The first thing I notice about Leila is her radiant smile.
It takes me by surprise as we greet each other in a Syrian refugee camp in Basirma on the outskirts of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Women for Women International has been running a training center there since 2020. Leila has been living in the camp with her family since 2019.
In 2018 Leila’s village in Damascus was bombed, and at that moment, the life she knew was altered forever. She lost two children in that bombing. Her daughter Najah, now 12 years old, was injured - her leg so badly wounded that she cannot walk properly, even today. Leila recounts her story to me, her face contorted with the angst of the loss of her children and her home. She, too, was injured and points to her leg, showing me the prosthetic she’s had to wear to be able to walk.
I sat with her in silence for a few minutes, holding her hand and squeezing it to comfort her – it didn’t matter that we couldn’t speak each other’s language, words weren’t needed at that moment.
After regaining her composure, she tells me how she had to flee with Najah. Because Leila is Kurdish, she and Najah were granted asylum in KRI, but her husband being Syrian couldn’t immediately leave until his papers were processed. He joined them in Basirma a few months later.
When Leila’s son Yousef was born two years ago, she knew she had to move forward despite her grief to care for Najah and Yousef and began to put the pieces of her life back together. She enrolled in our ‘Stronger Women Stronger Nations’ program in 2020.
“Going to the training center gave me a sense of purpose but also helped me heal”, she tells me.
There, she met other women who had been through similar horrors of the Syrian war. She found solace in sharing her loss and grief with them.
She tells me with a smile, how much she enjoyed attending class every day and learning new skills. It opened a new world of possibilities for her but more importantly it helped her gain confidence in her abilities. Equipped with the business and vocational skills she learned in the program, she wanted to start her own business to become financially independent and build a better future for her family.
It is this holistic approach, equipping women survivors of war with social and economic skills, that is at the core of everything we do at Women for Women International.
The women we serve tell us that our training centers are a safe space for them to connect with each other, to learn together. And, slowly but surely, they begin to realize their power.
Leila invites me to her home in the camp, just a few minutes walking distance from the training center. Having graduated from our program in June 2021, she’s eager to show me her home business. She makes a local bread called Kulera, which her husband sells in the market.
As she proudly shows me how she makes Kulera from scratch, all the while talking animatedly into the camera, I see her eyes light up and her confidence shines through. She is in her element, smiling from ear to ear. Najah and Yousef hover around me, shy at first to be on camera but then as we sit on the floor in her home, they begin to feel more comfortable, Yousef even accepting a piece of Kulera from me.
As I eat Kulera with Leila and her family, I am inspired by her journey, how she found the strength to carry on and is rebuilding her life. Her infectious laughter stays with me, all the more poignant after learning what she has been through.
Without realizing it, she has given me a gift – a memory that I will treasure, especially during times when I feel low because I know that when I’ll think back to this moment, remembering her courage behind her smile, it will give me strength too.
I also cannot help but feel a sense of pride in the role Women for Women International plays in the lives of thousands of women like Leila, who just want a better life for themselves and their families - who just want to feel a sense of belonging.
In the end, isn’t this what we all want?
This Mother’s Day, invest in moms like Leila, who despite facing unimaginable horrors of war, are finding the strength to build a better future for themselves and their children.