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Portrait of Catherine Labiran

“People have had to re-imagine and reshape their lives”

22 May2020

A Nigerian woman born in London and raised in New York, Catherine Labiran has been protecting and promoting human rights since she was a teenager. Her work focuses on the human rights of those who suffer exclusion and discrimination: today, she is the Gender Justice Program Coordinator at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

In 2019, Catherine was selected to take part in UN Human Rights Fellowship for People of African Descent, a program for people who are engaged in promoting the rights of people of African descent.

Catherine’s research and advocacy focuses on the situation for black immigrant women and girls in New York. She is also a published poet, and has performed across Europe, Africa and the United States of America.

We asked Catherine how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the people she supports, what are her main concerns for human rights in the US, and how acts of solidarity provide some moments of beauty amidst the crisis.

“People have had to re-imagine and reshape their lives.

Of course, it’s often the most vulnerable at risk.

Due to the stay at home order, many women are being forced to stay at home with their abusers. We're seeing escalating rates of domestic violence across the US and around the world.

We are seeing the right to health being infringed upon, especially in prisons and detention centres, where the virus is rapidly spreading, and where people who are at risk of suffering severe complications are still being detained. Thankfully, there are efforts ongoing across the nation to get people out of cages and back home with their families.

There are also huge issues in terms of migration in the US.

The government is using the pandemic as an opportunity to roll out xenophobic immigration policies. Such policies are really just aiding the anti-immigrant rhetoric across the country, and it's distracting people from the fact that the government ignored warnings from public health officials and neglected to take precautions that could have saved the lives of many.

Undocumented people are being left out of the recent stimulus package, which means that they are often unable to access testing and medical care.

Many immigrants predicted that this level of discrimination could take place.

My current work focuses on the mental health of black immigrant women and non-binary people across the country. We conducted research for this before the pandemic, and people voiced that they received a lot of discrimination from medical practitioners. They felt unsafe in the US and they felt that if something was to go wrong, like in a major crisis such as a pandemic, that they would be the last groups of people to receive care.

Unfortunately, they were right.

The pandemic emphasized the fact that black and brown people, despite oftentimes being overworked and underpaid, are putting themselves at risk for our survival.

They are serving as doctors, nurses, therapists, healthcare administrators and in various other functions.

We also know that black and brown people are more likely to experience mistreatment in the medical arena, and often have their requests ignored. There is a misconception they have higher pain tolerances. They have to advocate for themselves and translate for their loved ones just in order to receive care.

We are seeing the same kinds of discrimination happen during this pandemic, which means there is different quality of care being received, depending on who you are.

Amidst the crisis however, we still witness beautiful examples of solidarity.

There are wonderful mutual aid projects that have been set up across the country to support our communities in this time of need. They provide an opportunity not just to assist people, but to build relationships with them, and to also discuss the underlying issues that have allowed this pandemic to have such disastrous consequences on our communities.

One of the greatest forms of solidarity I'm seeing is how people have rallied around bailing people out of jail, but then also providing them the supportive services afterwards, whether that's a two week hotel stay so that they can socially isolate before joining their family, or buying them groceries, or providing them contacts for mental health care.

Why stand up for human rights? The answer is simple.

Our lives and our well-being depend on human rights. Fighting for human rights today means fighting to ensure that we won't see a repeat of this current crisis in the future.”

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the persons featured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.


  • I will respect your rights regardless of who you are. I will uphold your rights even when I disagree with you
  • When anyone’s human rights are denied, everyone's rights are undermined, so I will stand up
  • I will raise my voice. I will take action. I will use my rights to stand up for your rights.

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