'Women of the World' helps refugees adjust to life in US
Founder Samira Harnish, an Iraqi immigrant, is named Nansen Award regional finalist from the Americas.
Ghasaq Maiber’s eyes lit up and a smile crossed her face. Five months earlier, she broke her ankle so badly that it needed surgery.
The bill was more than US$27,000 and, having recently arrived from Iraq, she had no insurance to cover it.
“It’s a really big amount. I can’t afford it,” she said.
However, on a sunny morning this June, she was overjoyed. “I just heard, three minutes ago, that my balance is zero,” she said. “Samira fixed it!”
“Samira fixed it!”
She was talking about Samira Harnish, a tireless supporter of refugees who find themselves in the unfamiliar setting of ‘middle’ America.
Samira, herself an Iraqi immigrant, helps them adjust. She does not take “NO” for an answer. Ten years ago, she was climbing the corporate ladder as an award-winning electrical engineer and executive, earning a six-figure salary and living the American Dream.
Yet something troubled her. Often, when she drove home from work or carried out errands around Salt Lake City, she would encounter refugee women struggling to speak English, unfamiliar with the transportation system or having problems at the supermarket checkout.
Samira would offer to help. She spoke Arabic and would frequently meet women from Syria, Somalia, Yemen and her native Iraq. On snowy winter days, she would drive them home in her car so that they would not have to wait for a bus.
For her work Samira was chosen as the Americas’ regional finalist for the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award.
Samira Harnish, Americas region finalist for the 2018 Nansen Refugee Award (Kathryn Porteous, producer / Shi Han Liu, editor / Mike Call, videographer)
Samira goes with the newcomers to doctors’ appointments and to their children’s schools to translate. She meets them in coffee shops or the public library to show them how to do banking, pay bills and prepare for job interviews.
“Always I think, ‘What would I do if I had been in Iraq during the wars?’ ” Samira said, imagining herself as a newly resettled refugee in America. “Would I be able to learn a new language, a new career? Would I find someone to trust, to tell my story to?”
From her own experience 30 years earlier as a young immigrant sent to the United States for an arranged marriage, Samira, now 61, knew how difficult it was for women coming from traditional societies to adjust to the customs and practices of modern America.
She left her corporate job and started Women of the World (WOW), a non-profit organization for female refugees.
Her idea was to “create a safe space for women to feel welcome and brave, and empowered to explore”, she said. “Women of the World focuses on a holistic approach to ensure our ladies reach self-reliance.”
For the first six years, Samira’s car was her office. She was constantly making calls, sending emails and knocking on the doors of government offices in support of “my ladies”.
“After your heart is troubled, you come in the office to see Samira, you will return, you are happy. You have solution,” said Rosette Kindja, a single mother and refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who was resettled in Salt Lake City two years ago.
"Samira, she is angel from God to come support us refugees.”
Samira and WOW helped Rosette to find a job and learn English, one of more than 1,000 women it has helped in the past decade.
The prestigious Nansen award is named in honour of Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, who was appointed by the League of Nations in 1921. It is granted annually following an exhaustive global review of nominations.
The award, bestowed by the Nansen Committee, of which UNHCR is a lead member, celebrates those who have gone to extraordinary lengths to support refugees and asylum-seekers, stateless people and the internally displaced.
Four years ago, Samira’s WOW organization finally found a permanent home, a storefront in a small shopping area.
On a recent afternoon, a group of 17 women gathered in the office for a lunch of fish, goat and vegetables made by Vestine MnKeshimana, a refugee from Rwanda who had witnessed unimaginable horrors before being resettled to Salt Lake City several years ago.
“Always I say Samira, she is angel from god to come support us refugees,” said Vestine, as Samira dashed out of the office with a box full of cookies. She was on her way to visit Elizabeth Ngaba, a refugee from the Central African Republic who suffered a stroke last year and lost her sight.