Yasmina Filali’s Intervention at the Forum VI in Beyrouth – Migration and Identity in the Mediterranean

Beirut, Sursock Museum, September 8, 2017

Yasmina Filali, founder and president of Fondation Orient-Occident


My view of my work at the Fondation Orient-Occident for 22 years, is that of a person engaged in the field on both sides of the Mediterranean, in France, Morocco and most recently in Italy. The contingencies of sub-Saharan history led me to take care of migrants and to focus on the problems of identity. For a long time I asked myself the following question:

How to circumscribe the question of the identity of the migrant, of the “other”?

The answer is complex: migration, according to Yasmina Filali, does in fact carry with it the question of identity: every man, every woman or child who arrives from elsewhere has his/her own identity. And the identity unfolds in two ways.

On the one hand there is the personal level, that we do not share with anyone – that makes us unique, indivisible (this comprehends our name, our body, the voice, the footprints, all other peculiarities, the talent a person may have, one’s own trajectory, with all his/her particular choices …): this means being a “self” compared to others. On the other hand, we find the collective level, what is shared with others, with the community: this powerful superego that imprints its marks on the individual (education, culture, religion, codes, behaviors).

But identity is not fixed, it is evolutionary, it may or may not adapt to its initial context as it may or may not adapt to a new context.

It is important for me here to quote Amine Maalouf since we are in his country, Lebanon, “Identity is both where we come from and where we are going”, he writes in “Deadly Identities”. There are, of course, more or less difficult trajectories, more or less marked lives. Sub-Saharan migrants who leave their homes to escape war or misery often fantasize the countries to which they are heading. Between “dying” or passing “the other side”, they have no other choice. When they arrive in Morocco, this country does not constitute for them a host country but a transit country. Whether they are trapped in Morocco or if they manage to “cross”, there is always this breaking point in the migration route; the anxiety for them is expressed by this gap, a terrible emptiness, a guilt … Where am I going? What am I leaving behind? My land that I give up, my roots, my origins, my memories, my past, my family … On these questions others are added: What will be my future identity? On which bases will I set my self? What will I lose or win at the contact with the other?

At the creation of the Foundation, 22 years ago, together with my team, I created socio-cultural and vocational training centers for the employability of young Moroccans living in difficult neighborhoods. One morning in 2006, hundreds of sub-Saharans arrived in the headquarters gardens in Rabat, following clashes in Ceuta and Melilla between migrants and the border police.

Two partnerships have accompanied the Foundation in welcoming migrants and refugees: the UNHCR and the International Cooperation. The first 7 years were difficult, we almost worked in secrecy. Why ? The theme of migration was stumbling over a wall, the identity wall. Whoever comes from elsewhere, especially if he is black, is badly perceived, especially in a difficult economic context. The question that arose for any migrant who arrived was of several orders; how would he/she be welcomed and what would he/she do in a transit country? Once the passage to Europe became problematic another question arose for him/her; how to live in another culture without renouncing to one’s own? Then there is a great feeling of guilt and betrayal in relation to his/her culture of origin and to the community he/she abandoned. As the number of migrants and refugees increases, a feeling of mistrust develops on the side of the host populations. What are they doing? Are not there enough beggars at home, enough unemployed, enough poor? Are not we, too, people who are trying to leave? What will we lose from our own identity at their touch? What will they take away?

“If you want people to get along, give them to build together.”

Saint Exupéry explains how one can make people meet durably. A common project is the meeting point, the bridge. This is the moment when one opens to another, it is the moment of listening. The meeting point. A common project also means a common dream and a common destiny. In front of a common project, the same grid of reading, makes fear and difference fall. In any human adventure, the migrant can build his/her life in his/her new country by participating in the enrichment of the community where he/she finds himself/herself. He/she creates, becomes useful, regains dignity. He/she becomes a mediator between two cultures, an intermediary between two identities … two worlds. His/her contribution to the other is no longer a break but a link for the encounter. To build together and to give one’s culture to others to see, to live, is to value oneself by looking at the traces of one’s own origins. This recognition is vital: it will situate the person in relation to others, and in the eyes of the host community.

Two examples, among others, illustrate the perfect success of our support to migrants and sub-Saharan refugees. How to make two different cultures, sometimes contradictory, live together in a hostile space? How to make accept that culture or person who comes from elsewhere by avoiding to strike the one who sees them invade his space? For us, at the Foundation, the meeting was made around a common project, that of sharing.


Migrants du Monde

A simple embroidery and sewing workshop has become the symbol of interculturality. Composed of Moroccan women and sub-Saharan, Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugee and migrant women who left countries decimated by civil wars or by economic plagues. Arriving in Morocco with nothing left but with the knowledge of the art of embroidery of their country, the workshop becomes depository of this ancestral knowledge transmitted by these migrant women. Moroccan and migrant women find themselves around a common economic project, here again the “building together” determines the integration of one and the reception of others. In the long run, this workshop becomes for them an identity marker and a place of sociability. We exchange, we talk to each other, we bond friendship, we become ONE family.


