The Syrian Doctor Building an Underground Hospital for Women and Girls

With Syria’s healthcare system crippled by conflict, women and children are dying from treatable illnesses. One doctor and his team are providing them safe, dedicated medical care by building hospitals below ground, out of the reach of airstrikes.

PUBLISHED ON Jan. 3, 2018

By Alexandra Bradford 

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

FOR A FEW days in October, a tiny, starving baby girl became the face of the war in Syria. Images of one-month-old Sahar Dofdaa, from Syria’s opposition-held Eastern Ghouta, showed her fragile 4lb (less than 2kg) body, with sunken eyes and bones protruding beneath her thin gray skin. The news of her death highlighted how the conflict contributes to preventable deaths, especially among women and children, the population’s most vulnerable people.

When Syrian doctor Khaled Almilaji saw the photos of Sahar, he thought she wasn’t just suffering from malnutrition, as had been originally reported, but probably also had a chronic or congenital disease. The baby girl had been treated by a local doctor, but Almilaji believes if she had been able to access a dedicated hospital for women and children, she might have lived.

“It would [have] allowed us to prevent such horrible complications that led to the death of baby Sahar,” he says. “[Her disease] could have been alleviated by good medical care.”

That is what Almilaji hopes to provide with Avicenna Women and Children’s hospital, a facility currently being built in rebel-held Idlib province. The hospital will offer the reproductive and maternity care that is sorely lacking in a country where healthcare services have had to pivot to focus on trauma. And it will do all of this across two floors set deep underground, out of the reach of Syrian airstrikes.

Since the start of the Syrian conflict, 485 medical facilities have been hit by military airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of 841 healthcare workers, a clear breach of the Geneva Convention, which classifies the targeting of hospitals and healthcare workers as a war crime. At least 64 percent of these attacks were perpetrated by the Syrian military, with the rest carried out by Russian forces, nonstate groups or unknown attackers.

The constant bombardment and the destruction of fundamental health services leaves many people suffering serious complications or dying as a result of illnesses that could otherwise be successfully treated. Even giving birth in Syria can be life-threatening.

“Women don’t feel safe to stay in hospitals, which are attacked on a regular basis; they prefer to give birth at home without proper medical attendance, which is increasing complications for both mother and child,” says Almilaji. “That’s why providing a secure women and children’s hospital is essential.”

Tortured for Treating the Injured

Avicenna hospital is the latest project by the Sustainable International Medical Relief Organization (SIMRO), an NGO that Almilaji formed five years ago to protect patients and doctors from aerial attacks by moving healthcare facilities underground.

Almilaji, who is doing his postgraduate studies at the University of Toronto and in December was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by Canada’s governor general for his humanitarian work in Syria, is no stranger to providing medical care under makeshift conditions.

He was at home in Aleppo in 2011 when government forces fired on peaceful protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, igniting a war that to date has resulted in at least 400,000 civilian deaths.

“When the Syrian regime started to attack protesters with gunfire, injured protesters couldn’t go to the hospital because the secret police and intelligence [officers] would be there to arrest them,” says Almilaji. The government was preventing injured protesters from receiving medical care as a deterrent, he says, the idea being that if protesters were seen bleeding to death in the street, other people would be less likely to join the demonstrations.

Driven to help, Almilaji joined other physicians who were traveling to the cities of Hama and Homs to treat injured protesters in secret field hospitals. When the Syrian government learned about the secret medical facilities, it responded by arresting the doctors.

On September 7, 2011, Almilaji was treating protesters in Damascus when government intelligence officers arrested him and three of his colleagues for treating injured civilians. For six months, they were held in prison and tortured. Almilaji says he was beaten with bars and cables, and electrocuted. “They hung me by my hands from the ceiling for 24 hours with no food, no water,” he says.

In early March of 2012, he was released from prison with a warning that if he was caught treating injured protesters again he would be made to “vanish.” He fled to Turkey, where he founded SIMRO so that he could continue to provide medical care by building fortified hospitals in Syria’s conflict zones.

The organization runs through a network of field officers on the ground in Syria and Turkey, with funding from international donors. Almilaji tries to go back to Syria as often as he can – he last snuck into the country in 2015 to check on a few medical projects and the building of an underground hospital in Hama.

Too Big to Hide

Avicenna Women and Children’s hospital is being built in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and international donors including Refugee Protection International as well as an ongoing crowdfunding campaign.

The Syrian government had started construction on the hospital before the conflict, and by the time opposition forces took control of Idlib, the building already included two “huge” underground floors, says Almilaji.

The eight above-ground floors have been fortified to provide a protective barrier that should stop bombs dropped by Syrian warplanes from reaching the underground floors where the new hospital is located.

But there’s no way to protect the hospital from Russian airstrikes, which use high-explosive ammunition, such as bunker-buster bombs, which are far more destructive than Syria’s barrel bombs. “Nothing can stop them,” says Almilaji.

All over Syria, hospitals have tried to hide from airstrikes by disappearing into caves and devising code-name systems in an effort to disguise their coordinates. But with Avicenna, Almilaji and his team decided to make themselves more visible, not less so, by handing the hospital’s coordinates over to the Russian and Syrian authorities.

“This is a huge hospital and we couldn’t hide that there was a lot of work going on here,” says Almilaji. So they asked various U.N. agencies to share the coordinates of the hospital with all parties involved in the conflict: the Syrians, the Russians and the U.S.military. “They have all been told that there is a hospital there that is being supported by the United Nations and that we are doing purely humanitarian work,” says Almilaji.

The hope is that by making the coordinates public and by involving the U.N., it will be impossible for Russia or Syria to attack the hospital. “They won’t be able to say that they didn’t know the hospital was there,” Almilaji says. “And our doctors know that if they are attacked, the world will know about it.”

As well as providing a safe place to get medical care, Avicenna has partnered with Brown University’s Humanitarian Innovation Initiative, of which Almilaji is a fellow, and the University of Toronto to provide continuous training for at least 350 doctors, nurses and administrative staff in Syria.

Using a telehealth communications system, supervisors and consultants from Brown University will be able to provide real-time consultations, mentoring and technical support to Avicenna’s medical staff. A certification program – to reinstate the residency program for would-be doctors after the original program was halted in conflict areas at the start of the war – is also in the works.

And Almilaji hopes that most of the medical personnel at the hospital will be Syrian doctors and specialists who were forced to flee regime-controlled areas. “Avicenna will provide a safe environment that will attract this category [of doctors] to come back to Idlib from Turkey, where there are hundreds near the borders in Gaziantep, Antakya, Urfa and Mersin,” he says.

By the time Avicenna opens in April 2018, Almilaji estimates that $850,000 will have been spent on fortifying the hospital’s structure. The project will rely on continuous donations to keep the hospital running, including paying for medical personnel and buying medical equipment. But Almilaji is determined to make it work.

“We will show that people who struggle for freedom can also establish a unique health system, even in a war zone,” he says.

Former Boko Haram Captives Face Stigma, Often From Other Survivors

As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, we look at how escape from Boko Haram doesn’t always mean the end of the ordeal, as former militants’ ‘wives’ are often rejected and verbally abused by other female abductees.

PUBLISHED ON March 27, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

ONE AFTERNOON IN April 2015, Amina emerged from Sambisa forest with her daughter beside her. They were among the very first women to be rescued by security forces from Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group that has been carrying out a violent insurgency in Nigeria since 2009. Amina, her daughter and the other women who were rescued that day reported having been raped, beaten and, for some, forced to marry Boko Haram fighters. When they stepped out of the forest, they assumed their torture was over.

But for this mother and daughter, and many others like them, their troubles weren’t over.

Many of the women and girls who escape from Boko Haram arrive home only to be rejected by their communities and families, who consider them to be tainted by their forced association with the group.

Amina and her daughter, whose real names have been withheld for security reasons, are among thousands of women and girls who, since 2013, have been taken from their homes in northeastern Nigeria in large-scale abductions. In the best-known example, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their schoolhouse in Chibok in April 2014. The abductions gained worldwide attention and inspired the Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls.

In May 2015, Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, arrived at the internally displaced persons camp (IDP) in Yola, Nigeria, where she interviewed women and girls who escaped Boko Haram. While there, she met with Amina, who told Segun that since their arrival both she and her daughter had been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse, and rejected by other women at the camp. Segun was startled to hear that the women responsible for the abuse had themselves been held captive by Boko Haram.

According to Segun, kidnapped women are pressured, through beatings, rape and starvation, to marry Boko Haram fighters. The women who refuse to marry are treated as slaves by the group and forced to do domestic work. “Boko Haram fighters show preference to their so-called wives, [and] the ones who refuse to get married receive the brunt of the abuse,” she says.

“She would have rather been with Boko Haram than in the camp where she was suffering from abuse and stigmatization by everyone else.”

Once rescued and rehoused at the Yola IDP camp, women who had refused to marry fighters sometimes take their anger out on those who received better treatment from Boko Haram by marrying.

Both Amina and her daughter had married Boko Haram fighters. “The only way [Amina] could keep an eye on her daughter was to marry one of the fighters as well. For her, that was a sacrifice she had to make,” Segun says.

After they were rescued by security forces, Amina and her daughter arrived at the Yola camp to find their trauma continued. “[Her daughter] said the treatment they received in the camp was worse than the treatment she received with Boko Haram,” says Segun. “She would have rather been with Boko Haram than in the camp where she was suffering from abuse and stigmatization by everyone else.”

Even returning home doesn’t guarantee former Boko Haram captives freedom from being ostracized. Families often reject girls who were unmarried before their abductions and come back pregnant by a Boko Haram fighter. “In [the family’s] thinking, their daughter’s marriageability has been diminished because she has been with Boko Haram,” Segun says. According to her, women in IDPcamps in Nigeria typically rally around pregnant women and help deliver and care for babies – but women who became pregnant as Boko Haram captives are often left alone with no support.

Kim Toogood, peacebuilding adviser for Nigeria at International Alert, says women and girls who survive Boko Haram are often marginalized upon their return and may be excluded from receiving basic aid. For their children born of sexual violence, who are often perceived to be carrying the “bad blood” of Boko Haram, the consequences of stigma can be even worse, inhibiting their ability to go to school, to play with other children or even get married, she says.

Together in Trauma

While the shared experience of having been kidnapped by Boko Haram can turn some women against each other, the Chibok schoolgirls who escaped the militant group find strength together as they recover from the trauma of their abduction.

Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (R) looks Dolapo Osinbajo, center, the wife of Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, comforts one of the 21 Chibok girls who were freed in October 2016. (AFP/Philip Ojisua)

When Boko Haram attacked the Chibok schoolhouse, the militants rounded up the girls and forced them onto trucks. As the trucks made their way through the roads of Chibok, 57 of the girls jumped and escaped. “Two sisters held hands and jumped, it was so frightening for them,” says Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN). The girls then hid in the bush before journeying back to Chibok.

