Remarkable student and daughter of refugees shares her powerful story

Emma Lehbib studies international and European law at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. She is currently doing an exchange semester in Nairobi, Kenya. She also works for a non-governmental organization and has helped to organize demonstrations, moderate events and plan campaigns to liberate Western Sahara from the Moroccan occupying power.

Born and raised in Germany, Emma is part of the Sahrawi Diaspora and still has many family members who live in refugee camps under harsh conditions and mostly rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. According to the United Nations World Food Program, 88% of Sahrawi refugees are food insecure or at risk of food insecurity and 52% of Sahrawi refugee women between the ages of 15 and 49 suffer from anemia.

Emma learned important skills as a leader in political simulations such as the Model European Parliament (MEP) and Elephant Model United Nations (ELMUN). She helped to organize a conference for 130 students as part of her role with MEP; and, as secretary general of ELMUN, an international summit of 200 students, Emma guided the General Secretariat and the staff team.

A 2020 Young Women in Public Affairs (YWPA) Awardee, Emma is part of the Bremen City Golden Z Club. In October, she was featured by Zonta International in a Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories event, a leadership series hosted by Lynne Foley OAM, chair of the Zonta Spirit Working Group.

Here are some of the top takeaways from their conversation:

How her parents' stories shaped her

"I've always enjoyed being in a classroom, and, as a child of migrants, I knew [that] education is the key to a good life and many possibilities, especially in Germany. But I also grew up with the activism and the stories of my parents because they both are from Western Sahara. My father experienced the war as a soldier. My mother had to flee as a young child in the refugee camps, and later on was sent to Cuba to educate herself. So, I grew up with these stories, and I guess they make me who I am."

How she chose her path of studies

"I feel like the studies reflect the experience—the interest I had during school with the political simulations, and they also reflect what has affected my family. So, studying international law, which is like the basis for the self-determination right of the Sahrawi people, is my way of honoring the stories of my parents, and what is also my own story."

Making a difference for the Sahrawi people

"For me what I'm hoping to do as a person in the diaspora, and having many more opportunities and privileges, is to create a discourse and create attention for the cause. Because whenever someone asks 'Where are you from?' and I say, 'Western Sahara,' people just can't locate it or don't know what it is and what it is about. And it's a highly political issue, but it should be known. For me, it's creating awareness so whoever goes into projects or becomes a leader can always consider Western Sahara when it's needed."

What drew her to the Zonta community

"Gender equity still needs to be fought for and Zonta contributes to it. I also see the liberation of my people—or any people in the world—as the liberation of the women, because the Sahrawi women are most at the forefront, and for me always have been the most resilient and strong people. I know when I saw my mother, when I see my grandmother struggling in the refugee camp, when I see family in France fighting for their rights and demonstrations. So, being part of the Zonta community, I also want to uplift the voices of Sahrawi women who struggle against a patriarchal society and also against occupation."

How Zonta can reach young people

"I think a lot of young women—or young people in general—want to be part of big organizations and want to contribute to change, but they don't know where to start. I remember when I started to be engaged, I didn't know how I could contribute my own part. I feel like if Zonta is able to reach out to places where young women are at—so in schools, universities and other facilities—and just get to talk to them, I think a lot of them will join. [They] can give you new prompts as well, but I think they will also lead topics you're already working on. So, it's more about the exposure to Zonta that will, I think, create a lot of attention and relatability for young women wanting to join."

What she learned from being part of ELMUN

"It offered me so much in the way that I don't mind speaking in front of other people, I'm able to defend my position and be confident about it, that I wanted to offer the same experience to other young people. So, I became part of the organizational team over the years … and we wanted to make sure that what we had is also provided for the next generations following."

