Building community for displaced womenJan 05, 2023 03:26PM ● By Peri Kinder
A Women of the World fundraising event celebrates the success of displaced women from across the globe who work hard to reach their goals. (Photo courtesy of Jake Campos)
When Samira Harnish was 10 years old, living in Iraq, she drew a picture of a woman trapped in a spider’s web, calling for help. Even at a young age, Harnish knew the world was a difficult place for women.
Education opportunities weren’t easy for women in Iraq. Harnish’s sister received a scholarship to study in England but community members tried to convince her father to keep her home.
“My dad was strong and said my daughter got this scholarship and I’m going to send her,” Harnish said. “I remember the family didn’t want to be with him anymore. So in that way, society was harsh for the women.”
As a young woman, Harnish came to the United States for an arranged marriage. It was a difficult time and Harnish said she could feel the sticky web keeping her trapped.
“I felt like I couldn’t take it off my shoulders because I was thinking everyone was going to hate me or not want me because I was divorcing my first husband,” she said. “But I was taking care of my life and not wanting to feel miserable.”
In 2009, Harnish gave up her job as a senior microchip engineer and founded Women of the World, a nonprofit that helps displaced women gain self-reliance by giving them tools to navigate an unfamiliar society.
WoW works with refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, helping them learn English, apply for jobs, go to college or even start a business. But the organization fills an even more important role, it helps women find a community.
Harnish understands the loneliness displaced women experience when first coming to Utah. Assimilating into a community is difficult and it is a challenge to find people who will welcome and support them.
“Because of these things I went through, it made me want to become an advocate for them,” she said. “We let women know everything’s going to be OK. They just need a guide into a new life. They’ve had a lot of hurtful moments: war, oppression, poverty, rape and mutilation.”
Located in South Salt Lake (415 E. 3900 South), WoW is giving a voice to women who have lost jobs, families and homes. By building confidence through English skills and mentoring, WoW participants learn how to improve their lives and connect with others. These women often have college degrees and valuable professions, but can’t get hired due to the language barrier.
WoW holds a celebration each December, recognizing women who have reached their goals and becoming independent. The event is supported by local business and government leaders who help the women find jobs in their communities.
The WoW model offers advocacy for immigration, housing, law issues and health matters. It customizes its programs for each individual, matching her needs with what she needs to succeed. Volunteers are always needed at WoW to be mentors, drivers, interpreters, workshop teachers, yoga instructors, child caregivers and event facilitators. Monetary donations are also accepted.
Gift cards are an important donation for the women who can use them to buy things for themselves or their children. While the women appreciate the used clothes or shoes donated to help them, they like to purchase items that fit their personality and their bodies.
“They have lost everything but their dignity and pride,” Harnish said. “They had good jobs in their home country and they are looking for jobs in their profession. They bring a great diversity to our state.”
To donate, volunteer or to learn more about WoW, visit womenofworld.org.