Human Rights Day: We’re Both Migrants, But For Very Different Reasons

Yesterday, I celebrated 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence with a post on Bilbao’s No Means No Campaign. Today, I’m celebrate Human Rights Day by sharing my experiences of encountering refugees while traveling, and how this changes my perspective on movement.

“Marhaba,” I told my two new Iraqi friends in Arabic. Hello. A simple enough phrase to break the ice.

“Ana assafir al sharq alaousat,” I said with a smile. The two Iraqis giggled. In my formal Arabic I had learned at college, I tried to say that I traveled to the Middle East. I actually haven’t, but I couldn’t remember any other words. Darn you, Al-Kitaab!

I was on a metro, accompanied by my sister and Kimberly. We had just come from Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası, a regional Turkish cuisine restaurant in Istanbul’s Aksaray District. “They are so conservative there,” our Couchsurfing host had told us when we passed it in the car on our first day. “They are all immigrants, many from Syria.” The people in hijabs and long, white tunics could have very well been. Turkey currently has an estimated 1.5 million refugees, most of them Syrian.

hatay sofrasi
Jennifer, Kimberly and I and our new best friends- the waiters at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrasi.
At the restaurant, we were the only women not fully covered. We were also the only women without screaming, crying children. The young, male waiters had taken a special liking to us. We even took a selfie with them. One patron saw us struggling and offered his selfie stick, which, in the end, caused us even more technical difficulties. This meant more time causing a scene in front of the presumably conservative families present.

The two Iraqis on the metro had struck up a conversation with Kimberly. I was sitting in a seat nearby when I overheard. Never missing a moment to embarrass myself and speak Modern Standard Arabic, I stood up and joined in.

“I’ve been here a few months,” Mohammad, the more vocal of the two, told us. “I don’t really like it.” I explained how much I loved Istanbul. I thought it was a beautiful, dynamic city with so much to offer. Mohammad shrugged.

We were traveling several metro stops-around 45 minutes-to get back to our Couchsurfing host’s apartment. As people rushed on and off, families disassembled and assembled strollers and my bored looking sister sat nearby, the four of us-Mohammad, his friend, Kimberly and I- continued to talk.

Life isn’t easy in Iraq right now. It hasn’t been for a long time. His story seemed to mirror so many others I had heard. Either on the news or in person, people fleeing violence all say the same thing. They are happy to be safe. But they just wish they could go home.

This is something often overlooked when I hear others talking about immigration. Many migrants (fleeing violence) aren’t thrilled about having relocated. It’s not something they would have chosen, but living with violence wasn’t an option anymore.

Like Mohammad, I am a migrant. Both he and I had left our home countries. The difference is that I left mine by choice. I had an easy, comfortable life at home. When I leave, it is to experience new things, people and places. He leaves to escape imminent death. I was standing in front of man who escaped violence that my tax dollars could very well have contributed to.

It was a moment (like so many I continue to have) of recognizing my privilege. I can easily flow in and out of borders. When I travel to new countries, the authorities at customs aren’t afraid I’m going to stay illegally and I am never stopped for random security checks. After landing in the airport in Stockholm, the officer at customs asked what I was doing and let me through without further inquiry. The Thai man next to me didn’t gain entry so easily. He was asked to present bank statements. When he couldn’t get wifi to access his accounts online, he was put in a holding room. I don’t know how long he was in there, or if he ever got through.

A few months after meeting Mohammad in Istanbul, Jennifer and I were in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We werecraving Middle Eastern food, and we were in luck. A quick search on Trip Advisor pointed us to Taste of the Middle East, an Iraqi family-owned restaurant. The owners are one of three Arabic families living in the city.

We were seated by Ali, a sassy preteen who skateboards and played American rap music from his phone. There were six tables with four chairs each. Although the restaurant has become very popular, we were the only two eating that night.

