who have lost everything and everyone that they know. Yet, they are prepared to lose everything, all over again, to make a new life for themselves, and their families, and that, more than anything, is inspiring.
As I prepare for my next trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in a week's time, I feel an ever greater sense of being involved in something bigger. As the project continues to expand and partner with leading Universities in Europe, I'm excited to see the growing impact that YTT will have....