Days later, Ensign was approached by one of her female security guards who told Ensign that her sister was one of the kidnapped schoolgirls and that she had escaped. Knowing that the girls who managed to get away from Boko Haram would need a safe haven to continue their education, Ensign offered them full scholarships to AUN. Six escaped girls are now fully enrolled at AUN’s university, and 18 are in its intense foundation program, preparing for university.

According to Ensign, many of the parents were afraid to let their daughters go back to school. One mother told her, “My daughter has been kidnapped and now you want me to leave her with you?”

The girls also had their own cause for concern. The high-profile nature of their kidnapping means they continue to be targets for Boko Haram. To make sure the girls feel safe, AUN has instituted specialized security, which includes a K9 unit. The school also provides security escorts to the girls whenever they leave campus, according to Lionel von Federick Rawlins, AUN’s vice president of security and safety.

The school also gives the girls access to a trauma therapist, who works with them when they show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating distress, such as refusing to talk or unstoppable crying.

According to Ensign, allowing the girls to stay together as a group has become increasingly important for their recovery. Since arriving at the school two years ago, almost every girl has suffered the death of a parent or sibling at the hands of Boko Haram. “We have had so many mourning days for parents that have been lost,” says Ensign. “Their response as a group [is] to pray and sit and talk.”

In October 2016, Boko Haram released 21 of the 200 Chibok schoolgirls held by the group. Ensign was with the AUN girls when the news broke and said they were ecstatic and crying with joy. They told Ensign, “Our sisters are coming home.”

Over the Christmas holidays, the girls from AUN reunited with the recently rescued girls in their hometown. On their return to school, the AUN students encouraged Ensign to provide scholarships to the girls who had recently been released. “They can look at us and see how far we have come,” her students told her.

Mass Sexual Violence Leaves Rohingya Women Traumatized and Stateless

The United Nations has documented shocking accounts of sexual violence, including gang rape, against Rohingya women and girls at the hands of Myanmar’s military. News Deeply spoke with a U.N. investigator about what she found when she talked to survivors.

PUBLISHED ON June 8, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

MASS SEXUAL VIOLENCE against the Rohinyga minority in northern Myanmar has been documented in a recent United Nations report.

The spate of violence, which includes gang rape and involves survivors as young as 11 years old, was found to have been perpetrated by Myanmar’s security forces,

On October 9, 2016, the Burmese military entered northern Rakhine state – and over the next four months detained and killed men, women and children. Soldiers burned down houses and raped women and young girls. The U.N. report says these actions amount to possible crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

The military insists this “clearance operation” was a justified counterinsurgency operation following an October 9 attack on security forces near the Bangladesh border, which resulted in the deaths of nine policemen. The violence caused more than 69,000 Rohingya to flee from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they are currently living in eight makeshift camps in Dhaka and Cox Bazar.

Myanmar’s Rohinyga population lives in villages in northern Rakhine state, near the Bangladesh border. They are known as one of the most persecuted minoritiesin the world. Their Muslim faith is viewed as a security threat by Buddhist groups in Myanmar, which means they receive limited access to basic servicessuch as education. They are also prohibited from claiming citizenship and moving freely throughout the country.

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) sent a four-person team, including human rights officer Ilona Alexander, to Bangladesh in early January of this year to investigate these human rights violations. Their investigation included testimony from 101 Rohingya women who experienced violence at the hands of the military: More than half reported being sexually assaulted.

Women & Girls spoke to Ilona Alexander about the evidence she gathered on the sexual violence inflicted on Rohingya women and girls.

Women & Girls: The military indicated that it was conducting “area clearance operations” in the region – what exactly does this mean?

Ilona Alexander: Based on the interviews we conducted, the “area clearance operations” followed this pattern: Large numbers of armed men (often from both the Myanmar Armed Forces and the police, sometimes accompanied by Rakhine villagers) would arrive in the village. As is confirmed by satellite imagery analysis, they would proceed to destroy many houses, mosques, schools and shops.

They would separate the women from the men. Women would be rounded up, and either told to stay inside a school or other building or outside in the burning sun. Many would be raped or would experience others forms of sexual violence, often during strip searches, either during roundups or in homes.

“Families may have had members killed, beaten, raped or taken away to an unknown location, while at the same time their homes were burned and looted.”

Women & Girls: How did the victims describe the attacks?

Alexander: The vast majority of those interviewed had experienced multiple violations. Families may have had members killed, beaten, raped or taken away to an unknown location, while at the same time their homes were burned and looted. For most interviewees, separation from their families is a major concern.

Many of the men have been detained or killed. This is one of the saddest things, because these women have experienced tremendous sexual violence – but sometimes they broke down even more when they talked about their missing husbands.

For me, the touching thing was hearing stories from the little boys who feel that now that their fathers are gone, they are responsible for protecting their mothers and sisters. But these boys have had to watch their sisters and mothers being beaten and raped, and now they feel like they have failed to protect their mothers.

Yanghee Lee (second left), the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, visits the Balu Khali Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar on February 21, 2017. (AFP)

Women & Girls: Your investigations found that one girl as young as 11 years old was gang raped by military forces. Can you describe this case?

Alexander: For this girl, she started by describing to me how life was peaceful in her village before … suddenly the military appeared and started killing people [and] abusing women.

“He left the girl at home with her mother and two little brothers because he thought the military wouldn’t hurt children.”

She told me how she witnessed a man who was about 40 years old have his throat cut with a cleaver in front of her. After, the military came to her house and badly beat her parents.

After this incident, her father went into hiding from the military and took her two older sisters with him so that they would be safe. He left the girl at home with her mother and two little brothers because he thought the military wouldn’t hurt children.

The military came back to their house twice. The first time, the military came and removed her clothing and kicked her. After the clothing was removed and the girl was beaten, the military suddenly left. The next day they returned with seven soldiers and removed the mother from the house. The soldiers locked themselves in a room with the girl and gang raped her. The girl told me that she doesn’t even know how many of them raped her because she fell unconscious at times and awoke bleeding and injured after.

Women & Girls: Why were some of the women you spoke to targeted for gang rape, while others weren’t?

Alexander: They wanted to terrorize the population, so they took some women into public places like mosques and gang raped them while other women were outside and listening. They wanted the women outside to know what was happening so they were terrorized.

They would have around eight women and 20 men from the military in the mosque, and the men would take a turn with each woman.

I had this one 15-year-old girl tell me that she was only raped by one solider because she was not as beautiful as the girls who were gang raped. When she told me this I thought, “My God, what kind of culture is this where women think they aren’t beautiful enough to be gang raped?”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Inside Islamic State’s Female Recruitment Machine

Aqsa Mahmood grew up in Scotland, but left behind her ordinary life to become a recruiter for the so-called Islamic State. Western women continue to leave home to join the violent group – and Mahmood’s journey may provide insight.

PUBLISHED ON June 13, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

BY ALL ACCOUNTS 22-year-old Aqsa Mahmood was an ordinary adolescent. She dreamed of being a doctor and excelled during her years at the private school she attended in Scotland. Her weekends were spent with friends and she was devoted to her family. Mahmood’s parents describe her as “the best daughter you could have.” Yet in late 2013, while her friends were studying for their exams and planning their winter break, Mahmood was preparing to run away from Glasgow to Syria, where she would join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State group.

But Mahmood is not only a runaway to the group also known as ISIS – she is a recruiter. She would go on to become the female role model for Western women seeking to make their home among the members of the terror group.

Her choice to radicalize and join the Islamic State was not sparked by a traumatic upbringing or psychological illness. Indeed, this holds for the majority of the more than 550 Western women who have migrated to the Islamic State. But if not a troubled upbringing, then what? The Islamic State’s recruitment mechanism.

Like many recruits to the Islamic State who migrated before and after her, Mahmood’s first step toward radicalization began as she watched the brutal Syrian civil war ravage the country. Mahmood’s parents told the New York Times how she became “increasingly vocal and angry” about the war in Syria.

Mahmood documented her anger on her Tumblr page (which has since been shut down), where she posted pictures of civilians harmed by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s state-sponsored torture. She wrote about her anger at the West for its refusal to engage militarily to halt Assad’s cruelty. Simultaneously, she chastised America for its use of drones and subsequent deaths of Muslims in Afghanistan.

The Islamic State’s propaganda promotes the idea that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with the West’s lack of military action in Syria against Assad, are all part of a constructive effort to oppress Muslims. This binary and simplistic narrative implies that Muslims are being victimized by the West, and that those Muslims who continue to live in the West are complicit in the war.

Mahmood’s anger against the West created fertile ground for her radicalization and played right into the hands of the Islamic State’s recruitment machine. “This is a war against Islam and it is known that either ‘you’re with them or with us.’ So pick a side,” she wrote on her Tumblr account on September 11, 2014.

The Islamic State’s recruitment machine not only spreads the message that the West is at war with Islam, but it offers potential recruits a solution: join an army that will defeat the West, while also joining a utopian caliphate where healthcare, housing and food are provided free of charge.

In 2014, the terror group made substantial strides in its goal of creating a so-called caliphate when it captured sizable regions of Iraq and Syria. As they began building a quasi-functioning state, they also established Sharia law and the trappings of statehood.

Women were needed for this proto-state to grow and run successfully. ISIS put out for women to join as nurses, doctors and teachers. More importantly, women were to marry Islamic State soldiers and produce the next generation of fighters. For many women – including Mahmood – the opportunity to play a crucial role in the Islamic State was too tempting to resist.

One morning in November 2013, after saying goodbye to her parents, Mahmood did not head to school as usual, but instead left for the jihad. Four days later, as she was preparing to cross the Turkish border into Syria, Mahmood called her parents and told them of her wish to become a martyr. In tears, her parents begged her to return. But their pleas did not bring Mahmood back home.

“The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Your parents are already worried enough over where you are … and what’s happened,” Mahmood wrote on her Tumblr account. “How does a parent who has little Islamic knowledge and understanding comprehend why their son or daughter has left their well-off life, education and a bright future behind to go live in a war-torn country?”

It is still unclear if Mahmood made the journey to Syria alone, but her Tumblr and Twitter pages show that she had made contact with several women who had already migrated to the Islamic State, indicating that they may have facilitated her journey from Scotland to Syria.

For many like Mahmood, making contact with someone living under the Islamic State would have been as simple as sending a connection request on social media. Social media has allowed for instantaneous connections between women in the West and those under the Islamic State. Women who associate with the terror group often indicate their association by using the group’s black-and-white-flag as their profile picture, or labeling their geo-location as “IS” for Islamic State.