Mohammad, the eldest son, was our waiter. The mother of the family, Muna, cooked our meal. We devoured a cucumber and tomato salad, baba ganouj, and shawarma. We were stuffed, but couldn’t miss a chance to have dessert. We had homemade baklava and mint tea.

As we ate, Muna, Mohammad, and Ali sat near us. Ali had a plate of food of his own he was scarfing down. Curious as to how an Iraqi family ended up in Cambodia, a country known for its brutal genocide, we began asking questions.

Turns out, many people have asked them before. After eating at the restaurant, I did some googling. Taste of the Middle East and the family have received significant media attention for their unique situation (and the light their case sheds on a recent Australian-Cambodian refugee deal). Phnom Penh Post, Reuters, SBS and even Munchies,VICE’s food website reported on the family’s story.

Mohammad told Munchies,“I’m from Fallujah…The worst place on Earth.” In our conversation, he wasn’t as direct, but he did express a deep sadness for his home. He explained that Fallujah was devastated. It was dangerous, violent, and opportunities were limited. After reading the news articles, I wondered how many times that Mohammad had told that story.

The family lived in Malaysia before relocating to Cambodia. They came on business visas and opened the restaurant. This opens a multitude of complications, and even more stressful, uncertainty about their future. While we were in the restaurant, a man visited. He sat at the table across from us and spoke to the family. Speaking in Arabic, I couldn’t understand the conversation, but I understood a few words: “visa,” “travel,” and “Iraq.” I used my incredible investigative skills and deduced they were discussing visa issues.

It wasn’t all serious, however. Ali grinned every time he saw Jennifer. “What do you like to do?” she asked. “Not much,” he said. “I am just here, in the restaurant.” The events of life turned our conversation somber yet again.

Ali doesn’t go to school. He already speaks near perfect English, among other languages. Unfortunately, the family can’t afford the tuition of the private international schools. They told us that Khmer schools were of very low quality. That leaves them with educational options.

Although he doesn’t go to school, he has managed to make friends in the neighborhood. Mohammad told us Ali has already picked up Khmer. “We’re worried he’s going to convert to Buddhism!” Mohammad joked.

Jennifer and I walked 45 minutes from the restaurant back to our hostel. On the way home, I thought more about my ability to move about the world. Mostly, I thought about what the family said about missing friends and family back in Iraq. I leave my country, but I can come back at a minute’s notice. I know with certainty that I will be able to see my family when I want. I thought about when I lived in Argentina and I missed home the most. Knowing my return home would come soon, I was able to continue studying, working, and enjoying Buenos Aires without an issue.

I was stuck on the idea that we both travel, but our reasons are so drastically different. Therefore, our outcomes become drastically different, too. Most migrants in new cities don’t spend time visiting the cultural exhibits or trying all of the restaurants in the city. Often, they don’t even have free time to learn the local language. Many leave without hope of ever seeing friends and family again.

For Human Rights Day, December 10, I want to remember Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 13.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Mohammad, the Iraqi I met in Istanbul,  and the owners of Taste of the Middle East in Cambodia have the right to return home. Technically, they could go home now. But what life would it be? Would they have the space and the freedom to express themselves as they wish? Could they leave the house free from fear of being assaulted?

Discussing refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants of any motive is a complicated topic, much more complicated than I am able to explain in this post. While traveling, we meet all types of people. In my travels I’ve come into contact with Burmese in Thailand, Vietnamese in Laos, Iraqis in Istanbul, Syrians in Greece, Moroccans in Spain, Senegalese in Paris, Indians in Rome, Swedish in Portugal. Europeans, North Americans, Australians and Kiwis can be found in plentiful numbers all over the world.

All of those mentioned are in a way migrants. But all are for different reasons. While traveling, coming into contact with migrants made me reflect on the circumstances in which I embark on the world. We all have the right to leave and return to our countries, but can we?

