When Njideka Ofoleta ’16 studied abroad in Spain last semester, she noticed something about the population in her neighborhood. She lived in an area with a high immigrant population, and although she saw many African men in public and in the media, she saw few African women. She realized that African women were rarely discussed, and she “wanted to delve deeper into that rarely-covered realm.” With a grant from the Emerson Foundation, Ofoleta has spent time in Morocco, Spain, and the United States to research African women immigrating into Spain.
Ofoleta’s interest in immigration comes partially from her own experience. Her own parents migrated to the U.S. from Nigeria in the 1980s. Ofoleta commented, “Because of their hard work and determination, I have been afforded the opportunities that I have today.” She noted, however, that immigration from Africa into Spain is very different from immigration into the U.S. Irregular immigration into Europe is widespread and most African immigrants must use dangerous and illegal methods to attempt to cross into Spain. Many immigrants face extreme hardship and risk their lives for “a chance to seek a better opportunity at life.”
Spain’s immigration policies focus primarily on stemming the flow of immigrants from Africa. According to Ofoleta, “This has led to low accountability and gross human rights abuses of migrants, and those who have suffered the brunt have been women, as they are the most vulnerable.” Human trafficking is an immense problem affecting vulnerable women trying to cross into Spain. Human traffickers “charge exorbitant prices to transport caravans of people across the Sahara, subjecting many to horrible human rights abuses.” When they arrive in Spain, many women are forced into prostitution.
Despite widespread human rights abuses, the experiences of African immigrants are rarely talked about in Spain. Ofoleta strongly believes that this subject needs attention. She observed, “It’s a horrible abuse of basic human rights how they are treated during transport, only to be seen as criminals and a burden to society when and if they reach their destination. I think it needs to be talked about.”
Ofoleta decided “to learn as much as I could about immigration to Spain from sub-Saharan Africa” and to share that knowledge with the public. She began learning before her Emerson project even started. During her semester in Spain she worked with a group of women from Mali through an internship. This experience piqued her interest in “femininity, identity and African femininity” and served as a starting point for her curiosity about the experience of female African immigrants.
She began her research this summer with a month of volunteering in Morocco. It is the closest African country to Europe and serves as the gateway of immigration between African countries and Spain. Ofoleta noted that Morocco and Spain share strong cultural ties “that go back to occupation, colonization, and the slave trade.” While in Morocco, she learned everything she could about immigration from sub-Saharan Africa to Spain and spoke with a few African migrants about their stories.
After a month, she returned to Spain to learn more about immigrants’ experiences there. She found that it was more difficult to talk to African women in Spain. Eventually, through working with the Nigerian embassy and other organizations, she was able to speak with more people. She remarked, “I learned a lot about going into a community and establishing relationships and trust that would allow another person to let you into their personal life.” She also researched the work of human rights organizations and initiatives that work to empower African women and rehabilitate victims of human rights abuses.
Now back in the US, Ofoleta is working on “putting together everything that I have learned.” Under the supervision of Associate Professor of Africana Studies Heather Merrill, she is writing a blog about her experiences and conclusions. She found that she often learned the most “from unofficial interviews and field observations,” which will all be incorporated into her blog.
She’s not stopping there, either. Ofoleta plans to build on the knowledge she has gained this summer and continue to help empower African women. She explained, “I realized that I do have a greater responsibility as a second-generation Nigerian and African to helping improve the conditions for women on the continent and off the continent.” She plans to study international relations and business after graduating from Hamilton and hopes to eventually work with the UN. Building on her undergraduate work, Ofoleta will continue to conduct important work on women’s rights.