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Responding to the Refugee Crisis in KRI

By Sabreen Alikhan, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer - WfWI

Four million refugees and displaced people are struggling to rebuild their lives in Iraq, after having fled their homes in search of peace and stability. Displaced for months or years, women displaced by conflict face challenges that threaten their basic security, economic well-being, and survival. They are targets of sexual harassment and gender-based violence in their families, camps, and host communities. They struggle to earn money to support their families.

In response to this ongoing crisis, Women for Women International has established a presence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to support the most vulnerable women among the refugee population, including those suffering severe emotional trauma, at high risk of violence, and living in extreme poverty. Our work in KRI has been possible through the help of two local partner organizations. As we open a dedicated WfWI office in KRI, we will be able to serve thousands of more women in the coming years.

We were recently awarded a grant from the United Nations Trust Fund to end Violence against Women (UNTF) to provide 600 Syrian refugee women with legal and psychosocial services and trauma counseling, as well as, social empowerment training. To kick off this work, I traveled to KRI to train our local partner in data collection and help enroll the first class of women.

I drove with our local team to a neighborhood known for its burgeoning refugee population, located on the outskirts of the KRI capital city of Erbil. A common thread unites most of the families who have settled here through the years: the determination to overcome a past threatened by violence and insecurity. In the face of profound economic and social vulnerability, these families have formed a community of support. This sense of community was tangible upon our arrival, as one program enrollee, a refugee herself, volunteered her home as a gathering spot for nearly 50 other women to help facilitate the enrollment process.

The women we enroll in our program are among the most marginalized and vulnerable women in the world, and by signing up, each woman commits to using the training to improve her living conditions. As a key element of our KRI work focuses on combatting gender-based violence, many of our KRI program enrollees have experienced violence firsthand, and lack knowledge of available support services. I spoke with some women waiting to be enrolled to learn more about their backgrounds and specific motivations for joining the program.

Most families relocated to this neighborhood roughly four years ago, when the Syrian conflict became too dangerous for residents to stay. One woman told me that she was turned away from a refugee camp near the border because it had reached capacity. As she spoke of the difficulty paying rent for her nearby home, she displayed the paperwork she had been issued as proof of her refugee status. Another woman described the life she left behind in Syria, which included a successful tailoring business. She has had no access to start-up capital or markets for her services since settling into a new home in KRI. Still wanting to put her skills to use, however, she began training other women in her neighborhood to sew. Several other women confirmed that they had, in fact, been taught how to make garments by this woman, whose leadership and resourcefulness reflect the depth of their community ties.

None of the women I spoke with reported any source of household income, and many women’s spouses were deemed too ill or old to work. But, unlike the majority of the women we serve, these women had completed secondary school, and could read and write with a fair degree of comfort. Though they also face such obstacles as social discrimination and language barriers, their primary challenge, they said, was adapting to a new environment where opportunities for employment are either scarce, non-existent, or completely unknown.

This is why we are dedicated to expanding our work in KRI. We are determined to help meet the unique needs of these women by providing the foundational knowledge, skills, and resources to allow them to reach their full potential. We aim to catalyze the success of women-led ventures, as with the tailor, whose ingenuity rose organically from difficult circumstances.

With over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Erbil, and more pouring in each day, Women for Women International remains committed to helping women harness the tools they need to lead healthy, productive lives. Having newly enrolled 600 refugee women in KRI, this work is well underway.