This International Women’s Day, Refugees International is celebrating the strength and leadership of women on the frontlines of displaced communities. Despite the heightened challenges they face on the move, displaced women around the globe are rising up to work toward a better future.
In our work over the last year, Refugees International advocates met displaced women who are artists, businesswomen, mothers, grandmothers, poets, activists, and community leaders. We asked our experts about some of the women who inspired them. Here are their stories.
Weaver and Asylum Seeker from Guatemala
Yael Schacher, Senior U.S. Advocate
I first met Mina* in Tijuana, Mexico in the summer of 2019. Mina is a gifted weaver of huipil and corte, traditional Mayan clothes for women. Before she fled Guatemala, she made a living selling these handicrafts in her local market. But in early 2019 Mina and her daughter began receiving threatening calls demanding payments. The police refused to investigate. Mina had been subjected to domestic violence and abuse for many years, but these sinister calls were the last straw. Mina finally decided to flee Guatemala with her children in June 2019 and head to the Unites States where her sister live
When Mina and her children reached the U.S. border and asked for asylum, the Department of Homeland Security sent Mina’s 18-year-old daughter to a detention center in Louisiana and returned Mina and her younger two children to Mexico to wait there for their asylum proceedings under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico program. When Mina tried to find a place to stay in Tijuana, a man attempted to kidnap her children. Terrified for her kids, Mina felt they would be safer returning to Guatemala, which despite the risks was at least more familiar than Mexico.
In February 2020, I met Mina again in Guatemala. Though she lives in a different place now, she still fears that the father of her children will find her. She is also anxious she may never see her eldest daughter again since, after returning to Guatemala to protect her kids, she missed a key court date for her asylum case in the United States. Mina is one of the many asylum seekers in the Remain in Mexico program who are barred from admission to the United States for ten years (after being compelled to abandon their cases). These asylum seekers just like Mina are desperate for a chance to gain refuge in the United States and to unite with family there. While the future of her asylum claim remains uncertain, Mina finds solace in teaching her younger children her craft.
Before we parted ways, Mina gifted me a piece of cloth she wove by hand. It is a meaningful reminder of her dedication to her family and the beauty of her spirit even as she remains displaced.
A Grandmother’s Journey across Three Countries to Find Safety
Devon Cone, Senior Advocate for Women and Girls
Hadiah* is a survivor, but still has a difficult road ahead of her. Hadiah arrived in Greece at the end of November 2019. Born in Afghanistan more than 60 years ago, she has lived through decades of conflict. Throughout her life, intense violence and oppression forced her to move multiple times within Afghanistan. Finally, some years ago, the situation became so unsafe for Hadiah and her family in Afghanistan that they fled to Iran. Most refugees and asylum seekers have been internally displaced throughout their country several times before moving across international borders to seek refuge. People only leave their home countries as a last resort. This was certainly true for Hadiah, who told me that she desperately misses the food and culture of Afghanistan but had to flee to save her life.
Although Hadiah and her family found some sense of safety in Iran, they had limited rights. When the Iranian government threatened to deport Hadiah and her family, she was terrified. She knew the dangers she would face again at home. So she decided to make the perilous voyage to Greece. When I met Hadiah in the sprawling camp of Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, she had been there less than a week. She and her extended family of more than fifteen children, in-laws, and grandchildren made the dangerous journey from Iran through Turkey and from the Turkish coast to the Greek Aegean islands.
“I never thought that at this age I would be living in a tent in Europe,” she told me. “The situation in this camp is terrible and I don’t know what is ahead for us. But my greatest role in life has been that of a grandmother. I just want my grandkids to have a real shot at life.”
People like Hadiah risk everything to give her family a life free of war and danger. Her bravery inspires me every day in my work to find sustainable solutions so that other families can find refuge and live without fear.
Internally Displaced Mother in Somalia
Ann Hollingsworth, Director of Government Relations and Senior Policy Advisor
In October 2019, I traveled to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) live. Despite soaring humanitarian needs, insecurity in Mogadishu severely restricts humanitarian actors from helping Somalis in need.
We visited four IDP sites in the capital and met people who have lived in these camps for years as well as those who had recently arrived. They told us how humanitarian assistance stopped arriving a long time ago, and that most now live in makeshift shelters with little access to food.