Small side rant: Many fellow travelers judged us on craving Middle Eastern style food in Cambodia. That’s not “authentic”! What’s more authentic than seeing how a country truly is? If that country involves an Iraqi family, I am getting a real sense of the city by visiting their restaurant and speaking with them. They belong to the city now, too.

Featured Photo: Arabic language globe at the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam. 



#16DaysofActivism: The No Means No Campaign in Bilbao

To commemorate the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign, I want to share photos of a violence prevention campaign in Bilbao, Spain.

bilbao 60
Bilbao is the new Las Vegas

16 Days of Activism runs from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. The fifth goal of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals is gender equality. These 16 days are meant to bring light to the violence that women and girls face around the world, solely because of their gender. Citizens, policymakers, and educators are taking a stand.

Around the globe, 1 in 3 women has experienced some form of gender violence. Like the rest of the world, Spanish women grapple with physical and sexual violence, and many activists have brought attention to devastating femicides. Read the Spanish Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality’s 2015 Report on Violence against Women to learn more about gender-based violence in Spain.

Semana Grande de Bilbao

This past August, I visited Basque Country. Yes, this is same trip as the Pitbull incident. The day that Pitbull didn’t accompany us, friends and I went to Bilbao to see the last weekend of the annual celebration, Aste Naguisa.

Aste Naguisa is a 9-day festival celebrating Basque-ness. Political and neighborhood organizations set up tents.  In these tents, participants drink, play games, and see performances. Walking around the endless pedestrian-only streets we saw the organizations’ massive murals and artistic takes on pop culture, consumer society and world events.

bilbao 54
It’s the Basque spiderman
bilbao 62
There’s a lot of references going on here. The Basque Uncle Sam?
bilbao 55
Protest for Spain’s anti-protest law
bilbao 61
Play on consumer culture.

The narrow cobblestones streets were filled with overflowing tapas bars, street vendors and loud music. Those celebrating the festival wear purple scarves.

bilbao 15
The scarf the party goers wear

The protagonist of the festival is Marijaia, who, surprisingly, is burned to celebrate the end of the 9-day event. Marijaia means “lady of the party,” and she is meant to symbolize optimism and dance.

bilbao 42
Happy and dance-loving Marijaia here to say “hey!”

She comes in different shapes, forms, and versions.

bilbao 8
Marijaia even made an appearance at the Guggenheim cafe in Bilbao

The above photo was the first Marijaia I saw. At first I thought she was just a fun decoration. Then I realized her significance. Below is an example of a smaller version, seen in a shop window in the central distinct.

bilbao 16
Mini-Marijaia in the house, throw your hands in the air!

Marijaia was everywhere. But among the tents and crowds, I noticed a different version of her I hadn’t seen before. This Marijaia was purple, with a winking face with the words, “Egin Keinu bardintasunari” (Make an equality gesture) under it. At the bottom, it reads, “Ez beti da Ez,” or “no means no.”

bilbao 13
One of the posters of the campaign in the city center.

The campaign “Ez beti da Ez,” financed by the Bilbao Town Hall, had the support of 880 businesses located on the grounds of the event. The campaign distributed 700,000 napkins with the phrase, “¡Ez beti da ez; no es no. Insistir es acosar. Acosar es agredir¡” (No means no. To insist is to harass. To harass is to attack) to be placed in those restaurants.

bilbao 28
Some of the napkins I saw at a tapas bar I visited.

The directors of the campaign also distributed cards with emergency phone numbers and had a hotline available for people to report violence. Buses on certain lines throughout the city were also decorated to spread the word on preventing violence, and to provide information for those who needed to report.

bilbao 23
One of the buses in Bilbao’s center.

It struck me as impressive that the local government was able to make this campaign so visible. Everywhere I saw a billboard, a poster, a sign, a napkin. The message “no means no” was unavoidable. It was loud and clear, just as the campaigners intended it. Their goal was to make the event for all people and free of prejudice and violence of any form. Festivals are for joyous celebration, not for chauvinism and aggression.

