How to Travel Safely While Black

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The goal of traveling abroad to exotic locations and absorbing foreign cultures was not only attainable for twin sisters Janine and Jeanette Hewitt, but one they actively worked toward as tweens growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7. Now graduate students, the Hewitts have spent summers in distant locations for seven years, and despite the recent terror attacks in places such as France, Germany and Brussels, continue to encourage Blacks – especially those from D.C.— to embrace their global community.

travel sisters
Twin sisters Janine (right) and Jeanette Hewitt have travelled around the world for seven years. (Courtesy photo)

“The biggest concerns we hear are about safety and those cannot be set aside,” Janine told the AFRO. “But those concerns have to be balanced in the same manner that we assess dangers in our own neighborhoods. You wouldn’t take a walk at 2 a.m. in Petworth or accept rides with strangers in Congress Heights, so don’t do it in Ladbroke or Rome.”

Janine said that American travelers should be cautious about how they travel and with whom they interact, but found that due diligence – learning about the region, city, and specific areas where traveling before arriving, understanding cultural and religious customs, and being humble to the new environment – tend to eliminate anxiety.

As to fears that Black people are targets of racial violence from nationalist groups throughout Europe, Jeanette said, incidents involving American tourists are almost non-existent and regular reports of general unrest are reported by the U.S. State Department to active travelers for additional safety.

The Hewitts said their parents initially pushed against the idea of having them leave the country, and then tried to keep them in regions where other Black people frequented, like the Caribbean. But with Janine earning degrees in Renaissance art and Baroque design, interior decorating, and Jeanette studying linguistic antiquities, European cities became destinations of choice. And no sooner had the Hewitts become relatively comfortable with their daughters traveling across the Atlantic anti-immigrant violence, bombings, and social unrest began erupting in German, French, and British cities.

Janine told the AFRO that the State Department’s foreign affairs website offers a feature called STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, that allows the U.S. government to send warnings about safety risks like civil unrest, disease, natural disaster, and terrorism, directly to the traveler and the travelers’ families. Each trip is registered and the information is sent directly to the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate so that an extension of American safeguards are at the ready.

“I’ve had friends who have received alerts while in Paris about unrest at the Calais-Dover border and it made them feel safer to have that extra security,” Janine said. “Travel in groups, use the buddy system, check in often with parents and relatives back home so they know you are safe, and you can calm any fear they have when news pops up, but do not allow random acts of violence in overseas places to keep you from traveling.”

Janine also reminds those who remain fearful that two days after she boarded a plane for her first overseas trip in 2002, the D.C. sniper began killing innocent people throughout the D.C. metropolitan area. “I was headed for Harare, Zimbabwe on a mission trip with stopovers in London coming and returning. I was gone for three weeks there were family members praying the trip was extended to keep me safe from the carnage taking place at home,” Janine told the AFRO. “In all things, you pray for traveling grace and you live your best life with no fears.”

It’s important to research the destination to consider specific risks, as well as insurance for possibilities like trip cancellation, lost or stolen property, and bedside assistance, said Verna Hill, executive director and founder of Depart Smart, an organization that teaches safety tips to students and Americans traveling abroad for the first time.

“You need to really kind of do your homework and determine what travel insurance providers fulfill the need of where you’re going, for illness, injury, natural disaster, civil unrest, death, random insurance,” Hill said.

Finally, it’s important to know the emergency numbers in other countries, which can be found on the State Department’s website.