Once a request is sent, and the potential recruit expresses interest in joining the group, the conversation would be taken offline into encrypted channels, such as WhatsApp messenger. It is here that travel plans from the recruit’s home to the Islamic State are made.

Once Mahmood was fully shrouded under the Islamic State, she went to work fulfilling the roles set out for women. She married a fighter and, by her own account, she reveled in her new familial role, describing spending her days as a homemaker who cleans the house and looks after children. “Haha I didn’t even know how to cook when I got married [three months earlier] but now I’ve had so much free time that I’ve learnt … Trust me sisters ‘practice makes perfect,’” she wrote on her Tumblr.

Mahmood’s defection to the Islamic State received immense press attention in the West, which resulted in her receiving celebrity status within the terror group and among potential recruits. The Islamic State appears to have cashed in on her celebrity by allowing her to assume a lead role in their Western recruitment program.

With her new status, Mahmood leveraged social media to promote Islamic State propaganda by, for example, displaying execution photos of civilians killed by the Islamic State. She even called for attacks against the West. On June 27, 2013, Mahmood posted on Twitter, “If you cannot make it to the battlefield then bring the battlefield to yourself. Be sincere and be a Mujahid [a person engaged in jihad] wherever you may be.”

In February of last year, British authorities uncovered that Mahmood may have helped three young girls travel from their London home to the Islamic State in Syria.

If true, Mahmood would have come full circle: from a young girl, to a migrant, to a recruiter, who now draws other young girls into her orbit and, ultimately, into the hands of ISIS.

Women’s Healthcare in Critical Condition in Besieged Syria

As the bombs continue to drop on parts of Syria, doctors struggle to give even the most basic medical care to women who, if they survive the airstrikes, still face malnutrition, an inability to breastfeed and a lack of any kind of preventative healthcare.

PUBLISHED ON Feb. 6, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

FATIMAH, 25, WAS at her home in eastern Aleppo with her three children when the first barrel bomb struck. Her husband, who was at work at the time, heard the explosion from his office. He knew instantly the sound had come from the direction of his house. He waited for the “double-tap” – the second round of barrel bombs which would drop from the Syrian and Russian warplanes – before sprinting off towards home. He arrived in time to watch a third round of bombing decimate his family.

The While Helmets rushed Fatimah and 9-year-old Mammoud to the hospital, but Mammoud’s twin brother, Abdo, and their 3-year-old sister, Eilaf, were found dead beneath the rubble. Fatimah, who was three months pregnant at the time of the bombing, suffered a miscarriage and internal bleeding, leaving her in critical condition and on life support.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, Fatimah’s critical care doctor, uses his patient’s story to illustrate how the conflict in Syria is crippling maternal healthcare, with thousands of women suffering as warplanes systematically wipe out medical facilities, and blockades leave hospitals with almost no equipment or resources.

Sahloul, a Syrian-American trauma specialist, and Chicago-based pediatrician John Kahler, arrived in war-torn east Aleppo last year as members of the medical charity Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). They flew to Syria in June 2016, to spend five days working in hospitals that were bombed daily.

“As a physician, I know what the smell of death is – it is like putrid meat. And the smell was pervasive.”

When asked what he remembers about first arriving in east Aleppo, Kahler said it was the smell of decomposing bodies buried under rubble and trapped in bombed-out cars. “As a physician, I know what the smell of death is – it is like putrid meat. And the smell was pervasive,” he says.

Doctors in besieged areas of Syria have been struggling throughout the conflict to provide proper medical care to those in need. Syrian-Russian government forces have specifically targeted healthcare workers and hospitals, killing over 750 healthcare providers and bombing 265 medical facilities throughout the country. When Sahloul and Kahler arrived last June, only 30 doctors were left to treat eastern Aleppo’s 300,000 civilians.

Dr. Farida, who for safety reasons would only allow her first name to be published, was the last obstetrician-gynecologist in eastern Aleppo until she was evacuated to Idlib at the end of last year. While in Aleppo, she worked at Omar Ibn Abdel Aziz hospital, codenamed M2 by doctors in a futile attempt to protect its coordinates from bombings by the Syrian regime.

Farida’s voice is high and urgent as she describes what she witnessed in Aleppo, telling of widespread malnutrition among women in besieged areas. She says basic foods such as meat, vegetables and dairy products are unavailable. “Most of the women are anemic with decalcification in their bones … there are no vegetables,” she says.

SAMS vice president Dr. Basel Termanini travels to northern Syria every six months to provide medical care. “I have seen mothers who really don’t even know how to describe an orange to their children, because their children have never seen one before. People are really deprived,” he says.

Malnutrition has a devastating impact on prenatal and neonatal health, leading to a host of problems including low birth weight – “Most of the babies being born are under six pounds,” says Farida – and an inability to produce breast milk. In northern Syria, aid organizations prioritize the delivery of baby formula, as many mothers can’t breastfeed their babies, says Termanini. In places where fighting and blockades make it impossible for aid deliveries to get through, even formula isn’t available. Asked what mothers in eastern Aleppo feed their babies when they are unable to breastfeed or buy formula, Farida says, “Nothing. The baby eats nothing.”

Doctors across besieged areas of Syria have reported an increase in the number of deliveries by cesarean section, which they also attribute to the constant bombings. Knowing that hospitals are targets for airstrikes, women are often too frightened to visit doctors for prenatal screenings, says Termanini. Many don’t find out about serious conditions during their pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, until it comes time to deliver their babies, which can result in the need for emergency C-sections.

Many pregnant women also choose to have C-sections so they can plan to deliver their babies at night, when bombings are less likely. It’s a decision doctors say is understandable but risky. “It is an unnecessary surgery that is not appropriate as it increases the risks of complications and future complications related to pregnancy,” says Sahloul.

The remains of a bombed out hospital that was codenamed M10, in Aleppo. The ramp led to an underground bunker that was being used as the ER. (John Kahler)

With hospitals in parts of Syria being targeted by airstrikes on an almost daily basis, Kahler confirmed that there are no longer any working medical facilities in Aleppo. Sahloul says that during his last mission to Syria, every few minutes the government would detonate bunker buster bombs and barrel bombs in the direction of hospitals. “These things happen all the time in Syria,” he says.

And that means health providers have had to adapt in ways they never imagined. Farida recalls one incident when M2 hospital was bombarded as she was performing a C-section. The explosion caused parts of the ceiling above her to cave in, and crumbling debris dropped into her patient’s open abdomen. As the bombings continued, Farida asked nurses to remove the rubble from inside her patient and clean her abdomen with saline. “We finished the operation, and in the end, the patient [survived] and was very good,” Farida says.

The daily destruction also means that trauma care takes precedence over preventative or primary care. During times of bombardment, civilians only seek medical care if they are seriously injured, says Sahloul. Preventative care for women, like mammograms and cervical screen tests, are nonexistent in Syria’s war-torn areas. “The last thing a person under siege will be thinking about is preventive measures of medicine,” he says. According to doctors in the country, if a woman is aware that she has a serious condition, such as a mass in her breast, she will not seek medical attention because she knows there are no oncologists or surgeons who can perform the surgery.

As Syria and Russia continue to bombard Syrian citizens, women don’t have the luxury of thinking about their future health – they are focusing only on how to keep themselves and their children alive right now. Hana Dawood and her husband, Humam, are former residents of Moadamiya. With Humam acting as her interpreter, Dawood tells of how she had a baby boy in October 2016, at home and without the care of an obstetrician. Less than a day after she gave birth, Dawood and her family were loaded onto an evacuation bus bound for Istanbul. For 24 hours, she sat on a bus with no bathroom facilities, cradling her newborn son.

Humam, a dentist who had to train himself to be an orthopedic surgeon and anesthesiologist because there were none in Moadamiya, says he was upset that his wife had to make the journey so soon after giving birth. “It was really difficult for her,” he says. “I can’t believe she was able to do that.”

Rebels on Wheels: The Afghan Women’s Cycling Team Pedals Past Taboos

Members of the Afghan national women’s cycling team have kept on riding through misogyny, harassment and physical violence. Now a corruption scandal threatens to knock the trailblazers off their bikes for good.

PUBLISHED ON Nov. 9, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

AS A MEMBER of the Afghan women’s national cycling team, 17-year-old Zhala Sarmast has grown used to the harassment she gets for riding her bike down the streets of Kabul. Local men, many who still adhere to the Taliban ideology that deems women who ride bikes as dishonorable, ridicule her as she whizzes past.

But one evening this summer, the harassment turned physical. As Sarmast pedaled down the street she uses as a training path, she was suddenly caught off guard by the sound of skateboard wheels grinding next to her.

“There was a man riding the skateboard, and he pushed me off my bike,” Sarmast says. He shoved her so hard, she broke her hand when she hit the ground. “When [he] realized I was hurt, he laughed at me, and that’s what made me start to cry.”

But Sarmast got back on her bike.

The Afghan women’s cycling team was first established in 1986, but was shut down during Soviet and then Taliban rule. Since re-establishing it in 2011, Sarmast and her two other teammates have refused to let cultural prejudice and physical risk keep them off their bikes. Their determination is the subject of the documentary Afghan Cycles, which is due for release in 2017 and earned them a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. But allegations of corruption and abuse by their coach mean the team might only now be facing its biggest challenge.

Shannon Galpin, head of the US-based charity Mountain2Mountain, which seeks to empower women through education by providing access to bicycles, supported the team financially for four years. Before then, she had already traveled Afghanistan extensively by bike. “I would find myself in different parts of country having spontaneous conversations with men who would see me riding and because they were curious … about what I was doing in Afghanistan and why I was riding a bike,” she says.

In the autumn of 2012, she was introduced to Haji Abdul Sediq Seddiqi, who was then head of the Afghan Cycling Federation and coach of the country’s men’s cycling team. It turned out he was also coaching a women’s team of around seven girls. “It was very underground, and the girls had very little experience,” Galpin says. She offered to fund the women’s team and also helped out the federation with mentoring, training and coaching for other teams.

With Galpin’s support, the women’s team successfully challenged cultural notions of womanhood, faith and sport. A bike is a form of transportation and with transportation comes independence, so “keeping their daughters off bikes allows [fathers] to continue to control their daughters,” says Galpin. By riding a bicycle, a girl could also be seen as jeopardizing her chances of making a good marriage match. “It is believed by many in Afghanistan that riding a bike takes a girl’s virginity,” says Galpin. “If a girl doesn’t bleed on her wedding night, she will be sent back to her family, and her family will be shamed. So any risk to the girl’s hymen being broken is a real concern.”

