Yazidi women own their way to recovery

Nakfa has trained more than 100 women since starting her boxing program in 2018. © UNHCR / Creative Pencils Agency

When Nathiya Wadih Qassem was a young girl in Sinjar, northern Iraq, her school had a punching bag that boys used for boxing exercises. She was clean hit her almost every day. “I remember being the only one of my girlfriends who had the guts to approach that red bag and give her some hard punches,” she says. “It helped me release my stress.”

At home, Clean was the primary caretaker for her ailing mother and younger siblings, while her father worked the fields. Her mother died a few days before ISIS soldiers invaded Sinjar in August 2014. Thousands of Yazidi men were executed, while women and girls were kidnapped and their bodies sold.

Nathika and her family managed to escape and eventually ended up in Rwanga, a camp for around 12,000 displaced people. Most of them were Yezidis in the Kurdish region of Iraq. Eight years later, they are still there, although her father has since remarried, leaving Nadifa, now 28, the sole breadwinner for her four siblings.

An outlet for Yazidi women

Boxing came back to life after she started working for The Lotus Flower, an organization that supports internally displaced women and girls in northern Iraq. When asked to devise a sports activity for girls at camp, she immediately thought of boxing. “The majority of the women and girls in the camp were survivors of the Islamic State and were traumatized by what they experienced during their captivity,” she says. “If these women and girls are physically stronger, they may have a better chance of escaping from ISIS or defending themselves.”

The founder of the lotus flower, Taban Shorch, thought along the same lines. She herself has survived the violence, but still suffers a lot from it. She sees an urgent need for an outlet for Yazidi women. “I met many Yazidi women and girls who were affected by the Islamic State, and I saw the anger and emotions that were stuck inside them,” she says. “I thought, what can help them rebuild their confidence and take back the strength that was taken away from them? What sports are there? I quickly got into boxing.”

Sharaf Sharaf Samir, 21, says the boxing lessons help her “forget everything”. © UNHCR / Creative Pencils Agency

Taban brought Kathy Brown, a former professional boxer and cognitive behavioral therapist, to Rwanga in 2018 to teach Nakidah and other young women boxing. The “Boxing Sisters” program was born and since then Nadfa has trained more than a hundred girls and women. In class there are about 15 women sparring while Nakieh gives instructions.

Sharaf Sharaf Samir (21) is one of them. She’s been taking boxing lessons to clean since she started. “It’s very good for our health, both physically and mentally,” she says. “No matter how sad or bored we are, we forget everything as soon as we go to class.”

They always said boxing is not for girls.

Nadifa says any societal resistance to the idea of ​​teaching girls to box faded as soon as the benefits emerged. “They were saying that boxing is not for girls, but they saw the participants getting stronger.”

Women rebuild their lives

The Boxing Sisters program is just one of the many lotus flower projects that aim to empower conflict-affected Iraqi women and girls to rebuild their lives. Projects include adult literacy classes, support for women-led small businesses, art therapy, and various training programs for women.

Taban founded the organization in 2016, two years after she left her job in London and returned to the Kurdish region of Iraq to help. She saw many flaws.there was zIt is a space where women can heal, learn and grow.” “Men and boys were able to leave the camps, they could roam freely, but women and girls couldn’t leave the camps or tents just because of social pressure. So we created a reason for them to leave.”

This month, The Lotus Flower was one of seven organizations to win the annual UNHCR NGO Innovation Awards. This year’s winners were all women-led organizations working with refugees, displaced people and their host communities.

Back at Camp Rwanga, Latifa says that boxing has helped the girls in her classes shake off their grief and pain. “Now I am proud of them. They have become what she and I wanted: to be strong both physically and mentally.”

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