The Struggle of Women Across the SeaSilvie and Joelle
In April 2017, Sylvie and Joelle wanted to cross the sea to escape their predicament and start a new life in Europe.i They did not know one another until they boarded the small rubber boat in Turkey, together with twenty-two others, including two children. Sylvie was anxious and entered last, handing over her red bag to Joelle who promised to return it after their safe arrival. They departed, but at some point, somewhere in the Aegean Sea, they ran out of fuel and could not continue. Sylvie tried to call for help, but her phone was caught by a large wave. Lost at sea, Joelle, who was in the eighth month of pregnancy, started to cry and pray for help, but nobody came. The boat capsized, and everybody fell into the water, drifting away from each other.
Sylvie and Joelle were separated, but Joelle did not give up. “I had a strong feeling of power in me. I don’t even know where this came from. Where we fell in the sea there was nothing: no boats, no fishermen, no police, no one.” She was able to stay together with two others, Guilaine and Teddy. They floated in the water throughout the night, trying to stay conscious and together. But at some point, a wave parted them, and Joelle was all alone. Hours later, she suddenly saw a boat approaching. She was taken aboard the rescue vessel of the NGO ProActiva and brought to land.
Sylvie was able to stay together with three others as well, holding hands, talking, giving each other hope, and trying to stay awake. But after a while they also lost one another, and when Sylvie was finally discovered, she could not see anymore. “The sea salt had burned my eyes. I was blind.” She was brought to Joelle and together they went to the hospital. Joelle wondered: “Where are the others? Let’s hope they bring them even if they are not alive. But no one could join us. The same evening I saw an assistant and a psychologist and I asked them: ‘Where are my brothers and sisters?’”
Eventually, they were informed that only the two of them had survived. Two out of a group of twenty-two. Joelle still had the red bag with her, and returned it to Sylvie. “I thought maybe she has her money inside, I can’t abandon the bag.” Joelle said that without the search-and-rescue NGO, they would not have survived. She gave birth a few weeks later to a healthy girl. “She is my joy and my power. I believe I would have died if she was not in me. God really pitied me. It’s really a miracle. I call her Victoria-Miracle.”Intersectional Struggle
Stories of women struggling across sea borders are rarely heard. When we do hear them, women are often simply portrayed as subordinate, exploited, and passive victims who depend on male companions, and who lack individual migration projects and political agency. The erasure of their agency and voices is also the effect of hegemonic narratives of migration to Europe, in which ‘the migrant’ is routinely imagined as young, able-bodied, and male, more an abstract figure than a human being, commonly constructed as a dangerous subject against whom border enforcement and deterrence policies are legitimized.
Knowing well that the personal is political, and the political is personal, we want to listen to women’s voices and stories, and be inspired by their disobedient movements, their strength, their resistance. This report is being published shortly after International Women’s Day, on which women led demonstrations all over the world, including in Spain where the first nationwide ‘feminist strike’ took place against sexual discrimination, domestic violence, and the wage gap; or in Turkey where the crowd of protesters shouted: “We won’t shut up, we aren’t afraid, we won’t obey”.