Sarmast adds that many Afghans believe bike-riding is forbidden in Islam, “which isn’t actually true,” she says, adding that she blames lack of education for feeding the misperception.

Despite the team’s success as trailblazers, in August Galpin announced on her website that she was officially withdrawing her support for the Afghan Cycling Federation because of what she calls “inherent and illegal corruption” within the federation and the women’s national cycling team.

According to Galpin, Seddiqi had stolen money from the women’s team and was selling equipment that belonged to them, including bikes, for personal profit. Fatima Haidari, 19, founder of the Kabul-based Girl Up cycling club, who worked as a Farsi translator for Galpin during one summer in Afghanistan, says she translated a conversation between Galpin and Seddiqi where Galpin questioned the coach about the whereabouts of the missing bikes. “Shannon asked him what he had done with the bikes, and he couldn’t answer – he was just defensive,” she says.

Galpin says the last straw was when Seddiqi, who the girls call Coach, took them to India to compete in the Asian Cycling Championship, a trip that Galpin paid for. “He took the girls [to India] but never took them to race,” she says. Instead, she says, Seddiqi used Galpin’s money – and that of two other unsuspecting funders – to pay for fertility treatments for his wife.

Galpin also accuses Seddiqi of using the women’s cycling team as a front for prostitution and human smuggling. “The girls who are racing have not been affected,” she says. “There is an outer ring of girls he has brought on to the team who don’t train and don’t ride but who say they are part of the team, [but] instead [they] are prostitutes.” Some in Afghanistan’s cycling community also alleged that Seddiqi had married three of the girls on the women’s team.

Sarmast refused to comment on the allegations of prostitution, but she did confirm that while there are currently only three members who ride and compete for the women’s team, “there are many girls who are trying to get involved in our team.”

Seddiqi, who was recently fired from his roles as men’s coach and head of the federation, responded to the accusations in an interview with the New York Times, saying he had never been married to any of the team members. He also denied the charges of corruption, calling them “a lot of made-up crap.”

Galpin says she is trying to get the women’s team to follow the men’s team and drop Seddiqi as their coach. “The girls are scared to leave him; it’s almost like Stockholm syndrome,” she says. “The girls are scared that without Coach they won’t be able to continue to ride bikes [in the national team].”

When asked if the loss of Galpin’s funding has impacted her team, Sarmast says, “I know that we are losing sponsors, and our trips to cycle [in other countries] are getting canceled.” She finds the canceled travel plans particularly frustrating because it means the team loses out on opportunities to learn from other teams and coaches around the world.

But for Sarmast, the benefits of being on Afghanistan’s women’s cycling team outweigh the disappointments. Learning to ride a bike taught her to fight for her rights as a woman in Afghanistan, she says. Currently in her final year of high school, Sarmast hopes to study science and technology at Hamburg University in Germany next year. She says the simple act of riding a bike is an agent of change for girls like her: “Riding a bike was the very first action I took in fighting for my rights. It is a small thing, and there are many things that need to change. But we can all start with riding a bike – it is the first step.”

Mother of an ISIS Recruit Tells of Loss and Hope

An estimated 4,500 Westerners have joined ISIS so far – leaving behind devastated parents who never saw the signs of radicalization. One Canadian mother tells her story, and calls for more support for families who have lost their children to terror groups.

PUBLISHED ON July 14, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

CHRISTIANNE BOUDREAU WAS standing in her garage, braving the cold Calgary night to finish her cigarette, when the phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number on the caller I.D. Thinking it could be her 22-year-old son Damian Clairmont calling from Syria, she quickly answered. But the voice on the other end of the line was not Damian’s – it was a reporter. “He asked me for a current picture of Damian,” Boudreau says. “I told him he should just use the one Damian has as his profile picture on Facebook. But the reporter sighed and said, ‘Never mind, that’s the same picture ISIS has just used in your son’s eulogy.’” Then he hung up.

That was how Boudreau learned her son was dead.

It had been just over a year since two agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had arrived on Boudreau’s doorstep and shattered her world by telling her that Damian – her kind-hearted, curious, goofy boy – was fighting with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

“They walked into my house and started questioning me,” she says. “They asked if I knew where he was.” Boudreau had told the agents what she thought to be true: her son was studying Arabic in Egypt. But the agents corrected her, telling her what, in her heart, she had feared, but didn’t want to believe. “Damian was actually in Turkey, at an ISIS training camp, learning how to fight and preparing to make his way to Syria to join the terror group,” she says.

An estimated 4,500 Westerners have traveled to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq to join the terror group, according to a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee. That means thousands of parents across the West who have had to deal with the pain of losing a child to radicalization. But when Boudreau discovered that her son had joined ISIS, she found herself alone and isolated. There was nowhere she could go for support, nobody she could speak to who had experienced “the same tragic story” as she had.

As a child, Damian was “inquisitive … he loved science and history [and] he loved to read biographies of important historical figures,” Boudreau says. He was also known for being compassionate. “Damian always cared about the underdog,” his mother says. “He always wanted to protect people and be friends with those in school who were bullied or who didn’t have friends.”

When asked where Damian’s protective nature might have come from, Boudreau pauses, tears running down her cheeks. “I think he felt a need to protect people because he spent his childhood protecting me,” she says.

When Damian was a child, Boudreau had an abusive partner. “Damian took a lot of it [abuse] on my behalf and tried to protect me as much as he could,” which he would do “by hiding the bruises on his body,” she says.

Boudreau went to the police and begged them to take her and her children to a shelter. Instead, she says, they told Boudreau’s partner that as “an adult he should know better” and left. The abuse continued.

Boudreau and her children were finally able to escape, but she says the apathy of authorities who wouldn’t help her family was something that “stuck with Damian into his adulthood.” He became depressed and, when he was 17, tried to kill himself by drinking antifreeze.

“The doctors didn’t think he would survive; they told me to call my family so they could say goodbye to him,” Boudreau says. Damian pulled through, and spent the period following his suicide attempt searching for a purpose to his life. Then he found Islam.

Boudreau, who was born in Toronto and grew up in a small French-Acadian fishing village in Nova Scotia, had raised her children as Christians: They attended the United Church of Canada every Sunday. But Damian “struggled with the hypocrisy” he saw in the practicing Christians around him, she says. In Islam, he found what he felt was a more honest relationship with God. “It spoke to his heart,” says Boudreau.

And it did him good. “He found a new group of friends at the mosque and he became more involved with the family,” says Boudreau. “I was happy he became a Muslim. He stopped hiding, stopped blocking himself from the world.”

Three years after Damian’s conversion, he moved across town and began attending a mosque closer to his new home. Boudreau says this is when she started to notice a change in him. “He was introduced to people who were stricter, and this opened him up to other ideas because he wanted to be an even better Muslim,” she says.

Damian started talking to Boudreau about the abuses Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was inflicting on the Syrian people. “He would say to me, ‘Mom, Assad is allowing women to be raped. He is killing thousands of people and no one is helping.’” He was upset that the West – and in particular the Canadian government – were not intervening.

Looking back, Boudreau says she was concerned, but never considered that Damian’s anger towards Assad would morph into extremism. “If I had seen the signs [of his radicalization], I could have done something,” she says. “I would have stopped him.”

On November 12, 2012 – a date Boudreau remembers because it was the day after her daughter’s 10th birthday – Damian called his mother to tell her he was sitting on a plane on his way to Egypt to study Arabic. “I begged him not to go,” she says. She spent the rest of that day crying. “I felt sick and shaky, I knew something wasn’t right.”

But even, later, when the two CSISagents showed up to confirm her worst fears, Boudreau found it hard to believe that her son had lied to her, that he was fighting with ISIS. “I couldn’t imagine him being there [in Syria] holding a gun and hurting people,” she says.

Like so many mothers who lose their children to radicalization, Boudreau had no support; no one to help her cope with her new, tragic reality. The CSIS banned her from telling anyone that Damian had joined ISIS, and so she spent her days pretending everything was fine.

But it wasn’t. “I was glued to my phone. I was always waiting for him to call me,” she says. “If I took a shower, I would take my phone into the bathroom with the volume on loud so that I could hear it ring. If was in a meeting at work, I would leave my phone on the table in front of me and spend the entire meeting starting at it so that I wouldn’t miss a call from him.”

The nights were even worse. After she put her daughter and other son to bed, Boudreau would spend hours in front of the computer, her face up close to the monitor as she watched streams of videos of ISIS fighters on YouTube, looking for a glimpse of her son. Then she would scroll through the eulogies of ISISfighters who had recently died in battle, hoping Damian was not among them. “I just needed to know that he was still alive,” she says.

A few times, Damian called to tell her he was okay and eventually admitted that he was in Syria. “He was very vague with the tasks he was doing, other than saying they were mundane and boring,” she says. “The main reason he was there, as he explained to me, was to save the women and children from Bashar al-Assad.”

When the CSIS first came to question Boudreau, she learned that they had been tracking Damian for two years, even putting him on their terrorism watch list. But they had failed to stop him from getting a new passport two months before he left for Syria. “How could they have allowed him to get on a plane bound for the Middle East?” Boudreau says, her voice raised, tears in her eyes.

Boudreau took that question to her local member of parliament, who was also parliamentary secretary to the minister of foreign affairs at the time. The only reply she got was that her questions were “too difficult and complicated to answer,” she says.

Trying to deal with Damian’s radicalization in secret was hard enough for Boudreau. But when he died and the press connected her to the killed Canadian ISIS fighter, Boudreau’s personal tragedy became a public scandal.

With news about Damian making headlines, Boudreau was branded “the mother of the terrorist.” On one occasion, she says, someone told her that “I should die because it was my fault that [Damian] became the terrorist he was.” Boudreau admits that the public reaction was “painful,” but says she understands it comes from fear. If her son, an ordinary boy from Canada, could become radicalized, then no one’s child was safe.

After reducing her work hours as an accountant so she and her children could mourn Damian’s death, Boudreau tried to return to full-time work only to find there were no openings at the company she worked for, or anywhere else. Unable to support her family in Canada, she had to move to her parent’s house in France, where she now lives in their basement. “I am now in serious debt, [with] no work … not knowing what tomorrow will bring,” she says.

What Boudreau does know, though, is that she is not alone in having lost a child to a terror group. And, like her, there are other mothers who get no help coping with their pain, grief and confusion. “We were turned away from any assistance in Canada,” she says. “That’s when I realized that no one was working towards change.”

In 2015, Boudreau was introduced by a mutual friend to Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies. The two went on to form Mothers for Life, a worldwide organization that connects mothers who have lost family members to radicalization. “We [are] able to share memories and photographs without any judgement. Just lots of love,” she says.

