On May 12 at Sugar House Park, a group of women will get together for the third year, sharing recipes, telling stories, and celebrating the joys of motherhood. Many come from countries where there isn’t a date equivalent to Mother’s Day, while others have had to leave their children behind in war torn communities.
The event is the annual Mother’s Day celebration of Women of the World, an organization founded by Samira Harnish, who arrived in the United States from Iraq as a teen mother in an arranged marriage. After overcoming her struggles and becoming a successful semiconductor manufacturing engineer, she retired to devote her life to helping others who face many of the same challenges.
“We have 25,000 refugees here in Utah and 98 percent of them live in Salt Lake,” Harnish said. “It was my dream to help women in the Middle East, but I realized that there is just as great of a need to help women here, too.”
According to the Refugee Services office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, women and girls represent 47 percent of refugee and asylum-seekers, while 44 percent are children under 18.
Of those seeking asylum, four out of five chosen are women and children. Yet, though women and children represent the vast majority, most resources are used to help men, placing them in jobs and assisting with assimilation. For every dollar of development assistance, only 2 cents goes to women.
Harnish describes the situation of new female refugees as disorienting and, often, demeaning.
“Women lose their power when they can’t understand what is going on around them, either because of language barriers or culture,” she said. ‘They feel powerless and lack confidence.”
Through Women of the World, refugees are taught empowerment, through English lessons, weekly meetings and a support network. Along with the daily work, the organization tries to find time for celebration, holding an annual fashion show and, in the case of Mother’s Day, having a potluck in the park. In past years, more than 150 women and children attended the event.
Justin Harnish, the development director of Women of the World and Samira’s husband, feels the early success of the program is based on the refugees’ faith in Samira Harnish and her message.
“Samira is the most authentic person that I’ve ever been around,” Justin said. “Samira doesn’t tell you what you want to hear — she tells you what you need to hear. They trust her completely because she is willing to tell the hard truths and provide tough love.”
Through its website, womenofworld.org, donations are accepted, but the main necessity is sponsorship. The organization is looking for those interested in teaching practical English to refugees for at least a six-month time frame and preferably longer.
More important is the need for a full-time classroom, a physical location for education where the women can meet as a group in the future.
At a glance
According to the Utah Refugee Service Office’s 2010 data, refugee resettlement has increased an average of 25 percent for each of the past three years.
There are about 25,000 refugees in Utah; 12,000 are children and 7,000 are adult women.
Women of the World’s client files include 57 families with the majority of the matriarchs in these families having limited English proficiency or no English skills. The organization hopes to increase this number through donations and sponsorship.