On this trip, I met an incredible woman, Noor. During fighting in the 1990s, she fled from her home in Baidoa and traveled 152 miles east to Mogadishu. Noor has lived in the capital ever since and is now the mother of ten children. When asked if she receives any support from the government, she said that supposedly the government is making steps to help IDPs, but that she hadn’t seen any benefit from it yet.
To make ends meet, she weaves scarves and sells them in the local market. For every 30 scarves she creates, she makes $1.50, which helps her put food on her family’s table. The earnings from her handiwork have allowed the family to survive all these years. However, it’s still not enough to send her kids to school. While weaving another scarf, she told me that without school, she’s worried for her children and their future.
Noor has persevered for nearly three decades now to simply survive. Her strength is a powerful testament to motherhood and her resiliency. But Noor shouldn’t have to fight to survive alone. The international community must do more to stand in solidarity with Noor and actually find policy solutions that can help other people like her and her family.
Climate Displacement Activist and Poet from the Marshall Islands
Kayly Ober, Climate Program Manager and Senior Advocate
By 2050, sea level rise could push high tide lines permanently above land where more than 150 million people live. Tragically, those that are least responsible for such changes will be weathering the worst effects. Nowhere is this reality on starker display than in the Pacific Islands, where sea level rise is happening at an even faster pace. As former Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine explained: “[By] 2030, we’re expected to be underwater…It is the very existence of the Marshall Islands that’s at stake.”
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and climate change activist from the Marshall Islands, called attention to this existential threat in 2014, when she recited a poem dedicated to her 7-month old daughter (“Dear Matafele Peinem”) at the United Nations Climate Summit.
“…no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee
or should i say
no one else
to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of the solomon islands
i take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here
because baby we are going to fight…”
Outspoken voices like hers will continue to inspire me and be part of the call-to-action to avert the worst climate impacts – including permanent displacement.
Bravery and Motherhood Amid Misery in Syria
Sahar Atrache, Senior Advocate for the Middle East
Being a mother of young children is hard work. I know this from firsthand experience.
Through my work on the conflict in Syria, I’ve met extraordinary women who have risen above hardships to raise families and support entire communities in the face of war and displacement. When things get tough, I often draw inspiration from them. But the words of Joumane Mohamed, a mother of two young children, have especially stayed with me.
Joumane is a mother in Idlib, Syria, the site of the last chapter of the country’s brutal nine-year civil war. Since December 2019, violence has plagued the province and uprooted nearly one million people from their homes to search for safe ground. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in the open, cold winter air. Many of them are women and children.
“We have been forced to move because of the shelling, barrel bombs, and heavy air raids. We lived in more than 10 different houses in different areas every time during these nine years. Seeking a safer place every time,” she told me.
But Joumane says she considers herself one of the lucky ones. She has a roof to put over her family.
“I feel myself lucky, really lucky. I feel as if I have the world because I have a house to rent. Houses are very, very, very rare here. People can’t find a tent in the mud…. It’s a dream for them.”
I think often of Joumane and the inconceivable hardships she is living through as a displaced mother of two. I think of how she hasn’t given up—that she has moved her family ten times to make sure they stay safe. And I think of her when I care for my own son—and remember that we too are really lucky simply because we have a house to rent.
Displaced Woman Becomes Civil Society Leader in South Sudan
Daniel P. Sullivan, Senior Advocate for Human Rights
South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. After six years of civil war, South Sudan’s leaders are finally implementing a peace agreement. But that agreement is still precarious, and one-third of the population remains displaced. Several South Sudanese women from displaced communities are challenging barriers and taking on leadership roles in South Sudanese society. Last year, I met Rachel, a woman who has become a civil society leader in a displacement camp outside the town of Malakal.
Rachel continues to strive every day to improve her community – despite everything she has endured. Rachel has lived in the UN-run Protection of Civilians (PoC) site—essentially a camp for internally displaced people—in Malakal since fighting forced her to flee her home in 2013. She lost her husband and described attacks in her community even on churches and hospitals. Today, she works with a network of women in the PoC site to ensure their voices are included in everyday decision making as well as to monitor and raise awareness of gender-based violence.
“Everyone is tired of war,” she told us.
Rachel holds on to the hope of being able to return to her home. She dedicates herself to preparing the displaced women around her both for a greater role in the PoC site today and for when that dream of returning home becomes reality.
*Names with an asterisk are pseudonyms to protect the identity of refugees and asylum seekers in this piece.