This summer, Mothers for Life linked up with London-based think tank Quilliamto create FATE, a network across Europe and North Africa that brings together families and organizations to prevent radicalization and fight back against terrorist groups. Boudreau’s hope is that FATE will help encourage people, organizations and governments to build systems that support families like hers and help children like Damian before it’s too late. “Being able to have a hand in solutions to stop other children from following the same path gives a lot of us strength to face another day,” she says.

According to a Facebook post by an ISIS fighter, Damian was executed by the Syrian opposition group Free Syrian Army. Every day, Boudreau thinks about her son’s final moments. “I will always wonder if he was scared,” she says. “Did he wish I was there holding his hand?”

Escape From ISIS: Freedom and Justice for Yazidi Women and Girls

ISIS has captured, enslaved and abused thousands of women and girls from the Yazidi minority in Iraq. As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, we meet the Yazidi women and men living abroad who are working to free the captives and hold the perpetrators to account.

PUBLISHED ON Mar. 13, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

IN 2014, THE terrorist group known as the Islamic State (ISIS) rapidly gained ground throughout Iraq and Syria. In the early summer of that year, the insurgent group seized the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, causing thousands of civilians to flee for safety.

Yet in Sinjar, a town 70 miles (110km) from Mosul and home to the Yazidi minority group, life continued as normal. “We are a peaceful people,” says Ameena Saeed Hasan, a Yazidi and former Iraqi Parliament member now living in Kurdistan. “We do not have problems with anyone … so we did not think they would attack [Sinjar].”

But in the middle of the night on August 3, 2014, ISIS rolled into Sinjar. Civilians were alerted to their arrival by the sound of trucks caravanning down the road. Then the violence began. Men were killed in front of their families; children were taken away from their mothers; and women and girls were captured and loaded onto trucks. This is how the genocide started: a killing spree calculated by ISIS leadership to erase an entire religious community through murder, rape and slavery.

For Yazidis abroad, it was a different sound that raised the alarm: phones ringing in the middle of the night, the hushed panicked voices of relatives on the other end of the line. Those calls would spark an international effort to rescue those swept up in the violence – an effort led not by governments or global NGOs, but by Yazidi women living in Kurdistan and in the West whose friends and relatives have been captured by ISIS.

Hasan’s phone call came from her sister, who hurriedly described what was happening as she hid in her home in Sinjar. Her sister eventually escaped from the town and fled to Kurdistan.

Pari Ibrahim, 27, a Yazidi who moved from Iraq to the Netherlands with her family in 1991, received a similar phone call. “My family members [in Sinjar] said, ‘ISIS has entered Sinjar … they are killing the men, they are taking the women and girls,’’’ she recalls.

The ISIS attack on Sinjar resulted in the deaths of at least 5,000 Yazidi men. Yet it is the Yazidi women and girls who have suffered the brunt of ISIS’s terror campaign. An estimated 7,000 women and girls were auctioned off to ISIS fighters, and most are still being held by the group. Accounts by those who have escaped, been rescued or been released reveal that, as the group’s captives, women and girls – some as young as nine – are tortured and used as sexual slaves. “The women are raped over and over again by many different fighters … they are beaten … their children are taken from them,” says Hasan.

As the former representative for Sinjar in the Iraqi Parliament, Hasan was trusted by the Yazidi community. So it came as little surprise to her when she began getting phone calls from enslaved Yazidis begging for help.

In November 2014, Hasan and her husband, Khaleel Aldakhi, set up a network of trusted friends in Mosul to smuggle out any enslaved women who manage to get in touch with them. Hasan is hesitant to discuss the details of how she gets these women out, for fear that ISIS will disrupt her network. But it always begins with a phone call: The woman on the other end of line describes where she is being held, how many ISIS fighters are in the town and the details of her captors’ daily schedule.

Hasan passes this information to her network of helpers based inside ISISterritory and together they form a plan of escape. When the captives are freed, they are delivered to a waiting vehicle driven by Aldakhi, who then whisks the women to the safety of an internally displaced people’s camp in Kurdistan.

So far Hasan, her husband and their helpers have rescued around 170 enslaved Yazidi women and girls.

Small Steps to Justice

While Hasan works to rescue as many women as possible, Pari Ibrahim focuses on collecting evidence from survivors. Her plan is to build legal cases that will one day hold the perpetrators to account.

Prior to the attack on Sinjar, Ibrahim was busy studying law, but when she received the news that 19 of her female relatives had been captured by ISIS, she suspended her studies and became a human rights activist.

“I couldn’t carry on with how my life had been before,” she says. “It hurt me that my people were suffering.”

Ibrahim formed the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), which advocates for Yazidis and provides support and essential supplies – such as clothing and toys – for survivors. She hopes to build cases that can eventually be used in international criminal courts to try ISIS fighters for crimes against humanity and genocide. FYF focuses on matching witness testimony to known ISIS fighters or former fighters – some of whom are thought to have originated in Europe and may have returned to their home countries, including France, Britain and Germany.

Ibrahim says it can take years to cross-check enough facts to build a case for prosecution in conflict situations. Yet for Yazidi women the task may prove easier than it is for other rape survivors.

“Yazidi women are unique because they were living with their rapists as slaves for months and months and they had the ability to absorb a lot of information about their ISIS captors,” says a member of the FYFinvestigating team who asked not to be named.

According to Shabnam Mojtahedi, legal and strategy analyst at the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, gathering documentation on violations of international humanitarian law is vital because over the course of a conflict, information can get lost and physical signs of the violation are eroded.

“Documenting those violations is paramount because it makes them harder to ignore in a future justice process,” says Mojtahedi.

FYF believes European states are underestimating the power of their judicial systems, saying that prosecuting low-level ISIS members could be a deterrent and, eventually, a solution for terrorism. “We need to show the world what these people are guilty of,” says the FYF source. “If someone is simply being charged with terrorist crimes, they are still considered a hero jihadist who can inspire others to join. But being on trial and having to explain how you raped a child … well, that doesn’t appeal to anyone. No one says, ‘One day I want to be on trial for raping a child.’”

For every Yazidi woman and girl who escapes ISIS, there’s another chance to add to the evidence that could one day bring their captors to justice. In the meantime, Hasan and Aldakhi will continue to rescue Yazidi slaves. Hasan says they are getting fewer and fewer phone calls from captured women these days – it appears ISIS has realized women are calling for help. But she says she won’t stop until every single captive is freed.

“These are people like me and you, they had futures in front of them,” she says. “Because of this I will do my best to save them and everyone must do something to help.”

Freed from ISIS, Yazidi Women Remain Trapped by Trauma

Some of those working with Yazidi former slaves say they have never before seen such severe psychological trauma. As part of our “Women and Jihad” series, experts tell us there are not enough resources to provide long-term care to all of the survivors, who could take a lifetime to recover.

PUBLISHED ON Mar. 14, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

LAST JANUARY, SKYE Wheeler, women’s rights emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, arrived at the Dohuk camp for displaced people near the Kurdish region of Iraq. Wheeler was there to interview Yazidi women and girls who had been kidnapped from their homes in Sinjar and held as sex slaves by the terror group known as the Islamic State (ISIS).

Wheeler, who interviewed 22 Yazidi women and girls, has spent her career documenting war crimes against women. Yet she says the accounts of sexual violence she heard from the Yazidi survivors continue to haunt her.

“It is some of the most distressing work I have ever done, and my colleagues who have also interviewed the survivors say that same thing,” she says.

Wheeler says the abuse inflicted on Yazidi women and girls “is on a different level” from other cases she has documented. The women she met had been kidnapped and sold in slave markets to ISIS soldiers who then raped them, often multiple times a day. In some cases, the women would be resold to another fighter who would continue the sexual abuse. Wheeler spoke with four women who were sold at least four times before they managed to escape.

“It’s just horrible, [ISIS] treat people like animals,” she says. “All the women we spoke to were exhibiting some type of symptoms from the trauma they suffered.”

Those symptoms include severe depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, insomnia and, when they finally do sleep, nightmares in which they relive their sexual abuse.

In February 2015, the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg offered to help by agreeing to take in 1,100 refugees, including hundreds of the most traumatized Yazidi women and girls. The program, which runs for three years and will cost the German government a total of $107 million, provides Yazidi survivors with specialized psychological care and German residency for two years.

But the program is now at full capacity, which means hundreds of Yazidi women and girls who didn’t make it into the program and those who have only recently escaped from ISIS remain in the internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, where treatment for mental health is severely lacking.

Psychotherapist Salah Ahmad has been working with trauma victims in Iraq since 2005, when he established the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights to provide mental health care to Iraqis who were tortured by the Ba’athist party. Ahmad has spent much of the last two years traveling between IDP camps in Dohuk Kurdistan to help treat Yazidi women and girls.

Ahmad says they display some of the worst cases of post-traumatic stress disorder he has ever seen. “To be sold, to be enslaved, to be raped many times … they can’t accept all this violence,” he says.

Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon.

“We have seen many women who feel that they can’t live with the aftermath of what happened to them; they think the only way to escape is through killing themselves,” says Ahmad.

In November 2015, Ahmad established the Jiyan Clinic, a psychosomatic trauma clinic solely for Yazidi women and children in Iraqi Kurdistan. He found many trauma survivors were hesitant to recount their abuse to other men, especially Muslim men, so he employs an all-female staff.

The patients spend at least three months living in the clinic, where they undergo daily treatment, which includes individual and group therapy, and EMDR – or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy – a technique designed to alter the way the brain stores and recollects traumatic memories. The women can also take part in therapeutic activities like yoga and gardening.

Since its opening, the clinic has treated 80 female Yazidi survivors of ISIS, but Ahmad says he doesn’t have the resources to provide treatment for all the Yazidi women who need help.

Ali Muthanna, regional director in Iraq for the AMAR Foundation, is also struggling to provide support to all the women who need it. He spends the majority of his time at Khanke Camp, an IDP camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he treats the 18,500 Yazidis who have been living there since the ISIS attack in 2014 forced an estimated half a million Yazidis to flee their homes. Among Muthanna’s patients are also around 500 Yazidi women who escaped ISIS.

Through its Escaping Darkness project, AMAR is working to establish a network of 10 mental health facilities to treat the post-traumatic stress disorder Yazidi women grapple with. The foundation is also working with psychiatrists to train local GPs in psychological care, showing them how to spot and manage psychiatric issues.

But AMAR faces huge challenges, not least the fact that Iraq’s medical infrastructure has been decimated by years of conflict.

“There is a severe shortage of financial resources, the drop in oil prices has created a situation where the government is unable to provide medical requirements to cover the needs of IDPs,” Muthanna says.

And the longer women go without medication and treatment, the worse their condition can become.

