A very early Sunday morning just before Christmas, I left Erbil by car with Abdulrahman Ali from Warvin foundation for women issues, one of Kvinna till Kvinna’s partner organizations in Iraq. We were heading to Domiz refugee camp to meet with the Syrian refugee women who Warvin have trained and worked with during the year to hear about their situation and activism.
While it had been below zero in Erbil, we did not see the snow until we reached the mountains near Dohuk. Before continuing to Domiz camp, we had breakfast and got warmed up in at a café surrounded by the beautiful snowy mountains.
Later in the morning, we arrived in Domiz camp. It was very cold and muddy. Warvin’s local staff in Dohuk showed us the camp. Domiz camp, which was the first refugee camp set up in April 2012 in Iraqi Kurdistan to host Syrian refugees, is located about 20 km from the city of Dohuk and about 60 km from the Syrian border. Domiz refugee camp is the biggest refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Iraq with a population of around 60,000 people. About 250,000 Syrian refugees are now living in exile in Iraq.
We first meet with Gulan Shekhmouz Shamdin and Fatima Naser Badr in a somewhat warmed up mobile office in a caravan. Gulan, who has been in Domiz for about a year, used to live in Damascus with her family. Gulan tells us that one of the problems in the camp is the lack of space, and this problem turns into conflicts between the camp residents. Gulans says that with the training from Warvin on peace building and conflict resolution, she gained knowledge and confidence to engage in conflict resolution on a practical level in the camp. The first time Gulan was actively involved in conflict resolution, was when her family’s two next door neighbours in Domiz had a conflict over the living space. Gulan laughs and tells how she, despite being a young woman, managed to get the families to sit down in her family’s tent and negotiate how to solve the problem. She says they all went out and measured with a measuring tape to determine the border between the tents and they actually managed to solve their dispute.
Fatima says she learned to see how women are blamed and seen as creating problems for society, but she says after the work with Warvin she knows that women in fact, if they are allowed, can solve problems.
Fatima reports about the increase of child marriages in Domiz. Fatima’s neighbour who was only twelve years old was recently married. Fatima tried to talk to the girl’s family and to agencies in the camp, but she was unable to stop the marriage. Another of the other Syrian women I speak to later explains that some families push their daughters to marry just to solve the economic problems of the families. During the visit in Domiz, all of the women activists I meet talk about young girls who are married at young age in Domiz camp, and they are upset about the international community not doing more to prevent these marriages.
I meet with Shirin Ahmed and Shiraz Khalil, both from Qamishlu, in the Kurdish part of Syria, while they are on their lunch break. They are now both working with the Red Cross/Red Crescent. Shirin starts to say that it was a dream for her to learn about the women’s rights convention (CEDAW). She explains that she and her colleague as a part of the training were given the task to find out about the situation and numbers widows and divorced women in a number of sectors of the camp. Shirin says she realized how marginalized the woman headed households were and that they are neglected by the humanitarian organizations operating in the camp. Shirin and Shiraz connected the widows with various agencies and they proudly tell us that that they were successful in making sure that several families were given access to equipments and services needed. After 3-4 months, Shirin says that Red Cross/Red Crescent asked her to continue working for the widows in the camp. Shirin adds that they choose her because they know she had experience from directly dealing with vulnerable women and families in the camp.
Shanaz Abda, 26 years old, originally from the Kurdish area in Syria, but a student in Damascus when the war broke out. Shanaz completed her studies as a psychologist, but she did not start her professional career yet. Shanaz tells us that with Warvin’s project she got to the chance to “rebuild” herself with the trainings and support, and after the activities with Warvin she was employed by ACTED, an international NGO working in the camp. Shanaz vividly talks about the hardship Syrian women are facing in Domiz and in Iraqi Kurdistan. While in exile, she says Syrian women are restricted in so many ways – both by the local community and by the Syrian refugee community becoming more conservative in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shanaz says that the existing organisations and groups in Domiz don’t want women to become leaders, but she and other women are very eager to continue and strengthen their work for Syrian refugee women’s rights and participation. And Shanaz has hope, she sees how strong Syrian women are and what they can achieve. I am thinking Shanaz really is one of those strong women, with her commitment, energy and strong beliefs in women’s rights.
Another of the young women who took part in the training with Warvin is 23-year-old Sorya Ali Khandjar. I meet Sorya by her work with the Swedish-Iraqi NGO Qandil, a job she says she got after the training with Warvin. Sorya really appreciates her work – to the extent that even when her family left the Domiz to move to Erbil, Sorya remained with her cousin in the camp so that she could continue her work.
On the way back to Erbil I am thinking about the importance for women to have a job and a public role in the community. One major result of Warvin’s project in Domiz is that the Syrian women participating in the training are now all actively advocating for their own and other women and girls’ rights in Domiz. Several of the women I met talked about the lack of work opportunities for the women of Domiz camp. One of the women said that the men can leave and work outside the camp, but women really get a hard time from the surrounding society if they return to the camp after five o’clock. After Warvin’s training, the majority of the thirty refugee women found jobs – which is really a great success. I am very happy for the day’s meetings with these young Syrian refugee women, who are all so eager to work and take part of decision making, and I look forward to continue the cooperation with Warvin and the young women in Domiz working for Syrian refugee women’s rights and influence.