The Rabat Africa Festival

On June 20th of each year on the occasion of the World Refugee Day, the FOO organizes the Rabat-Africa festival, first district festival for the métissage of the Moroccan and sub-Saharan populations in order to fight against racism, exclusion and indifference.


Organized in Morocco, land of Africa and a link between the countries of the North and the countries of the South, the festival pays tribute to African talents through the most varied artistic expressions: dances, songs, body expressions, music, but also film screenings, lectures, readings, exhibitions of works of art. An African village, made up of African-style earthen huts, hosts many exhibitors and cooperatives from different regions to highlight the local craftsmanship of South and North Africa. The market is a formidable social vector for the mixing of Moroccan neighborhood communities and migrants from elsewhere. Over the years, all these cultures, incompatible at first, have merged with the Foundation and we have seen emerge a mixed identity, that of diversity. Unthinkable at first, we can now see in the street, mixed couples and unions between sub-Saharan migrants and Moroccans succeed.


I have often been asked the reason for my interest in the question of identity and in the issue of migration. Effectively, I am personally confronted with dual identities. Born in France and of Franco-Italian mother, I lived in France, I was totally Westernized until the day I had a call. The call of my missing half, that of the Arab world where my Moroccan father comes from. So I was confronted with dual affiliation, even if this approach is not that of migrants. When I moved to Morocco, my dual identity seemed to me problematic because there is often a clash between two worlds, two cultures, two visions. I had to reconstruct this fragmented identity. The migrants sent me back the image of myself, as if looking in the mirror: that of an unsuccessful identity that it was necessary, like for them, to build with the other myself. The violence that accompanies this re-construction of identity is difficult. An identity that is not understood, not accepted, implies lines of fracture because the gaze of the other can judge you; it locks you up or frees you, it can accept you or reject you.

I experienced this in France, and I was able to live this problem when I worked with the youth from difficult suburbs in Paris and Meaux, where young people were actually crossed by lines of cultural, religious, identity and social fractures. They were chained to a random culture and identity; those of the parents, marginalized in the structures of a country which they consider as theirs, they see themselves as doubly victims, and for this they develop this need to feel a solid “membership”. The only, nearby, is that of the parents. It should not be surprising, then, that young French people of Maghreb origin take refuge in mosques, the only place that gives them, in a total incomprehension of religion, a certain coherence of identity.

However, over time, migrants have settled, brought women and children, have had others on European soil and generations of immigrants have succeeded one another, thus creating communities apart, living among themselves in identifiable neighborhoods where culture and original identity took over, stifling the culture and identity of the host country. Religion, as a community cement, covered its right of citizenship. Tolerance and laxity did the rest. This is why, even today, Europe is still struggling to agree on a common immigration policy. Without vision and without a common project, migration becomes a threat to the Union, which risks collapsing by sinking into insecurity and violence.


And the Mediterranean in all this?

What is of that role of civilizational crossroads that the region played for long in the progress of humanity, when migration was a source of development and of mutual enrichment through trade and cultural, social, architectural, scientific, craftsmanship and artistic skills exchange? Would it become, over time, a pole of fear and despair, of madness and death? Would the Mediterranean Sea be nothing more than a bottomless cemetery for those whose hopes have been assassinated by war criminals or the scoundrels of politics? The crossing remains random, dependent on fatality. Or it opens up before those who flee to face incomprehension and racism, or it closes on them and it is the end of a journey, a life, the end of an illusion for whoever passes as for the one who dies …


In conclusion:

In this globalization where the standardization of beings, things and behaviors becomes rule, where individuals lose their authenticity and their particularity, each seeks to stand out in this monotone, featureless and flat world. Identity reinforcement inevitably comes from the fact that the present time imposes a unique vision of the world; the same culture, the same television, the same education, the same dream. The modern world recognizes only one value for the individual; that of its bank assets. One oscillates then between mercantilism and deprivation. The dissonance comes between the two as a barrel of dynamite.


So, what future for métissage?

“When modernity bears the mark of the Other, it is not surprising to see some people brandishing the symbols of archaism”. But never have people so migrated upseting the rules of integration, the policies of each country, those of Europe, the different balances.

Like it or not, a new identity is under way in Europe, the one that is being built before our eyes, the one we must build together. It is taking shape, in fits and starts. It also carries old migrations, Muslim one, who wake up in the heart of Europe.

It will undergo many upheavals, again, but we already see some cities in southern Italy, Spain, become an African third. Identity will be plural and diversity will be our most difficult learning. The new ways of communication and technology will give new reading grids and will bring in them new requirements.

If identity is also where one goes as Amin Maalouf says, it will have to be forged in multiplicity.

ElenaYasmina Filali’s Intervention at the Forum VI in Beyrouth – Migration and Identity in the Mediterranean