“My name is Asma, I am 25 years old and I come from Libya.
Growing up I used to come to Malta for holidays, and to study English. At first, it was a huge culture shock. In Libya houses usually have a courtyard and we can play there, as well as in the streets with other children. I remember we hated coming to Malta because we could not do that, we lived in a flat and had to go to the park to be able to play. That is a very weird concept for us, to have to go to a park to play, so we wanted to go back home every time. As you start growing up, however, you start appreciating the many more opportunities you have in Malta. I moved here more permanently, as a full-time student, at college level, and then I did all my tertiary education in Malta as well.
When I first arrived, there were not so many visible Muslims in Malta. During high school, it was a bit of a shock to me that I was a shock to other people. It was not that people were disrespectful, it was more that they could not understand certain concepts. It was also a time when a lot of terrorist attacks claimed by fundamentalist groups were happening in Europe and Islam and Muslims were in the spotlight. I was asked some uncomfortable and, at times, hurtful questions. Often people are not outright discriminatory in the way they treat you, they are just genuinely unaware of how to approach certain topics, but I believe they honestly just want to understand.
There is not a lot of diversity in Malta, I thought there would be and that it would be normal to be different, but that is not the case.
I have always believed that higher education is where integration happens at its maximum, because it is intellectual integration through informed discussions, and you are seen as a productive part of society. The University of Malta is the only place where I never faced any type of discrimination and always felt like like I was at home in Malta. The University contributed profoundly to my integration, also because it is a space where you are somehow provided with a sense of Malteseness, you are part of an academic movement that is immersed in the local culture.
I am very interested in a number of issues and migration is one of them. It is a topic I have been quite active on as a co-founder of Libico, a youth student-based organisation.
It all started in 2011 with the Arab Spring. Before that I used to live a very comfortable life, do the same things every young person does, so 2011 was a bit of a shock. You never believe it will happen until it actually does, and when it does you are unsure what to think about it. As many other people in the Arab world, I believed I had to be a part of this change. I was already in Malta at this point, so I started participating in the support provided to victims of the conflict and engaging with civil society organisations here. This was when I came to realise that the issues back home and the effective needs were deeper than I thought. Also, issues around migration were prominent, with numbers of arrivals increasing, but also with the effect of misconceptions in public perceptions. One of the main problems was the fact that there was such a stereotypical idea of what a migrant is. And here I was, a migrant as well, integrated and active in the community and somehow educated… I had something to contribute.
The perception that people have of migrants, especially of North African migrants, as non-English speakers, uneducated, was limiting the opportunities for many migrants. That is why we started working at University level with several students with different backgrounds, either Libyan students or other nationalities but with a Muslim background. We tried to build new narratives to inform people about different countries but also about what these countries have contributed to the development of our collective global citizenship throughout history, in the fields of philosophy or science, among others. We tried to counter misinformed narratives through an academic approach. So we established Libico in 2015 to work on the Libyan diaspora and people somehow affected by the Libyan conflict, focusing not only on integration here in Malta, but also on partnering with NGOs in Libya. We, as the diaspora, can contribute to the bettering of our country’s situation and can support Libyans re-integrating into our own society. Contrary to popular belief, most migrants actually want to go back home at some point in their lives, if they can.
We, Libyans, have a very strong sense of belonging to our country, but it is not based on any conception on nationality, it is related to the land and to our ancestry. I am from a village of the indigenous population of Libya, my entire family originates from there. We have a family history connection with every part of the village. For example, my grandmother used to remember all its palm trees and which palm tree is the daughter of which other palm tree. There is a deep-rooted relationship with the land. We understand that our environment and lives are also the result of the collective work of the people that have come before us and we need to be appreciative of that.
I have just submitted my Master’s dissertation and I am now struggling to get my residence permit, since my education is finished. I thought of applying for some form of subsidiary protection, but I still want to be able to go back home, so I am faced with a dilemma. I really do belong in Malta, I feel like a local sometimes, I even get heated in political discussions. Malta has provided me with an opportunity to expand my horizons, challenge concepts I had, grow as a person and understand myself in the global context as well. I see Malta as my second home; in Europe, I do not want to go anywhere else. I feel like I belong here, but the law does not agree with me.”
Interview by Ana Ferreira