Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. For the Red Cross, it is a tragic reminder that during times of war, women’s voices often go unheard and their specific needs are overlooked. Women displaced by armed conflict – often living alone with their children – are frequently exposed to sexual violence, discrimination and intimidation. Many face poverty and social exclusion as well.
Yesterday, I had the honor of hearing a young woman’s story that put in stark clarity the harsh realities of armed conflict’s impact on women.
Hala, 20, a student at DePaul is an Iraqi woman who had to leave her Bagdad home with her mother and brother when she was only 13 years old. In 2003, her mother, a Bagdad University professor, fled to Syria with her two children, leaving their extended family behind when she and many of her professional colleagues faced kidnapping and death if they chose to continue to work.
When their savings ran out a year later, they returned to Bagdad, where they lived in a church during some of the most violent years. Hala’s school was near the green zone, so, in addition to the kidnappings and deaths her family’s loved ones endured, Hala witnessed the impact of war on her way to and from high school. When the conflict became unendurable, Hala and her brother were forced to flee to safety to Syria again, but this time without their mother.
“The time was very confusing. We had a great life and a great education. It wasn’t easy, but what people don’t understand is that we had a good life and a peaceful one.” She shared with me. “The violence became so bad. ‘What now?’ I asked myself. We realized one day that we had to move on.”
In Syria, Hala found relief and healing through volunteerism with the Red Crescent Society and a local environmental campaign. “This is where I began my healing process. I was a victim in Iraq. Now I was helping. I was wearing this Red Crescent vest and it was a big thing to be able to help someone just register their name.”
Hala tried to keep busy through food distribution and medical relief efforts that supported the more than 2 million Iraqi refugees who wanted to live and work in Syria, as well as the many poor Syrians who lived in Damascus. She took Red Cross First Aid and Disaster courses. “Everyday I would see people coming and I would hear their stories. I’d talk to them and listen to them. It was so meaningful to me. When you speak to them you add hope.”
Through her volunteer work, she met the founders of the Iraqi Student Project (ISP) who, ultimately, played a critical role in Hala’s enrollment in DePaul University, where she began school in August of 2009 supported by a 4 year scholarship. At DePaul, Hala translates and provides technology support for the International Institute of Human Rights Law when she isn’t working on her degree in Information Assurance.
“One day you have to grow up. You have to be older really fast,” she says. “When people tell me I’m mature, it is sort of good and sort of bad. Sometimes it would be good to just be a kid. ”
Hala plans to continue her healing process by getting involved in international and local relief work through the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago when she isn’t focused on her studies. After graduation, she plans to return home to rebuild her country again.
International humanitarian law includes specific provisions protecting women, for example when they are pregnant or as mothers of young children. The American Red Cross of Greater Chicago is currently offering a free International Humanitarian Law (IHL) course to the public because we have a unique mandate to educate the public about humanitarian principles and international treaties meant to save lives and alleviate suffering during armed conflict. Through a discussion-based approach, this newly updated course explores the concept of human dignity in the midst of war. The next class is March 27.
Since I began working for the Red Cross last fall, I have been shocked by the degree to which international issues hit close to home in Chicago. Through our chapter’s involvement with International Red Cross and Red Crescent Humanitarian mission and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we repeatedly see that the impact is local.
I haven’t taken the class yet, but, like Hala, wearing the red vest is healing for me. Connecting with others who appreciate that suffering is a universal experience repeatedly makes my life better. I am incredibly inspired by the courage of this young lady and my hope is that we go to our first class together. I can’t imagine a greater honor in my own Red Cross journey than to begin the next chapter together here in Chicago.
Do you care to join us?