“Those suffering from psychological disorders need long-term treatment,” Muthanna says, adding that drugs for treating symptoms of stress, depression and trauma need to be taken continuously to work.

“The magnitude of the problem is beyond the capacity of the U.N. agencies and Iraqi and Kurdistan governments to respond to.”

Handmade Dolls Tell Stories of Struggle and Hope from War-Torn Syria

Created by two Syrian sisters in Lebanon, the dolls in the Ana Collection are decorated with images representing the fears and dreams of people living through the conflict raging in Syria.

PUBLISHED ON Sep. 27, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

ONE DAY IN February last year, Marianne Moussalli sat in L’Atelier, her studio in Beirut, where she teaches art to local children. On that particular day, Moussalli, 31, was deep in thought about the conflict raging in Syria. A Syrian herself, she moved from her hometown of Aleppo to Beirut in 2003 to attend the American University. She spent a lot of time thinking about the people she left behind, including a beloved aunt and uncle still living in western Aleppo.

Moussalli’s concerns often focus on Syria’s children, who in besieged areas are living without access to basic necessities, including medical care and proper nutrition. In weekly phone conversations with her aunt, who asked not to be named due to security concerns, Moussalli heard about the everyday struggles of Syrians living against the backdrop of war. Haunted by these narratives, she decided to use her talents as an artist to help spread the word about what was happening in her home country.

Moussalli enlisted the help of her sister, 29-year-old Melina, and together they began to craft handmade dolls whose bodies were illustrated with the stories passed to the two artists by their aunt. “I asked my aunt to send me stories [of Syrian children],” says Moussalli. “Some children draw their stories, and other kids have their stories written in letters by their parents, and others just tell my aunt their stories.”

Many of the stories are about the hopes and dreams that the children have for their futures juxtaposed with the fears that come from living in a war zone. Each doll is given the name of the person it represents and after it’s sold, the proceeds go back to that person in Syria.

So far, the Ana Collection – “ana” means “I am” in Arabic – consists of four series of dolls. The most popular series, “From Inside Aleppo,” is made up of 33 stories from children and parents living in Aleppo.

One of the most popular dolls in that series is embroidered with seven blue fish floating above what appears to be an ocean floor of red and green seaweed. The doll tells the story of Amal, a little girl whose parents are planning to escape Aleppo and go to Europe by boat. But Amal is afraid to leave Aleppo by sea, says Moussalli, because she is scared of the fish in the ocean.

In November, the Ana Collection will launch a new series called “The Journey,” which will consist of three dolls depicting the journeys that refugees have taken as they fled Syria.

Since the launch of the Ana Collection, the gathering of stories and crafting of dolls has turned into a family affair, with Moussalli’s aunt passing the stories back to Moussalli, who then works with her parents and sister to create the prototype for each doll. Once the samples are complete, Moussalli takes them to be embroidered by Syrian refugee women living at the Shatila settlement camp in Beirut.

“We wanted to give jobs to these Syrian refugee women,” says Moussalli. “When I told the women about the project and that they would be embroidering the stories of fellow Syrians back in Syria, they were ten times more motivated to do the work because they knew they would be helping those back in Syria in their own way, too.”

There are currently around 50 refugee women working with the Ana Collection and all are members of the women’s workshop run by Basmeh &Zeitooneh, an NGO that aims to empower Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The workshop supplies the women with a place to come together as a community and earn a sustainable wage, says Saba Sader, project manager of the women’s workshop.

Many of the women working for the Ana Collection were housewives back in Syria and once in Lebanon they lacked the skill sets to find jobs outside of the home, says Sader. Being part of the women’s workshop has taught them that they can become self-sufficient and earn their own income. “We hear a lot of women say that when they go back to Syria, they want to apply the skills they have learned here and use them for a future [job],” says Sader.

But for these women, working for the Ana Collection isn’t just about the money. It also provides a therapeutic outlet for those whose displacement has left them sad and fearful for their futures. Sader says that many of the women see their own worries represented in the dolls. One of the refugee women identified with Amal’s story because she, too, is afraid of the fish in the ocean. Seeing that others share the same traumas and anxieties helps the refugee women realize that they are not alone, Sader says.

“They feel like they are also telling their own stories in an implicit way by executing the designs, they do relate to the stories,” she says.

And while many of the dolls depict stories of fear and sadness, they also represent the hope that Syrians have for a future without war and displacement. According to Moussalli, many of the embroiderers have begun teaching their own children how to sew, so they, too, might be able to use the skill to illustrate the stories of those who remain in Syria.

Stories like the one Moussalli’s aunt heard from five-year-old Fadi: His doll is illustrated with a bride and groom, because when Moussalli’s aunt asked what he wanted for his future, he told her that all he wanted was to survive the conflict so he can reach adulthood. “I want to grow up and get married,” he said.

The Syrian Women Saving Lives as Volunteers for the White Helmets

In Syria, volunteer emergency workers known as the White Helmets risk their lives to save people from bomb sites and airstrikes. At first, the White Helmets were made up only of men, but over the past few years, more than 100 female volunteers have joined their ranks.

PUBLISHED ON Aug. 24, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

SEVEN-YEAR-OLD MUHAMMAD WAS playing in his family’s garden in Kafr Zeta, a town near Hama, Syria, when he discovered an unexploded cluster bomb buried beneath the dirt and grass. The cluster bomb was small, and it resembled the type of ball that children in his neighborhood kick around the streets at playtime.

It detonated as Muhammad held it in the palm of his hands. His arms, hands and legs were severely wounded by the flying projectiles released by the bomb.

Aman al-Hassan,* a 40-year-old teacher and mother of four, was one of the first rescue workers on the scene. As a volunteer for the Syrian Civil Defense – also known as the White Helmets – al-Hassan is one of nine women who volunteer alongside men for the organization in Kafr Zeta.

Muhammad was taken to a local medical clinic, where doctors managed to save all of his limbs. In the weeks that followed, al-Hassan visited Muhammad in his home on a daily basis to clean his wounds and change his bandages. “Now, thank God, he has recovered and he is playing and walking.”

The White Helmets, nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016, were founded in 2012 and operate in rebel-held areas of Syria where volunteers rescue people from the rubble following government airstrikes. The group says it has saved more than 95,024 people.

Until October 2014, the White Helmets consisted only of men. Since then, 140 women have joined the 3,000-strong volunteer group.

Al-Hassan joined the White Helmets in January to provide medical aid and assist the men’s team in rescue operations following bombings by government forces or by Russian planes, which she says can occur several times per day on bad days.

Despite the constant fear, al-Hassan refuses to be one of the estimated 5 million Syrians who have become refugees after fleeing the violence in their home country.

Women & Girls spoke with al-Hassan about her role as a volunteer.

Women & Girls: Why did the White Helmets add women to their volunteer teams?

Aman al-Hassan: This is related to the traditions and religion [of Syrians], because some women prefer to be rescued by women. Generally, when we are saving women, their clothes have been destroyed, and a woman wouldn’t want a man to rescue her or carry her like this.

As a woman, I will approach her and this will make her feel relieved. Sometimes men will only want to be saved by men, too. But in most cases, it doesn’t matter – they just want to be saved.

Women & Girls: Is the work that the women volunteers do different from that of the male volunteers?

Al-Hassan: In general, the women focus on medical care and providing awareness to the public, while the men’s team focus on search-and-rescue from bombing sites and community services like repairing water lines [after they have been destroyed by bombings]. But when there is work to be done, such as evacuating civilians from a bombing site, we all work together.

Women & Girls: How did people react when women joined the White Helmets?

Al-Hassan: In the first week, people were amazed that women were being used as volunteers because they had never seen such a thing before. We made people aware that women could do this by first visiting injured civilians in their homes to provide medical care, such as changing their bandages. Then, when there was a bombing, they saw us rushing to help people.

The mindsets of Syrians are changing because of our role. Society is now realizing that Syrian women can do anything and we can help with anything.

Women & Girls: What type of training did you undergo?

Al-Hassan: I did a period of training for about eight or nine months in a hospital where I learned nursing. Then I took an exam that consisted of medical questions, how to give first aid to all people and how to raise awareness among the public about first aid. All the women who [volunteer] are well trained: We can inject needles and do all different kinds of first aid.

Women & Girls: What does your role as a volunteer consist of on a daily basis?

Al-Hassan: We usually work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., with an hour-long break to eat lunch. We must work every day, because there is always someone to help.

On [calmer] days, we teach the public about first aid. We raise awareness about how to behave when there is a bomb, and how to save yourself and those around you. We teach people that when a bombing happens, they need to be quiet to keep from scaring other people; we all have to calm each other. We also teach people that if a bombing happens when they are in public they need to protect their heads, and if it happens when they are at home then they need to take shelter in a room that has at least two or three floors above them.

When there is a bombing, we all rush to provide medical care to the bombing site. We have a good amount of emergency equipment but there is a lack of medication, like antibiotics. If we had more, we could help more people.

Women & Girls: How does your family feel about your volunteer role?

Al-Hassan: My family is very happy, especially my mother and my father; my father always says, “I am proud that you are my daughter.” My husband is an ideal husband because he encourages me and he helps me around the house. This has a positive impact on my job and my success as a volunteer.

*Name has been changed for security reasons.

Syrian Refugee Fights Child Marriage and Abuse of Young Divorcees

As someone who was married as a child, Rawda al-Mazloum, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, is working hard to prevent this from happening to girls in the refugee camp where she lives. Mazloum has experienced stigma for being divorced, and warns that young refugee divorcees are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

PUBLISHED ON July 21, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

BEIRUT – Rawda al-Mazloum, 40, was just 15 years old when her parents told her that she had to marry a 22-year-old man from her local community in Homs, Syria. The marriage produced five daughters, but it was not a happy one.

In 2012, Mazloum decided to divorce her husband, despite the fact that divorce carried a stigma in her community. She says she felt a sense of empowerment because, for the first time, she was able to work – as an assistant in a pediatric clinic – and provide for herself and her daughters. All of that changed when the Syrian war broke out that same year.

In Homs, Mazloum was faced with constant airstrikes and military bombardments. To escape the escalating violence, on February 14, 2014, she and her daughters fled Syria for the safety of Lebanon.

Once in Lebanon, Mazloum and her children settled into al-Abrar, a tented refugee camp in Bekaa Valley. However, she found that the stigmatization of being divorced had followed her.

“Local aid only came for widows or orphans, and since I was divorced, I wasn’t able to receive their assistance,” she said. Instead, Mazloum had to rely on the kindness of her neighbors who shared their food with her family. Meanwhile, she had to fend off advances from local men who offered her money in exchange for sex.

