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Women brave enough to start a new life are selflessly motivated

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Somali women wait to be registered at U.N. registration center in Dagahaley refugee camp in Daadab, northern Kenya on Thursday June 25, 2009. Women fleeing war and women trying to make a new life in a strange land are primarily doing it for someone else, for their children, for their own aging relatives, writes Samira Harnish.

Malkhadir Muhumed, Associated Press

It is hard to imagine the traumas that burden the forcibly displaced women (refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants) seeking refuge from war, oppression and violence. In the 11 years since I started Women of the World, I have heard many of their stories and shed tears with them to try and wash away the suffering.

But the story of these women, the history of the women of the world more generally, is not one of suffering but of what women do when faced with hardships. Resilience, perseverance, grit and determination are words that come to mind when I think about the character of women that have made history, whether for an entire nation or just for their family’s lineage.

Women fleeing war and women trying to make a new life in a strange land are primarily doing it for someone else, for their children, for their own aging relatives. They measure success by meeting their family’s needs, never just their own.

For our ladies, while the barriers to improvement are often great, they are always met with determination and a selfless purpose. But one more obstacle remain — trust. Building this trust takes more than time, it requires a matched grit and purpose and a customization of solution to problem. Women of the World started using my Honda Pilot as an office, visiting women in their apartments, in courtyards or in clubhouse rooms, and just listening. Even though we’ve grown to include staff, we still customize our service and advocacy to suit each woman’s situation; while we have an office without wheels, Women of the World still builds community, giving women a trusted safety net of others that have risen up to overcome their challenges and write a new page in their family’s history.

Each woman I have helped had everything they needed to make a change — resilience, intelligence and the ability to trust and network — but just needed to be empowered over that little voice that told them they couldn’t do it. One such woman found herself enslaved to her in-laws, her husband searching for a new wife, her culture accepting of this arrangement even though she had been a dutiful wife and mother. Her teen son’s angst at the suffering his father placed on his mother was enough for her to get help. In the middle of the night, my husband and I easily loaded her decades worth of possessions from a 5,000-plus square-foot home into the back of our Pilot and drove her and her son to the shelter.

She took one and then two jobs, left the shelter to an apartment she could now afford, got her son into basketball, and learned English. After 20 years of imprisonment within her culture and a house that was not a home, she was free from doubt, free to write her own story and set an example for her son.

Thanks to the neighborliness of Utahns and their founding narrative of seeking refuge, being strangers in a strange land, and creating paradise in a desert, modern-day asylum-seekers are finding home and heartfelt welcome in Utah. Everyday Utahns prove that the true measure of our humanity is not in our gross domestic product, but instead in our capacity to care for those traumatized by war, giving refuge to those fleeing violence, feeding the hungry, sheltering the poor, being a home for the stateless. At Women of the World, we introduce our society to those that have suffered from its destruction; we build community for those that appreciate its acceptance the most.

From our new neighbors, I offer profound gratitude for your continued humanity and neighborliness, it is absolutely writing a glorious page into our shared human history.

Samira Harnish is the founder and executive director of Women of the World, which provides hope, support, supplies, education and positivity to hundreds of women refugees and their families.