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Women and girls fight for better lives after ISIS

Many women and girls in Kurdistan’s refugee camps have been through horrific ordeals at the hands of Isis. The Lotus Flower is helping them find a way forward.

For a long time after fleeing the Isis attacks in 2014, Surian was consumed by rage. She was a teenager when Isis began its brutal genocide in Sinjar, killing around 5,000 Yazidis and forcing thousands of women and girls into sexual slavery. Now aged 20, she is stuck in a refugee camp, living in a crowded tent with few opportunities and an uncertain future ahead.

“I had anger issues and always felt down, I knew I needed to see a psychologist,” she says. Surian wanted to rebuild her life so she decided to sign up for training courses at a women’s center run by The Lotus Flower, an NGO that supports women and girls affected by conflict and displacement in Iraq.

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The Lotus Library

Women and girls training across refugee camps

It was a positive step. “With the group therapy sessions and gender-based violence awareness I am feeling calmer now – especially when I practice activities from the sessions,” she says. The organization operates in three refugee camps across Kurdistan, running programs that include Youth Suicide Prevention, Supporting Survivors, Boxing, Literacy, a Women’s Business Incubator, and Peace Sisters, which trains women and girls to help rebuild their fractured communities.

Despite the impact of the pandemic, which saw many organizations withdraw or reduce their services in Iraq’s refugee camps, the Lotus Flower has continued to grow, responding to mounting demand with new initiatives that aim to have a lasting impact. “We focus on the sustainable rebuilding of lives,” says Regional Director Vian Ahmed. We need more organizations like the Lotus Flower who are there for the long-term and aren’t going to leave after the emergency response.” 

The height of the Covid crisis was particularly bleak in Iraq’s refugee camps. Cramped, unhygienic conditions made social distancing impossible while the shutdown of services denied people their few sources of hope in a desperate situation. “Covid worsened the problems we’re dealing with. We’ve seen a big spike in gender-based violence since the pandemic began and we’re facing much bigger mental health issues,” Ahmed says.

The Lotus Flower absorbed many of those left behind when many aid agencies pulled out, but with emergency funding shifting to Afghanistan and Ukraine, resources are stretched. The biggest challenge, Ahmed explains, is core funding. Obtaining support for projects tends to be straightforward, but unrestricted core funding is vital, especially as we are growing fast and need to bring in new team members to support that.”

But there are advantages to the organization’s small team, which is faster and more agile than larger organizations weighed down by bureaucracy. “The key is that we have a passionate team, keen to make a difference,” Ahmed says, pointing to the organization’s founder Taban Shoresh, whose own story of survival drove her to give up a career in London and dedicate her life to helping other women and girls rebuild lives decimated by conflict.  

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Shoresh was just four when her family narrowly escaped being thrown into a mass grave and buried alive during Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish genocide. She remembers adults screaming and crying as they were taken to the site. At the last minute, they were rescued, but the family’s trauma wasn’t over. They spent months on the run during the Iran-Iraq war, dodging bullets as the fighting raged around them. When they eventually made it to the UK, Shoresh faced other challenges, including ill health and an abusive marriage, but she has found ways to endure and now helps other women do the same through the Lotus Flower.

“It’s about enabling women to build their own futures. We don’t do it for them, instead we give them the tools they need to make a long-term difference to their lives,” Shoresh says. This includes developing skills to start businesses, particularly as many of the women they work with are widows or have lost their families and have no other means of support. Many have been through horrific ordeals at the hands of ISIS and have family members who are dead or still missing.

Others were just children when ISIS surrounded Sinjar in 2014 and began its extermination campaign. “All they have known is life in refugee camps and conflict,” Ahmed says. As a result, they have missed out on their education, so the Lotus Flower runs adult literacy and English classes, which are often heavily over-subscribed. With more now able to read, the organization is establishing a library at its women’s center in Essyan Camp with support from Ideas Beyond Borders.

“I saw the humanitarian crisis with my own eyes when I have visited the camp that Lotus flower works in, building that library and empowering the Yazidis and other people there with knowledge and 21st century skills hopefully will enhance their social mobility and help them in the short and the long term” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.

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Faisal (on the left) in the Yazidi Camp

The space provides a place for women to learn, meet and work together, away from the grim monotony of camp life. “The library will be a lovely addition to the center,” says Ahmed, adding that they also do yoga and exercise classes there. “We want women to be able to enjoy the space, meet their friends, have tea and cake, then go into the library and pick a book to enjoy some quiet reading time.”

The Lotus Flower may be simple, with no luxuries or modern conveniences, but it’s safe, and there’s a sense that life is moving forwards there. For women and girls caught in the refugee cycle, it brings hope and the prospect of creating a better life for themselves, armed with knowledge and skills that their lives have denied them the opportunity to learn.

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