What we must do to close the gender gap

"We first need to start with ourselves. Because we socialize in a patriarchal society we have been facing, and even adapting sometimes, those positions that are harmful to women, we work on this and are constantly critical of what we're thinking and what we're saying. It's a lot about educating ourselves and then extending that education to other people and reaching out. And it extends to a collective effort because we need to organize together as women, and also men who are allies, and identify what are the steps and what are the issues we have and how we can approach these. I think also a very vital point is that we need to understand that it's a gender issue, but it's also connected to many more. It's an intersectional issue; so it's about disabilities, it's about ethnicity, it's about socio-economic situations that really impact often women more heavily in society, and that we take this into account, and we that we also work internationally. So, we cross borders and we listen to each other and try to understand what the priorities of our counterparts are."

Her biggest leadership gifts

"Firstly, empathy. … I think with growing up as one of the oldest siblings, you always consider the feelings of someone else. And secondly, being very ambitious. So if I have a goal, I want to pursue it. … And thirdly, I'm able to understand that issues are more complex than just black and white, but that it's more nuanced, and that we have to identify also the problems we have in ourselves, but also outside."

Characteristics that remarkable leaders have in common

"I think the most important is that they're very sociable in the sense of they understand how to be with other people, how to give them good feeling and be on an eye-to eye level. Because if you're a leader, there's someone who's following, or who you are leading, and therefore there must be a good relationship with people."

"They also always try to have a broader view—be more understanding that there are always different views. If you have one group of people and how to find compromises together, and not just simply say how it's supposed to go."

'Do you describe yourself as a feminist?'

"I am a feminist because I believe that women should have the same societal and critical positions as men do. … I have a strong feeling that it's men and women working together to bring about gender equality, and then it's men and women working with the diverse cultures, with the ethnicity, with disability, etc."

Passionate about social justice

"I grew up in one of the richest and wealthiest countries: Germany. But I still see how that richness and wealthiness is often based on exploiting other countries in other situations. … But also there are so many people struggling in Germany to keep themselves going. … Even though technically, everyone has a chance to … live the 'German dream,' not everyone will be able to become a millionaire or become the most successful person, because we have a system that doesn't allow that to happen. … That's something that is very close to my heart, to have more awareness for social issues."

Biggest influences

"I think my mother, because I grew up with her and at some point, when my parents divorced, she was a single mother of four children and having to study again because her studies from Cuba weren't recognized in Germany. … She had to study again and became a teacher just a couple of years ago, and  has been inspiring other students who have a migrant background. … People don't usually turn around their life like that, especially if you don't have another counterpart, who can support you through the process. So, having been able to see my mother do this, I know that I'm able to do anything and that it's about the trust in yourself and the confidence in yourself."

"Also my grandmother, who lives in refugee camps. She is the head of the family there. It's the women who lead the family, who take care of everything, and who are providers, are the nurturers, and they do it with such a selflessness and without trying to be better than anyone, but just being a natural leader in the sense of wanting to provide for the family."

Overcoming self-doubt and other challenges

"I think one of the challenges is probably your own insecurity, that you're most definitely your worst critic, can't see your accomplishment and you might question what you're doing right now—if it's right, if it's what you want to do. … Ways of overcoming that is being in exchange with other people, because then you realize that everyone has those moments, and that just because you're thinking it, it is not the case."

"For example, with activism … it's a continuous progress and it's not simple to be an activist or to advocate, for example, for gender equity. It's a process that has its back and forths."

Adjusting to a new home in Nairobi

"I first see that that I can adapt to wherever I am. Maybe it's also because I have a nomad's background. Our people always moved around and settled again. Probably also as part of the diaspora, I don't feel completely home in Germany but I also don't feel home in Western Sahara. So, I've been able to find home in every place I go, and it's in Nairobi as well. What I really like here is that the people are so friendly and open and come up to you, and that has helped me in the process."

What's next?

"Hopefully I'm finishing my bachelor's next year. I'll have my first diploma and then I'm hoping to just take a gap year to explore career options, to internship maybe, also improve on language skills as assets. I'd like to spend some time in the refugee camp, because I've always only been able to stay for two weeks. … And then I'd like to continue studying with a master's, and what it could be is quite open still. But I like that it's not classic, and that I can redefine myself along the way."

Watch Emma's Remarkable Women, Powerful Stories video below:

26 OCTOBER 2022