- 17 Feb 21
A participant in the #AllAgainstRacism campaign, Mariaam Bhatti came to Ireland as a housekeeper and live-in minder, working 80 hours a week. It was only later that she realised that she had rights. Now, having earned a degree with the support of three Irish women, she helps others less fortunate than her, in the battle against racism.
Mariaam Bhatti is a participant in the #AllAgainstRacism campaign being run by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Mariaam, who has since worked with the UN and the Migrant Rights Centre in Ireland, came to Ireland first at the invitation of her then-employer.
They exchanged a few emails and one phone call. Mariaam was offered a job on the condition that she purchase her own flight ticket. “I started working as a full-time live-in housekeeper and childminder three hours after my employer picked me from the airport,” Mariaam recalls.
How did she feel at the time?
“It was a tough start, but I was relieved to come straight to a job, and have food and a roof over my head in a foreign country. I worked 12-14 hours a day, 6 days a week (including bank holidays) for €400 a month. But I didn’t know better. I was just equipped with dreams for a better life, free of poverty and different to the one I was raised in.”
African migrant workers are often disproportionately affected by what Mariaam terms economic marginalisation.
“Economic marginalisation,” Mariaam explains, "means that a group can never easily have a decent life, a liveable salary, or comfortably afford their children’s education or qualify for mortgages. They also have lesser chances of being in managerial or decision-making roles.”
SHOCKED OR NUMB
At the start of Mariaam Bhatti’s life in Ireland, she was spurred onward by her lifelong dream of attending University. But she didn’t understand that, as an employee, she had rights – making it easy to exploit her. “I depended on my employer for survival and income, and power dynamics come into play in such situations,” Mariaam says.
It wasn’t until Mariaam joined the Domestic Workers Action Group that she found a sense of belonging to a wider community here in Ireland.
“We campaigned together with other migrant workers/migrant domestic workers for many successful campaign outcomes, including the criminalisation of forced labour.” By 2021, Mariaam has over a decade’s worth of experience working as an activist in the social justice sector. “I feel I have a purpose in Irish society, which is now my society, too,” she says.
Despite Mariaam’s success, she is no stranger to the sting of racism, nor immune to the hurt it causes.
“One of my first experiences [with racism] was on a Dublin bus, when I was on a call and I happened to be mixing English and South African words that have a clicking sound,” Mariaam says. “I was not loud, but an older woman came on the bus, put her bag down in the priority seats and walked toward the back seat to tell me she did not want to listen to my conversation.
"I politely told her I had not asked her to listen, and she repeated her order before going back to sit down. Within a minute, a man answered a call and spoke in a European language, laughing away, sitting literally a metre from the woman. She did not bark orders at him. It was interesting to notice, but she was my grandmother’s age so I didn’t hold it against her. Where I come from, we don’t disrespect elders, no matter their behaviour towards us.
“Unfortunately, I have had many similar incidents from women and men… there are times when I am angry about it, but I can’t change who I am – my looks or accent – and so I have to find ways to live with it, to survive it.”
Research, carried out by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission late last year, found that 8 out of 10 people thought Ireland benefited from a more diverse and inclusive society. Does Mariaam see any kind of disparity between this finding and the way that bystanders deal with racism, if and when they encounter it?
“Definitely, a disparity exists,” she says. “In my experience, more people are quiet about racism than those who step in and help fight it. When I talk about an experience during a racist incident, people often look as if they are hearing a fairy tale. Maybe they are shocked, or numb, or don’t know what to say. Sometimes they change the subject or will only ask for the details of the incident – as if to measure how racist the action really was.”
A PRIVILEGED POSITION
Still, Mariaam maintains that her positive experiences in Ireland far outweigh the negatives. Her story is an inspiring one – though it musn’t give rise to complacency.
"I am grateful to have friends who treat me well,” she states. "My first degree was funded by three Irish women, who put their funds together to pay my tuition for three years for my undergrad.”
This was life-changing for Mariaam. “I had dreamed about going to university all my life. At 32, after 18 years of dreaming about it, it was Irish women who made it possible and another Irish woman who convinced them to consider it. They will always be my ‘sheroes’.”
Mariaam also recognises her own privilege, and helps facilitate positive change through mentorship.
“I remotely mentor 5 young people in South Africa and Botswana who did well in school but come from backgrounds like mine,” she says, "where parents had never gone to school or could not read or write, and don’t earn enough to send their children to university. These are young people with potential, but no means – and I am in a privileged position to walk them through the college application process.”
In a special video, recorded for the anti-racism campaign, she says that understanding comes from people being able to recognise and see their own privilege.
“Look at ways to create spaces where you can for groups that are underrepresented,” says Mariaam. “Mentorship programmes can help scaffold others and bring them up to speed, and positive measures are necessary to bring about equity and minimise discrepancies. Imagine what the world would look like if we created opportunities for, or extended them to, those with little access? Imagine a world where we used our privileges positively.”
• To learn more about the #AllAgainstRacism campaign, visit the IHREC website.