Women of the World: a safe haven for Salt Lake City’s refugee and immigrant women.

Story, photos and slideshow by DEVON ALEXANDER BROWN

Thanks to the steadily rising influx of technology companies, the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is becoming affectionately known as Silicon Slopes, a burgeoning parallel to California’s Silicon Valley.

But it wasn’t career advancement opportunities that brought Samira Harnish, a former semiconductor engineer for Micron Technology Inc., back to Utah. It was the chance to make a difference and fill a necessary void.

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Samira Harnish standing in her office at Women of the World, located at 3347 S. Main St.

Harnish immigrated to the United States from Baghdad, Iraq, in the late 1970s. She studied engineering at Utah State University, but frequently suffered discrimination due to her race and gender. She also endured depression because she felt isolated in her new community and found it difficult to express her feelings. The need for female advocacy and empowerment drove her to establish Women of the World, a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake City, in 2010.

Harnish knew from an early age that she wanted to help others. As a result she’s amassed over two decades of volunteer experience and before founding Women of the World, she served as a medical interpreter for local organizations like Catholic Community Services, the International Rescue Committee, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah.

But it wasn’t until her stint as an interpreter that she came to realize the true wants and desires of refugee and immigrant women.

“I actually listened to them to know what they want,” Harnish said. “They say, ‘I wish we had a woman that could hear us and guide us.’ When you are foreign in a country you don’t know anything. You need someone to guide you and to give you advice.”

And as she listened to the desires of refugee women from disparate cultural backgrounds, Harnish said they came to the same conclusion: they wanted a space of their own. Where they could freely share their concerns, interests and dreams without being overshadowed by the men in their lives.

Although Harnish stepped up to meet their needs, for a while she was alone in her efforts. For five years she operated without an office or case managers, simply visiting refugee homes, gathering contacts and securing much needed donations.

Salt Lake City is the nation’s second largest resettlement site for refugee women. It also has the largest proportion of single mothers and women-at-risk of any resettlement community. Four out of five refugees are women and many are survivors of teen marriage, domestic violence and rape. Once resettled they must juggle the effects of these traumas with unique economic and social challenges.

Yet, until Harnish founded Women of the World, there was no local organization dedicated to assisting such a notable demographic. And the women are grateful.

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Thank you letters displayed in the Women of the World office.

Apiel Kuot, a refugee from South Sudan, is one of these women. She said she was stressed and scared when arriving in Utah in the fall of 2016, but Women of the World helped her with winter clothing, a television and other essential household goods. She also learned to start thinking positively.

“I can’t count the things they’ve helped me with because there are so many things I have received from them,” Kuot said in a telephone interview. “And they give me encouragement which is much better than anything else someone can give.”

Now a year later, she is confident and self-reliant and is planning to earn a social work degree.

“There are some women who are at a camp that will soon be in this place, but they don’t know where to go with their issues,” Kuot said.  “I trust Samira and Women of the World and I will tell them because they (WoW) always give me positive things, not negative things.”

The Women of the World office, located at 3347 S. Main St., is considered a second home by women like Kuot. Women hailing from countries like Iraq, Nepal, Myanmar, Iran, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda come there for help navigating community resources and often engage with one another over hot tea and desserts, sharpening their conversational English skills in a pressure-free setting. Most of the women learn of Women of the World through word of mouth.

“We love to warm everybody’s heart,” Harnish said, while preparing a cup of hibiscus tea. “I love the way everybody comes in here and feels comfortable. Some of them that wear hijab, they take it off because they know the windows are tinted and there are no men so they feel very secure.”

Women of the World seeks to empower women by promoting self-reliance through service, education and economic development programs. As a nonprofit, Women of the World operates without government funding, instead relying on charitable donations and an annual fundraiser held the day after International Women’s Day. Harnish says she prefers to operate without federal assistance because it allows her to tailor Women of the World’s services without worry of a pushed agenda.

“When the government gives you the money, they always tell you to go that way or this way, you know, their way,” Harnish said. “I’m here to listen to them (the women) and do whatever they ask.”

Harnish and the case managers she employs work to help women create resumes, tighten interviewing and job skills, plan for entrepreneurship and acquire mental health and legal assistance. More importantly, they help instill in participants a deeply rooted sense of self-confidence through their practical English program. Launched as a two-month pilot program for six women with no English skills, by its conclusion all six women were able to gain employment.

When discussing self-reliance, terms like education and employment tend to rank paramount. While earning potential is indubitably connected to the ability to provide for oneself and family, Women of the World knows it is only one aspect and it differs by individual.

McKenzie Cantlon, a case manager at Women of the World, worked with refugees in Buffalo, New York, and the United Kingdom before relocating to the Salt Lake Valley. She says the economic and social support refugees receive has been phenomenal in all areas, but she’s noticed a problematic pattern: proximity to services.

In Utah, voluntary agency affiliates like Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee are based in Salt Lake City. That means refugees located farther north or south do not have the same access to essential resources. For this reason, Women of the World stresses self-reliance above all else.

“For some women self-reliance might be having the courage to leave the house and go grocery shopping or taking their children to the park,” Cantlon said in an email interview. “For other women this might mean going to school, getting a job and supporting their children without the help of others. Women of the World works to promote every kind of self-reliance.”

Courtney Bullard began working as a case manager for Women of the World in the summer of 2016. She lived in the Middle East for five years and attended graduate school in London. Bullard said she’s seen tremendous success from refugees working with Women of the World, but true economic independence isn’t always an option. Regardless, self-confidence is the first step to its path.

“There are a lot of barriers that refugees face upon coming to the USA because of how the resettlement process is set up,” Bullard said in an email interview. “We have women who might always rely on government assistance because of their various situations, however, when they advocate for themselves whether it might be asking for higher pay at work or looking the cashier at the grocery store in the eye at the store — I consider them on their way to self reliance.”

Regardless of definition self-reliance does not manifest overnight. Rather, it’s often an arduous journey that requires discipline and dedication. For Kaltum Mohamed, a Sudanese refugee, it’s taken four years to reach her dream of opening a restaurant.

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Kaltum Mohamed standing in front of her food truck “Mother of All.”

Mohamed was resettled in 2013 after years of moving between refugee camps. After receiving assistance from the IRC for 10 months, she met Samira Harnish. Through their shared Arabic language, they quickly formed a powerful friendship.

Harnish said Mohamed approached her early on with the desire to open a restaurant — refusing to allow any obstacles to deter her confidence. However, after attending a few practical English classes she stopped showing up.

“The last day she got really upset and said she just wants to find someone to give her a loan,” Harnish said. “I told her, ‘No one is going to give you a loan unless you finish that program. You go in there and finish.’”

So Mohamed persisted. She now operates Mother of All, a food truck that can be found at The Black Diamond Store and The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City.

“They (WoW) help me too much,” Mohamed said reflectively in her South Salt Lake apartment. “And I always tell everyone, don’t give up on the things you need. Continue doing it and face everything with confidence.”

To commemorate the successes of refugee women like Mohamed, Women of the World holds an awards banquet and social mixer at the end of every year. In addition to inspirational stories, small ethnic meals are brought and shared by members of the community and musical entertainment is provided.

This year’s event will be held Dec. 9, 2017, from 2-5 p.m. at the Salt Lake County South Building Atrium on 2100 S. State St. It is Women of the World’s 7th Annual Celebration for women who achieve their goals and is free and open to the public.

 

 

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