Inspired to help vulnerable women and girls like herself, Mazloum joined the International Rescue Committee (IRC) where she now works in the Women’s Protection and Empowerment program. As a paid outreach volunteer coordinator, Mazloum connects Syrian women and girls who have experienced violence with IRC so that they can receive emotional and educational support. To date, the program has provided assistance to 11,000 Syrian women and girls in Lebanon.

Women & Girls spoke to Mazloum about possible solutions to the challenges facing Syrian refugee women and girls in Lebanon.

Women & Girls: What are the biggest issues facing Syrian women and girls in Lebanon’s refugee camps?

Rawda al-Mazloum: Parents are pressuring their daughters to get married at a young age so that the parents can be relieved of the financial burden of having to provide for their daughters. I have witnessed a lot of cases of young girls and boys under the age of 18 getting married.

I have noticed girls who face early marriage have higher divorce rates. Some are requesting divorces after just a month or two of marriage.

Once a girl is divorced, she no longer has the protection of a husband so she has an increased risk of being sexually exploited. I have seen girls who are 12 years old getting married, having children and then getting divorced, all before the age of 16. The girls are then exploited and abused by other men who offer marriage as a form of protection or offer money for sexual services.

Women & Girls: What are the solutions to ending child marriage in the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon?

Mazloum: It’s spreading awareness about the consequences of child marriage to parents. When I got married at 15, it was the decision made by my family because they were the adults, so they held all decision-making power. We need to spread awareness to the parents so that they can say “no” to early marriage.

I am working with a group of mother and daughters – about nine young girls – in my camp to raise awareness about child marriage. The girls are creating artwork to show the consequences of early marriage. One of the paintings shows a girl with a rope around her neck and a quote next to her saying: “Now her life is ended by child marriage.” Another painting shows a girl, surrounded by four different people who are each pulling her in a different direction. This painting represents how the girl doesn’t know where to go because she doesn’t get to make her own decisions. We are trying to find a way to display these outside of the camps.

Women & Girls: What other issues impact Syrian refugee girls?

Mazloum: The biggest issue is denying access to education for girls. The cost of school is [one] problem. After girls enter grade nine, parents have to cover school fees and it just becomes too expensive for the girls to continue.

Women & Girls: What can be done to get Syrian girls into schools?

Mazloum: We need to have awareness sessions with the parents so they stop encouraging girls to drop out of school. I also think this needs to be tackled on a government level, with Lebanon’s Ministry of Education removing the school fees so that families can afford to send their daughters to school.

Women & Girls: What else needs to be done to ensure that Syrian women and girls thrive in Lebanon?

Mazloum: Ensuring job opportunities for them will help women achieve better stability in Lebanon. The benefits are not just financial security – it is psychologically important for women to know that they can support themselves.

The international aid organizations in Lebanon should be playing a bigger role in providing opportunities for the women. They have the ability to create job opportunities in their programs that befit the skills of refugees – they should at least allow refugees to apply for jobs in their organizations.

Women & Girls: What do you want for your own future?

Mazloum: I want to achieve my dream of having an organization that ensures protection for women and girls, especially for divorced women. I know from my own experience how difficult it was for me to be divorced with five daughters and to be left without assistance. I want to create my own organization that helps women like me so that they can feel protected.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kabul’s All-Female Restaurant Gives Abuse Survivors a Taste of Freedom

One of the fixtures on Kabul’s dining scene is the only restaurant in the country run and staffed by women, all of whom have survived abuse at the hands of men in their families.

PUBLISHED ON May 18, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

THE MENU AT Bost restaurant in Kabul is extensive: There’s the Afghan national dish, kabuli palaw, but also pizza and chicken jalfrezi. Located within walking distance of the diplomatic district, Bost is vulnerable to suicide attacks by the Taliban, but that doesn’t deter the chefs and waitresses laughing inside. The restaurant is the only one in Afghanistan run entirely by women.

One of the chefs is 19-year-old Mursal. At 16, she was forced to marry her cousin, whom she describes as being “mentally and psychologically sick.”

After her wedding, Mursal moved into the house her cousin shared with his father, her uncle, in Baglhan province. That’s when the beatings began. “I couldn’t accept it,” she said. She fled, traveling more than 125 miles (200 km) by road to a shelter she’d heard about in the capital.

The Afghan Women Skills Development Centre (AWSDC) is one of the only safe places for women fleeing domestic violence in Afghanistan. “These women cannot return to their families,” said Mary Akrami, who set up the shelter in 2002. “They have nowhere else to go.”

Akrami says AWSDC has provided housing for around 4,500 abused women. She realized that while the four shelters in Kabul might provide the women with reprieve from violence, it was not enough.

“We were always asking ourselves: How long should the women be in the safe house? But there was no alternative for them,” Akrami said. “If they are not in the safe house, where will they go?”

Many of the women arrive having never been to school. Instead, they have spent the majority of their lives housebound and cooked for their families.

The seed of the idea for Bost came with 39-year-old Safiqa, a resident of the shelter. Safiqa had been subjected to regular beatings from her in-laws. After arriving at the shelter, she soon started cooking for Akrami’s friends, and charging for it. This way, she was able to save up enough money to rent her own home.

“Safiqa told me that she had never had the chance to [hold money in her hand] until she earned money from catering,” Akrami said. “She ended up being able to save up 100,000 Afghanis ($1,467).”

“We only allow men we know, men who are friends and who we know are nice.”

Safiqa’s success in the shelter was the first indicator that this could be a way to help other women fleeing their homes.

“Women never get a chance to go to a restaurant because they are run by men … it is difficult for women even if they do go because they have to remain covered, since they are being served by men,” Akrami said.

Akrami spent a year renovating a building that she owned in Kabul. While the restaurant was being constructed, the women at the shelter were given intense training, being taught how to cook professionally by chef Saeed Muzafar.

Bost opened last year and is currently staffed by 22 women, all of whom are survivors of physical violence.

Ghezal was 19 when her parents died. She was taken in by an uncle who forced her into prostitution.

The police found Ghezal living on the streets and when she refused to go back to her uncle’s home, she was taken to an AWSDC shelter. Ghezal now works at Bost six days a week as a waitress, but her favorite role is greeting guests.

When Ghezal is not working at Bost, she attends English classes. “I want to become an English translator,” she said.

Keeping the women safe is a constant worry for Akrami. She understands that the women, who came to her after escaping physical violence by male family members, may have difficulty serving male patrons at the restaurant. Because of that, most men are not welcome at Bost. “We only allow men we know, men who are friends and who we know are nice,” she said.

And then there is the threat of violence in a country still wracked by instability. The Taliban does not believe that women should have the right to work.

“Security is a big concern for everyone in Afghanistan,” she said. “Yesterday there was a suicide bombing right near the restaurant and I was so worried, but for now we thank God that everything is going well and we are safe.”

For Wachma, who works at the restaurant, life has never been so safe. She hopes her days of being abused by the police while living on the streets are finally over. “I had no hope,” she said. Now she dreams of moving to America and becoming a famous cook. “I survived, and [now] I can think about my future.”

Afghanistan’s First Female Conductor Braves Death Threats to Make Music

Negin Khpalwak has had to risk her life to become Afghanistan’s first female orchestra conductor. But she says it’s worth it – not only for the music, but also because she’s inspiring other Afghan women to assert their rights.

PUBLISHED ON April 18, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

Negin Khpalwak rehearses with the Zohra orchestra, Afghanistan’s first all-female symphony, in Kabul. Khpalwak and the women she performs with are trying to change attitudes in the conservative country, where many see music as immoral. AP/Rahmat Gul

NEGIN KHPALWAK, 20, is in love with music. Her passion becomes immediately clear when she starts talking about how she felt the first time she played the sarod, a string instrument from India, or when she describes the excitement of conducting her orchestra in front of world leaders, like she did this past February at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “We played in front of a lot of people [in Davos] and it was amazing, we were so happy,” says Khpalwak, who lives in Kabul.

But her love for music is a dangerous one: She has received death threats from close family members and from Islamist militants for refusing to put down her conductor’s baton.

At 13, Khpalwak was recruited for the Afghanistan National Institute for Music by Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist and the founder of the institute. At the time, Khpalwak was living and studying at the Afghan Child Education and Care Organization (AFCECO), an orphanage in Kabul where her father sent her to live at the age of nine because it was the only place she could get an education.

Khpalwak says she decided to apply to the music school because she had never seen a girl play music in Afghanistan before. She took the entrance exam without informing her parents, for fear they would try to stop her. When she was accepted, she told her parents she wanted to attend music school. Khpalwak’s mother was against the idea, but her father told her: “If you want to play music, you should go to music school.”

Khpalwak went on to become the first female conductor in Afghanistan, where music was prohibited by the Taliban during the militant group’s rule from 1996 to 2001. Even now, in conservative Afghan towns like Khpalwak’s hometown of Kunar, Taliban loyalists continue to silence music. But Khpalwak is working hard to bring music back to her country, and in doing so, she has also become an advocate for female empowerment.

Khpalwak spoke with Women & Girls about her role as the conductor of the Zohra orchestra, playing both Afghan folk tunes and Western classics with the first female orchestra in Afghanistan, and why she risks her life to play music.

Women & Girls: You have received death threats from members of your own family and from the Taliban. How has this impacted you?

Negin Khpalwak: When my uncles learned that I was going to study music, they told me that I had shamed our family, because girls in my family are not allowed to go to school – they are supposed to stay in the house. One time, when my father was away working, I came back home to visit my family, but my uncles would not let me leave the house to return to school. They kept me at home for six months, until my father came back home and took me back to school.

After that, my uncles told me that if they saw me again, they would kill me.

I stayed away from my town for four years, and I missed my family so much. But now my parents and siblings have moved to Kabul … and I am happy.

There are a lot of Taliban in our province, and the Taliban from my town have said: “We will attack Negin because she plays music.”

Women & Girls: Are you scared of the Taliban and of your uncles?

Khpalwak: When [my uncles first said they would kill me] I was worried they would come [to Kabul] and do that, but now I am not scared.

This happens a lot in Afghanistan – a lot of women are killed. But we have to fight for our own freedom. One day we will have more freedom, and that will come from watching the brave girls who are changing things. I always say that they can try and stop me, but I will never stop my music.

“I know other girls are watching me, and so I am telling them to stand up and take their freedom. One girl said to me: ‘I have learned from you that I have rights.’”

Women & Girls: What do you think about your role as an icon of female empowerment in Afghanistan?

Khpalwak: We can’t stay home and listen to those who want to keep us there – like my uncles. Other girls see me, and they say, “Negin is fighting for our rights, and she is famous for going to music school, and we must fight too.” I know other girls are watching me, and so I am telling them to stand up and take their freedom. One girl said to me: “I have learned from you that I have rights.”

