This International Women’s Day, Refugees International is celebrating the women we’ve met who are working on the front lines of change in displaced communities. Women uprooted by conflict and natural disasters face many challenges. However, they also have the power to lead and empower their communities to overcome these hardships.
In our work over the last year, Refugees International staff met displaced women from around the world who have started local organizations and small businesses, defended human rights, and raised families in the midst of disaster with dignity and grace. We asked our advocates about some of the women who have inspired them. Here are their stories.
Alice Thomas, Senior Policy Advisor and Climate Displacement Program Manager
Community Leaders in Puerto Rico
When Hurricanes Irma and María struck Puerto Rico within days of each other in September 2017, the town of Loíza was particularly hard hit. One hundred percent of the community lost access to electricity, communication, and clean water. More than half the homes were damaged or destroyed, displacing significant numbers of people.
But that did not prevent Modesta Irarzarry from taking action. Even though her family was hit hard by the disaster, Modesta sprang into action immediately, attending to the emergency needs of the community and providing food, shelter, and medical care. As the slow and inadequate response by the U.S. government unfolded in the months that followed, Modesta continued to fight on behalf of the community. She advocated for the most vulnerable, including the sick, the elderly, and those who had lost homes but were denied assistance from FEMA.
Modesta partnered with a local NGO based in Loíza called Taller Salud. Taller Salud is a community-based women’s organization dedicated to improving access to health, reducing violence, and fostering economic development through education and activism. Like Modesta, Taller Salud was itself transformed by the disaster. The group hired other amazing women like Modesta and expanded its programs to help empower members of the community with information about their rights and access to justice.
Ann Hollingsworth, Director of Government Relations and Senior Policy Advisor
Eritrean Women in Israel
In 2018, I was a part of a Refugees International team that traveled to Israel to look at the experience of African asylum seekers facing the risk of detention and deportation. This was a time of great anxiety and uncertainty in the refugee community. We visited a local community center that provided support for Eritrean women, including language and business classes, among other kinds of assistance. We heard stories from women about the prevalence of domestic violence and severe depression. They told us that men were taking money from their families and fleeing the country, leaving women alone to support themselves and their children. The women said that most of the available work, when they could find it, was in the cleaning sector. Single mothers were now sharing households to save money.
To overcome these hardships, this community center focused on empowering refugee women—and indeed they were. In fact, many of the women who first came to the community center for help now work there as volunteers. The RI team left the interviews incredibly moved by the personal stories these women chose to share with us. Their honesty, strength, and sense of community was something I will not forget. Our advocacy aims, as always, to raise their voices and impact policy decisions for the better.
Dan Sullivan, Senior Advocate for Human Rights
Rohingya Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh
The story of the Rohingya crisis is one of immense tragedy. But the survivors can be the source of tremendous inspiration. This month, I had the honor to meet a woman named Chekufa and her Rohingya Women’s Empowerment and Advocacy Network. Chekufa and her network of 400 volunteers live and work in a sprawling mega-camp in Bangladesh that is now home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingya who were forcibly dispelled from their homes in Myanmar. Chekufa and her colleagues have come together to advocate for themselves and their community, provide basic education for children, and raise awareness about the dangers of domestic violence and early marriage.
At RI, we seek to bring stories of the displaced to the policymakers in the United States and around the world who can act to make a difference. But these stories have the greatest power when they are told by the displaced and refugees themselves. That is why groups like Chekufa’s Rohingya Women’s Empowerment and Advocacy Network are so important. As Chekufa says, no one else can say, “I am a Rohingya refugee.” By building a network of volunteers in the camps, Chekufa is giving women a platform “to raise our voices” and put themselves at the center of the conversation about their needs and their future.
Alexandra Lamarche, Advocate for Sub-Saharan Africa
Mothers in Displacement in Sub-Saharan Africa
Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege to meet some of the most courageous women of some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises—mothers. These women had gone to unimaginable lengths to escape violence and find safety and better lives for their children. I can think of no better way to commemorate International Women’s Day than to honor these mothers who care for their familes under the most difficult of circumstances.
During a mission to the Central African Republic, I met a young woman who had given birth in a crowded displacement camp. Despite these circumstances, she found great joy in having brought new life to the world and traveled daily to dangerous areas in hopes of finding work to provide for her child. While in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we met Elisabeth who witnessed three of her children being kidnapped by armed groups. Yet despite this tremendous grief, and extreme lack of food and basic services, she continues to find ways to provide for and protect her other children.
The courage and ingenuity of these women in the midst of uncertainty and their joy in the midst of sadness were deeply inspiring. Motherhood is too often a thankless job, but these women deserve our respect and praise for their resilience, strength, and resourcefulness in the face of adversity.
Izza Leghtas, Senior Advocate
Syrian Business Owners in Jordan
In 2016, members of the international community came together to sign a compact to support Jordan in hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Under the deal, donors gave Jordan more aid and trade, and in turn, Jordan was to open its labor market to Syrian refugees. In 2018, Jordan issued almost 50,000 work permits to Syrians. Alarmingly, only five percent of those work permits went to women.
Last summer, I traveled to Jordan to investigate why more refugee women couldn’t enter the work force. I was moved by the many ambitious Syrian women I met who are shouldering the responsibility of caring for their families and wanted to find ways to make a living. In Amman, many women told me they had wanted to start small businesses to make soap, cook meals, or design clothes. However, Syrian refugees registering a home-based business were required to partner with a Jordanian citizen, a condition that is difficult to meet and that was holding many women back.
In September 2018, I published a report calling on the government of Jordan to repeal this requirement. Two months later, I was thrilled to learn that the Jordanian government did just that. The elimination of this requirement is an incredible step forward. I look forward to seeing how it translates into Syrian women starting their own businesses in Jordan.