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University and College Union members are taking strike action for two reasons, across  four fights. Two of the key reasons are

  1. to resist unwise and unwelcome changes to the pension scheme
  2. to demand action on the degradation of work place conditions including the gender and ethnic pay gap.

The pay gap is not anything new and is not peculiar to university employees and it is unacceptable. The disproportionately low pay of women and minority ethnic people is a social injustice that should be protested.

Below, in recognition of international women’s day on Sunday 8th March, we re-post the story of one woman’s struggle to earn a living and the challenges that she faced because of her gender and her migration status.

Maryam’s story

Maryam has been in Germany 16 days when we speak.

It is early evening and a pause in the demands of her three children means that Maryam has an hour to tell me her story.  I got Maryam’s number from another pro-refugee activist in Sweden. Both women, of Afghani origin arrived in Sweden in 2015, hopeful of a better life.

Four years and three months after her arrival, Maryam, together with her family, has left Sweden to apply for asylum in Germany. And she tells me why.

Maryam’s precision about the periods of time she has spent in Iran, Afghanistan, Sweden and now Germany is born of endless conversations with the Swedish Migration Board: the demands to offer an irrefutably documentary account of the refugee journey. Maryam has learned that even when time was hard to keep track of due to depression, anxiety, hunger, whether confined to a basement in Istanbul, a refugee camp on a Greek Island or a flat in small-town Sweden, precision is nonetheless demanded by officialdom.

Despite Maryam’s precision about the timing of her migratory movements, the Swedish state has repeatedly refused her asylum.

Maryam was born to Afghani parents as an undocumented migrant in Iran. As a child  Maryam wasn’t allowed to attend school, but at the age of 13, her family was finally granted residency papers, so she could start at the local school. Not long afterwards, a new Iranian president deemed that resources should not be wasted on educating girls, so she had to leave again.

Maryam nonetheless pursued her education privately, gaining a teaching qualification in Iran, and learning English, in addition to being fluent in Dari and Farsi.

As a young married woman she was deported from Iran to Afghanistan. She moved in with her husband’s parents where she was regularly abused. After three years she persuaded her husband to leave Afghanistan and they were smuggled to Sweden.

In Sweden Maryam applied for asylum and slowly regained her physical and mental health.

Within a year Maryam had learned to speak Swedish and gained employment as a facilitator and translator in short-term municipal cultural projects. Despite living in shared asylum-seekers’ accommodation without proper facilities for family life, Maryam felt that she was making a new life for herself and her children. With support from local colleagues, Maryam applied for work as a teaching assistant and her salary meant she could rent a flat and establish family life for her children.

Maryam was a model migrant, fighting for education and employment opportunities for herself and her children.

Then Maryam’s application for asylum was refused and she was denied the right to work. Without her salary, she lost the apartment. The family were destitute. Her children lost their school places and after-school activities.

Destitution was not the worst humiliation for Maryam. She had been prepared to beg the local authority for housing and accept a small and dirty apartment. She tolerated the insistent suggestion from a Migration Board official that she should return to Afghanistan. She waited for her appeal to be processed. She waited and waited, hopeful of the right to residency being granted.

But then a dog bit Maryam’s son. The dog, running off the leash in a playpark, attacked her son and wounded his back and ear so he required immediate surgery. The morning after the attack, the dog-owner let lose four dogs in front of Maryam’s flat.  Since the attack and its aftermath were all witnessed by citizens prepared to testify, Maryam hoped for justice.

At the court hearing seven months after the attack, the dog-owner was required to pay a minimal fine to her son. Maryam was aghast at the light punishment the dog-owner incurred

Maryam’s children have suffered  – through exile, the asylum process, their uncertain future. But the final insult was the dog bite.

‘So I had to leave Sweden: I could not let that happen to my child again’, said Maryam.

The decision to leave Sweden was not taken lightly: ‘It is not easy to leave.’ In addition to heartless and aggressive encounters Maryam has also ‘met fantastic people’.

Maryam’s story illustrates the inconsistencies and inhumanity of migration governance and the lack of hospitalityshown to refugees by institutions and individuals.

Maryam’s story illustrates all too well how gender-based violence in the context of forced migration can be experienced in a dangerous setting and perpetuated post-flight in another setting that is meant to be safe; a setting that should offer asylum.

In recognition of international women’s day Maryam’s story is offered by way of testimony to the persistent courage of refugee women: the courage to persist.

Despite violence at the hands of her in-laws, periods of debilitating depression, despite destitution, Maryam is starting again. She knows that she may not be granted asylum in Germany. She is realistic about the slow grinding of the national migration agencies. She has started to learn German in the hopes of being granted residency.

Maryam wants her voice to be raised because her story stands for hundreds of other women’s stories.

She says ‘I know lots of women whose stories are far worse than mine’. Sadly, our research suggests that Maryam is right.