In March 2021, Naomi Wumba Bisengo and Maria Regina “Gia” Tongson joined EUDiF as the newest Diaspora Youth Interns. Gia suports the Capacity Development Lab, while Naomi provides research and communication support. To mark the beginning of their internship, they sat down (virtually) to talk about the similarities and differences in their diaspora experiences.
Hello Gia and Naomi! We are very pleased to welcome you to EUDiF as diaspora youth interns! What motivated you to join the project?
Naomi: Thank you for the warm welcome! I have always been very passionate about issues surrounding migration and development work. When I came across the diaspora youth internship, the opportunity to gain hands-on practice in this field and to share my own experience immediately appealed to me. As someone who has volunteered in diaspora organisations, I strongly believe in the impact of diaspora engagement in development discussions. Participating in this project is a chance for me to help diaspora organisations on a much bigger level. I am very pleased to work on something I am really passionate about.
Gia: I fell in love with EUDiF the moment I first came across all the interesting activities and articles on its website. I knew that the project had immense value to add to the migration sector and the development community, as it goes beyond the traditional talk about remittances and explores innovative ways to engage with diaspora organisations and governments. Moreover, as a member of the Filipino diaspora, I see myself in the project and it has made me realise how much I can contribute to my country’s development even from thousands of miles away.
Gia, you became part of the Filipino diaspora when you moved to France for your studies. In what ways do you stay connected to the Philippines?
Gia: My connection to my country of origin is deeply personal and cultural. The language, entertainment and food in my day-to-day life still largely revolve around the Philippines, even though I now live in a country where it is difficult to find bits and pieces of my culture. I have also been lucky enough to stay connected to the Philippines in a professional capacity. During my previous internship, I worked work with human rights organisations and civil society groups from my country to prevent the return of the death penalty. It was a unique opportunity during which I was able to impart in-depth knowledge about the Philippines as someone who comes from there, whilst at the same time providing international support to Filipino human rights defenders through my position and network in France.
Naomi, you were born in Germany but your parents are originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), making you a second-generation immigrant. Why is it important for you to be connected to your diaspora and how do you engage with your country of origin?
Naomi: Growing up, my parents made it a point of honour for us to know our culture and not to forget our Congolese heritage, even though my siblings and I also fully identify as Germans. It became important for me to engage with my diaspora especially when I moved to another city for my studies. They gave me a sense of home and family. I realised that by coming together beyond religious purposes – as is common in the diaspora – we could create a bigger impact within the German-Congolese community and in the development of the DRC. For now, my engagement with my country of origin – besides visiting my family – has been mostly through my participation in diaspora organisations (#CongoExcellence and Deutsch-Kongolesisch Jugendinstitut – see below!). I hope to be able to work personally in the DRC in the future.
Gia, your situation is different from Naomi in that your family is back in the Philippines. Why is it important for you to keep in touch with your diaspora community and how did becoming part of the diaspora change your perspective on your country of origin?
Gia: Reaching out to Filipinos was one of the first things I did upon arrival in France, and they were important in helping me find my way around Paris. Now, years later, the Filipino community is my “home away from home”, where I can let loose and be myself. My sense of belonging among them and my identity as a Filipino were strengthened after living in a multicultural city and going to a school with over 150 nationalities. As I got to meet more people from all over the world and move around different cities, I was able to appreciate the peculiarities of my people and realise that Manila will always be home. I definitely plan on returning there and resettling permanently one day.
The last months must have been a very difficult time for you both. What have been the biggest challenges for you during the COVID-19 period?
Naomi: This last year has been an emotional rollercoaster. When the pandemic first started, I was living by myself, but I moved back to my parents’ place because I could not imagine facing this situation alone. I am very thankful that neither my family, nor I have been directly affected by COVID-19, but the situation is very mentally challenging. It is still hard to get used to this “new way of life” and to give up on special moments, such as graduation parties, weddings, or just simply drinking coffee with your colleagues. Like everyone else, I hope this will soon get better, but I am trying to find a way to continue to live fully in the meantime – of course with all the safety precautions.
Gia: Yes, these times have been emotionally and mentally challenging for me too. I went back to the Philippines during the first lockdown in France for fear of not being able to come home later on. I practically had to pack up my life in Paris within a day. A year later, the general uncertainty around COVID-19 is still difficult to deal with, and it has been a lot harder to engage in my old hobbies (such as travelling and visiting museums), form and maintain new relationships, and plan for the long term. That said, COVID-19 has also meant exciting opportunities have come my way, such as this internship, even though it has prevented me from meeting new colleagues and exploring a beautiful city such as Brussels.
It’s definitely an interesting point that COVID-19 has affected internships everywhere, but made some (like ours) less location-specific. Hopefully the online internship experience will still be meaningful for you both. What do you hope to learn during your time with us?
Gia: I am excited to learn from ICMPD’s long-standing expertise on capacity development in migration and see how to apply it to a rapidly expanding development sector. Diaspora engagement for development may not be brand new as a concept, but the actions we have been seeing so far show just how much room for innovation there is, so it is an interesting time to join the team. We are learning about the challenges and opportunities among diaspora organisations and governments during the COVID-19 period and seeing how we can move forward from here.
Naomi: I am looking forward to seeing the behind-the-scenes work of an international organisation and learning from your expertise. During the discussions I have participated in so far, I have been impressed by the fact that every diaspora organisation’s opinion was taken into account regardless of their size! Being in a diaspora organisation myself, I am excited to learn more about how EUDiF creates spaces for us to collaborate with governments, so that every voice is taken into account and we can get closer to mainstreaming diaspora expertise.
Deutsch-Kongolesisch Jugendinstitut e.V. (the German-Congolese Youth Institute) is a non-profit organisation that aims to show the diversity of the Democratic Republic of Congo and at the same time to promote exchange with the Federal Republic of Germany in the fields of culture, education, and science as a high-quality platform. Naomi founded the organisation in 2017.
#CongoExcellence is a non-profit organisation and platform that aims at consulting, educating, connecting, and empowering young Congolese, regardless of their location and socioeconomic status, to contribute to the socio-economic development of DR Congo.