As my friends and I joined hundreds of people circling around teams competing in traditional Basque games, I couldn’t help but notice a huge “no means no” sign behind the crowds.

bilbao 37
The winking Marijaia gives her message

I walked around the people as an announcer was speaking in Basque. When no one cheered when expected, she switched to Spanish and said, “So no one speaks Basque here?” As she continued, I saw a few girls holding a cutout. It was a giant, winking Marijaia with her face cut out. Festival goers could show their support for the campaign by inserting their faces in the sign.

bilbao 48
Traditional Basque games that were going on as I observed the cutout

For 16 Day of Activism, I celebrate this campaign. I celebrate the town hall’s creativity in associating a revered cultural symbol with consent and equality. Violence prevention efforts are more effective when they are continuous and consistent. I hope the campaign served to remind people to respect others. I hope that in case someone was in danger, the campaign’s hotline was there to help.

Do you also want to wink for equality?

On these 16 Days of Activism, I hope everyone takes a moment to understand the challenges women face around the world. Your education shouldn’t make you feel powerless, however. One of my favorite quotes is by Charles Dickens:

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burden of anyone else.

Each of us has a chance. A chance to lighten the burden of someone else. To step up for those who have been pushed down.

  • Read here for my tips on handling subtle micro-gender-based attacks, especially in the classroom.
  • Read here for tips on how to confront abusive language.
  • Read the U.S. Department of State’s blog on three ways you can participate in 16 Days of Activism. Your activism doesn’t have to end after the 16 days. Use this tips to be an advocate for human rights all year.
  • Read here for how you can help others by being at peace with yourself
  • Gear up to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8
bilbao 36
Feminism was present and vocal at the festivities

Featured photo: A mural at one of the tents

World Toilet Day: Bathroom Signs Of Southeast Asia

Maybe you’ve noticed I love talking about toilets. Spending most of my life in them, the time I am in them has become somewhat of a ritual. I appreciate their decorations, and more than anything I love a creative toilet sign. I am very grateful to have always had access to toilets, clean water, and education surrounding sanitation. Not all around the world are so lucky. In fact, over 2.4 billion people don’t have access to toilets or latrines. It is a human right to have access to sanitation and clean water, yet billions still don’t.

If International Women’s Day (March 8th) is my favorite day of the year, then my second favorite day is November 19, World Toilet Day.

World Toilet Day is a United Nations sponsored day in recognition of the importance of sanitation and hygiene. Goal 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals is to “ensure access to water and sanitation for all.” According to the U.N., “At least 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated.” This is due to lack of toilets, where contaminated wastewater is poured into water supplies and used for many things, including drinking and irrigation of crops. Over 1,000 children die daily due water and sanitation related diseases. Thus, there is a great necessity for World Toilet Day.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the U.N. reports that women and girls suffer even more. Lack of toilets means lack of privacy – and this puts them at risk for rape and abuse. I see a clear connection between the goals of International Women’s Day and World Toilet Day.

The United Nations encourages people to participate using the hashtag #wecantwait and to reflect on the relationship between clean water and nutrition.

To celebrate this day, I bring you photos of some of the best toilet signs I’ve seen during my current backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. Have you seen any great toilet signs? I love to see them- so if you come across any no matter where you are in the world, tweet them at me! (@yasminesoyyo)

Enjoy the photos, spread the word on World Toilet Day, and say #wecantwait for proper sanitation for all!


Thaim Out Bar, Koh Lanta, Thailand


Phnom Penh, Cambodia


Vang Vieng, Laos


Rest stop outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand


Rest stop between Pai and Chiang Mai, Thailand


Khao Sew Restaurant, Koh Lanta, Thailand


I.d. Bar in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


Bar in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


Envoy Hostel, Phnom Penh, Cambodia


In a mall in northern Thailand


Sister Srey Cafe, Siem Reap, Cambodia


Non La Mer Hostal, Koh Lanta, Thailand