Where Lives and Cultures Meet

Diaconia is partnering with the Lutheran World Federation to provide support for their women-friendly spaces initiative in refugee camps throughout northern Iraq. Please read about this empowering and very important work.  

“We are six people in our tent,” Sory Rasno, 40, says. “At night the wind keeps us awake. There is no privacy, no space. The children start school this year, but they have no place to study. Here we can forget some of our problems.”

“Here” are two containers, marginally bigger than the space that Rasno’s family has in their tent in Esyan camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in northern Iraq. “Internally displaced” is the official term for the Yazidis, Shia and Christians who have become refugees in their own country when the so-called Islamic State militia drove them from their home towns.

Escape from camp life

The Lutheran World Federation has set up nine “Women-friendly spaces” in various camps in northern Iraq. They give women, who traditionally do not speak in public in these communities, a forum and protected space to meet. Often this is no more than a container or two, sometimes surrounded by a fence. There is little space and often 20 or more people are crammed inside one of the provisional bungalows. Young girls sit on plastic chairs along the wall, knitting. In the middle, a young woman demonstrates how to twist hair into an elaborate hairdo. In the other bungalow, elderly women are gathered around sewing machines, discussing patterns for dresses and blouses.

For Sory Rasno and the other women and girls who come here, however, it is an escape from camp life. “We meet new friends, and we learn handcrafts and many other things,” Rasno explains. “We are free to do what we like here.” To illustrate that, she shows a drawing: A cross and a Yazidi temple. In the tent she shares with her family, she would have had neither the time nor the space for such an activity.

“Before we started the center, the women were stuck in the tents with nowhere to go,” Nadia Brahim Morad, who supervises one of the centers for the LWF, says. “They were depressed and very emotional.” When the so-called Islamic State advanced in Northern Iraq, the Yazidi, Shia and Christians now gathered in the camp had to leave their homes. What little they had packed was often taken; many experienced or witnessed unspeakable acts of violence. People in this camp, and in all refugee camps, are traumatized not only from the experience of moving and fleeing their homes, but also due to their current situation and the uncertain status of their futures.

The unofficial camp forum

Women-friendly spaces offer people a safe area for reflection and a place to learn new skills. There are sewing and hairdressing workshops, literacy classes, games and arts sessions. “The women sometimes bring their children, and they also teach to them what they learn here,” Morad says.

Women-friendly spaces can also be a facilitator of social cohesion in the camp which can often be difficult. This becomes visible when visiting Davudia camp, the northernmost of the IDP settlements in Dohuk. It is one of the few camps where people of four different faiths are housed: Christians, Yazidis, Shia and Turkmen live together in close vicinity, yet separate quarters and communities.

It’s in the women-friendly spaces where the different groups come together. On a typical afternoon almost 30 women and children gather in the bungalow. The children draw pictures, while the women talk and take turns on the sewing machine. The windows are foggy where the breath of many people has condensed; the floor is covered in the mud of many boots. This is the place where faiths, cultures and life stories meet.

An impromptu language class has already come out of these meetings – the Kurdish-speaking Yazidis teach the Arabic-speaking Christians their language and vice versa. “We are now living in an area where everyone speaks Kurdish,” Haifa Khelaf, a Christian, says. “So we should learn the language.”

efugees, with their diverse backgrounds and experiences are using each other for support: "I am happy, because in the face of what we've all lived through, we're still living and smiling together," states Wafaa Marana Monzu.

hrough LWF's 9 women-friendly spaces, counseling and psycho-social support is being provided to over 2,000 women and girls. .

According to an article by Cornelie Kasnter, LWF Communications and Hana Pfannova, Diaconia ECCB- Center of Relief and Development.

Photograph by Seivan Salim





Jeremy Ault