Sheiran, 32 (left) and Kabira, 38 (right) are sisters. Like most sisters, they laugh, learn and grow together. Unlike most sisters, they’ve had to brave separation, war and missiles to get to safety.
Originally from Afrin, Syria, Sheiran fled the town in December 2012 to cross the border into Northern Iraq. Kabira followed her six months later. The journey was exhausting and dangerous. Sheiran and Kabira say they barely survived. Their minibuses were attacked by missiles and they were fired at while crossing the border. They now live in a shelter in Erbil where they are among the more than 1,000 survivors of war being supported by Women for Women International. Through our partner Warvin, they are receiving the psychosocial support they need to heal the emotional wounds of the trauma, as well as vocational and business training to regain a livelihood.
The story of Sheiran and Kabira’s struggles to get to safety are, unfortunately, not exceptional. Since 2011, millions of Iraqi and Syrian citizens have been forced to leave their homes because of war and insecurity. Today, there are nearly five million Syrian refugees, and over 65 million people globally who have been displaced from their homes. Many are still without access to education or health services and no longer have a home to return to. This is the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
How do we respond? Not in my opinion by turning away. The international community has a duty and responsibility under our international agreements to provide support when states do not. And yet, here in the US this week, a new travel ban was proposed to prohibit citizens from six different countries, including Syria, from entering the United States. Under the new ban, the entire U.S. refugee program would be halted for 120 days. After that the total number of refugees accepted would be halved to around 50,000. On top of this ban, we are facing drastic cuts to our aid budget. Luckily federal judges blocked this ban like the previous one, but the administration has already said they will reissue the original ban. Reducing how many people we will support here in the US and at the same time reducing our international support as a country is a double blow at a time when more not less support is required.
The impact on women and girls of decreased aid and support includes but is not limited to loss of life and livelihoods. Insecurity and poverty is driving more families to give into early and forced marriages in attempts to feed or protect young girls from rape and sexual violence. Women have reported alarming levels of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps and during their journey to safety. The horror of sexual abuse is magnified by the social stigma and isolation that too often follows.
Working with refugee women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since 2015 has despite all this been incredibly inspiring. The refugee women such as Sheiran and Kabira we have had the privilege to work with are deeply resilient, facing each new challenge with determination. They have the power to change and uplift their communities. With little to no resources and tools, they are working hard to rebuild their lives and build a better future for their children. They have not and will not give up.
In this time of crisis, we have an important choice to make: do we stand with them or against them? Do we have their backs or do we close our doors and turn our backs on the most marginalized groups on earth? Do we recognize their strength and their power to change the world and help them achieve their dreams, or do we see them as threats and fear their existence?
Much of the world looks at the U.S. as a leader. We have the world’s largest GDP and great wealth. We also act as a global advocate for human rights. That comes with responsibilities. Refugees from around the world, especially women refugees like Sheiran and Kabira, deserve our support, not bans and further marginalization. Bans that target specific populations, especially the very communities that are escaping extremism and violence, violate human rights. They also perpetuate negative stereotypes about refugees and contribute to local and global hostility towards them.
The attempts by the administration to instate these bans are gravely concerning. We see firsthand how they contribute to creating a world where refugees are seen not as allies in the fight against extremism, but as threats themselves. At the heart of our program is bringing women together and creating supportive safe spaces for them to heal from trauma and war. Bans like this are an obstacle to our work and to refugee women reaching their full potential in a safe environment.
In spite of continuous efforts to ban refugees and cuts to foreign aid, like the women we serve, we will not give up. We will continue to work hard for the full inclusion of women in creating safe and stable communities. We recommit ourselves to doing more for refugee women from Iraq and Syria. We pledge to continue opening doors for them and extending our efforts and programs to empower them. We hope you will join us.
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