Syrian refugee Attia with daughter while she explains how she fled Syria

Saying the Unsayable for over 20 Years

I don’t know about you, but I find it very difficult to read the news these days.  The conflict in Syria has been raging for more than four years. 

Syrian refugee Attia (second from right) holds
her 4-year-old daughter

I don’t know about you, but I find it very difficult to read the news these days.  The conflict in Syria has been raging for more than four years; over 9 million people have been affected, including a staggering 3 million refugees. In northern Iraq alone there are at least 240,000 Syrian refugees and 70% of them are women and children. 

It does not matter what conflict we speak about – women are always disproportionately affected. Women are being directly and deliberately targeted by groups like Boko Haram and ISIS, which highlights to me the importance of Women for Women International’s work with women survivors of war. 

Since 1993, Women for Women International has supported over 420,000 of the most socially-excluded women survivors of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo.  

Through our 12-month program, women learn about their rights, as well as key life skills (such as health, managing their finances, how to build social networks for business and emotional support). They also learn vocational and business skills to access livelihoods and break free from poverty. Communities are not, of course, made up of just women and because the whole community benefits when everyone in the community is involved, we work hard at Women for Women International to engage men in our work. Men are powerful advocates for women’s empowerment, breaking down prejudices and practices which prevent women from reaching their potential. 

Recently, we have started to bring our 20 years of experience to the Syrian refugee women who are at the mercy of the war. We are working with women in Kawergosk Refugee Camp near Erbil, northern Iraq.  Women in the camp are struggling to survive every day. They have had very traumatic experiences, they have seen their loved ones killed, and of course have lost everything. They had to walk for miles and miles to a place of safety. And the threat of rape is there all the time – there is an immense fear of rape.  

How can this be the life that awaits thousands of Syrian women refugees who have already witnessed so much horror back home? The world must not fail Syria’s women. Now is the time to act.

The health and wellbeing of the women in the camp is the most pressing issue. We have been working with local partners to provide women with psychosocial counseling and business training. Firstly, we aim to create a safe space for women to heal psychologically from the damages done by war. The business skills training continues the healing process by giving the women a motivation to live with hope for the future.

One of the most popular businesses set up by the women we have trained is a wedding shop. Four women have come together and set up a shop selling clothes for brides and wedding guests, as well as providing make-overs and hairdressing services. Weddings are very important in Syrian culture and this wedding business helps maintain a certain level of normality in the refugees’ lives. Whether or not you live in a refugee camp, you want to have a normal life, to get married and enjoy a special occasion. 

To me, this work with Syrian refugees shows that Women for Women International is needed now more than ever. This is not about politics, it is not about power, it is not about religion – this is about humanity and ensuring that we can reach out to those who do not have access to resources, who do not have access to knowledge, who cannot feed their children and who feel powerless because they do not possess any skills to earn a living. It is about reaching out to women and investing in their potential. 

You can make this happen – now, today. Sponsor a woman survivor of war and give her hope for the future.  Together we can change the world, one woman at a time. 

Brita Fernandez Schmidt is the Executive Director of Women for Women International – UK.

This article first appeared in the New Statesman 'Saying the Unsayable' guest-edited issue, published 29 May 2015.