Women & Girls: Your mother was not supportive when you first started playing. Is she supportive now?

Khpalwak: After we performed in the United States for the first time … my mother said to me, “I saw you in the news.” I told her that I had done a lot of interviews and my mother responded by saying, “You aren’t doing bad things – you are playing music and it makes people happy.” Now, when I go on trips to perform, my mother says: “Good luck, my daughter.”

Women & Girls: What dreams do you have for your future?

Khpalwak: I want to be a musician until I die, and I want to work for music in Afghanistan. My big wish is to study music outside of Afghanistan, in Italy, because I want to learn how to be the best conductor. I will go and study and come back to Afghanistan to make two big orchestras – one just for women, and the other for women and men. People in Afghanistan believe that women can’t do anything so I want to show them that both men and women are [equal] and women can do anything they want.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ambassador Lene Lind on Norway’s Mission for Syrian Women in Lebanon

For Lene Natasha Lind, Norway’s ambassador to Lebanon, a big part of the job is dealing with the Syrian crisis – and in particular the struggles of refugee women, who face high levels of domestic violence and find it difficult to enter the workforce.

PUBLISHED ON Apr. 7, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

THE SYRIAN WAR had been raging for almost four years when Lene Natasha Lind arrived in Beirut on August 24, 2015, to begin her new job as Norway’s ambassador to Lebanon. This proved to be a tough role in a country struggling to support an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees.

Lebanon’s already tenuous infrastructure is buckling under the pressure of attempting to provide adequate sanitation, electricity and water to the large refugee population, she says. And efforts to represent Norway during the humanitarian crisis are complicated by culturally defined gender norms that affect the ability of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon to find work and provide for their families.

Women & Girls spoke with Lind about how Norway’s gender-balanced approach to diplomacy puts Syrian refugee women and girls at the forefront of her country’s mission in Lebanon.

Women & Girls: What needs to be done specifically for Syrian women and girls in Lebanon to ensure that they will have a successful and sustainable future?

Lene Natasha Lind: We know from UNHCR data that there are a lot of single female heads of households in the Syrian refugee population. For instance, they have either had their husbands killed or they remain in Syria fighting while the women have fled with their children. Because of this, it is very important to target intervention towards the heads of households. We can do this by providing more cash assistance which will allow the families to be able to cater for themselves.

It is also important to recognize that the job market is aimed towards men here. This is due to cultural and gender issues, but it is very difficult for women to go out and get work because of this, and also because they have to look after their children. Our biggest intervention in Lebanon is to ensure that [Syrian refugee] children have access to school and the support to do their learning. This is a big help to their mothers, who are keen to see their children receive an education.

Women & Girls: Forty percent of Norway’s budget in Lebanon goes toward increasing access to education in the country, and many Syrian refugee children have been out of school for years due to the conflict. What are you doing to increase access to education for Syrian girls in Lebanon?

Lind: Parents are hesitant to allow their girls to go to school over safety concerns, so we focus on providing girls with safe transport to school and making sure they have a safe school environment. We do this through close cooperation with UNICEF and the ministry of education.

“Parents are hesitant to allow their girls to go to school over safety concerns, so we focus on providing girls with safe transport to school and making sure they have a safe school environment.”

We set targets to get as many children in school at the start of every school year, and we see that these targets aren’t enough because … if the family does not have any income and their status here in Lebanon is illegal, then they tend to send out the girls – or anyone they can – to beg for money.

Women & Girls: Are there initiatives that you support that allow Syrian women to enter the job market?

Lind: The job market is a difficult one because Syrian refugees are not allowed to work in Lebanon. So, we can’t promote that on a large scale until we have an agreement with the government that they will allow refugees to work, and we are doing a lot of advocacy on that.

We are looking to target projects right now that can be sustainable because when our [cash] support ends, they need to be able to maintain [the projects]. Right now, there are a lot of projects that are good projects in the short run, like knitting and embroidery, but these aren’t sustainable because things like embroidery or knitting aren’t needed on a continuous basis.

Ambassador Lind at a school run by the United Nations relief agency UNRWA in Beirut. (Courtesy of Royal Norwegian Embassy)

Women & Girls: You have partnered with ABAAD to help survivors of domestic violence. Why is this program important?

Lind: We are supporting centers for women who are direct victims of violence. These are women who have just fled Syria or Syrian women who have fled from violence while in Lebanon and whose situations make them unable to return to their families, so they have nowhere else to go.

We are specifically involved in the women’s crisis center where ABAADsupports the women until they can support themselves, such as providing legal advice, information about gender bias in Lebanon and providing sexual health information.

They work with women and girls who have fallen out of acceptable levels of society, including women who are victims of incest and underage pregnant girls. These girls can be under threat because things like honor killings are still prevalent in certain segments of Syrian and Lebanese society.

Women & Girls: What do you think it is specifically about the Syrian crisis that has contributed to a rise in domestic violence?

Lind: It is a tremendous stress […] to not be able to work. You lose your honor and you risk your respect. Quite often for a man in this part of the world, this is an impossible situation, and unfortunately they quite often turn violent. When there is this level of desperation, there is a violent reaction pattern.

Women & Girls: Did you have any misgivings about taking on this ambassadorship at such a challenging time?

Lind: No I didn’t. I actively sought this posting because it appeared meaningful and important to me. My foreign minister has also made a point of appointing more women to ambassadorships in countries affected by conflict or other severe vulnerabilities. This is one of several measures we have taken to implement Security Council Resolution 1325. This year, we also appointed our first female ambassador to Afghanistan for the same reasons. I am well aware of the challenges and I am grateful for the opportunity to do my part.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In Iraq, Refugees Rebuild Their Lives by Starting Small Businesses

With her NGO, the Sisterhood Collective, Jessica Courtney grants funding to women living in refugee and IDP camps in Iraq so they can start up their own small businesses and support their families, even if aid dries up.

PUBLISHED ON March 20, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

IT WAS A young Iraqi girl with a heart defect who, in 2006, changed the path of Jessica Courtney’s life. Courtney’s husband, Jeremy, had spent much of that year working alongside an NGO in Iraq. While there, Jeremy was introduced to a man with a young daughter, around seven years old, who was in desperate need of lifesaving heart surgery. When Jeremy returned home to Texas and told his wife about the young girl, Courtney decided they needed to do something to help the family. So they started to raise funds for the surgery.

In the end, the Courtneys were able to raise $5,000, which paid to send the girl to Israel and took care of half of the surgery costs, while a partnering hospital donated its services to cover the remaining fees.

Realizing that the young girl was just one of hundreds of children in need of similar treatment in Iraq, the Courtneys felt they had to do more. In 2007, they packed up their home and moved their family, including their 18-month-old daughter, to the Iraqi town of Sulaymaniyah. There, they formed the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization to provide heart surgery to children in Iraq.

Then in 2013, the so-called Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) took over Raqqa, in northern Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians were forced to flee into Iraq, into refugee camps and camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Courtney watched as the safe areas surrounding her home filled with Syrian refugees and IDPs, and in 2014 she realized the Preemptive Love Coalition needed to expand its work beyond health services and start providing aid – but aid that would allow for sustainable development.

Courtney began meeting with the women who lived in the camps. She found that they wanted to work to provide for their families, but most had never had jobs before. So, Courtney developed the Sisterhood Collective, an arm of the Preemptive Love Coalition that gives refugee women grants ranging from $100 to $1,500 so they can start small businesses in the camps. Last year, the Sisterhood Collective helped 51 women start businesses; this year, it hopes to help 400 more.

Women & Girls spoke with Courtney about the importance of adaptability and the trouble with training.

Women & Girls: How do the women decide what types of business to start?

Jessica Courtney: Fortunately, I lived in Iraq for eight years before I started the Sisterhood Collective, so I can speak the local language. I personally sit down with these women and ask them their stories and talk to them about the type of job they want.

One woman came to me and told me that she needed a sewing machine. I told her that I would put her name down on a waiting list – but that there were 60 women ahead of her on the list. She thought about what else she could do. She walked through the IDP camp and realized that no one in their area was selling the common electrical supplies people needed inside their tents. So, ultimately, she decided to start a small electronics store.

“Our goal from the very beginning is that we are helping women create businesses they can run themselves, because you never know when an NGO is going to be asked to leave.”

Women & Girls: How do the women get their inventory?

Courtney: We go with them to the local bazaar and we purchase the products they need alongside them. They know how much money they have to spend, and get to be a part of the selection process. This woman and her husband didn’t know a lot about electricity … so we took them to an electrician’s shop and he taught us what the products should be selling for in their shop.

Women & Girls: Do you provide training for the women?

Courtney: We try to do as little training as possible, because what we have found is that … if we just enable them to use the skills that they already have, then they come to success a lot faster than they would if they were learning something new.

Our goal from the very beginning is that we are helping women create businesses they can run themselves, because you never know when an NGOis going to be asked to leave, or the conflict gets worse and all of the expats end up leaving.

Women & Girls: How many women continue on with their businesses after the initial inventory you help them purchase has been sold?

Courtney: From the past year … there was only one woman who closed down her business and is no longer working. There are some who are no longer doing the business they originally started with us, but they took the money from their original business and reinvested it into a new business. For example, we have women who started knitting but found that knitting was good to sell only during the wintertime. So they reinvested [their earnings] into products that would sell during the warmer months, like shoes.

Women & Girls: Do you think these women are going to be able to support themselves in these businesses once they leave the refugee and IDP camps?

Courtney: For a lot of these people, going home seems like a very distant dream because their towns have been demolished. If they can move back, the skills they have further developed will be able to help them. We do not invest in brick and mortar, so everything we purchase for them can be taken with them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tackling the Law That Forces Rape Survivors to Marry Their Attackers

In parts of the Middle East and Africa, courts can let rapists walk free if they marry their victims. Alia Awada of gender-equality campaigners ABAAD wants Lebanon to abolish the law, saying that, far from protecting a survivor’s honor, it treats them like a criminal.

PUBLISHED ON Feb. 8, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

IN MARCH 2012, Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl, committed suicide after she was forced to marry her rapist.

According to reports, she had been attacked while walking down the streetin her hometown of Larache. When her father reported the rape, the prosecutor suggested that Filali and her rapist get married, in accordance with a law that allows an alleged rapist to avoid jail time by marrying his victim.

The penal code, known as Article 475, was instituted as a means of protecting a rape victim’s honor, according to women’s right activists. In conservative parts of Morocco, as in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, if a girl engages in sexual activity outside of marriage – even in cases of rape – she is viewed as having dishonored herself and her family, leading to her being shunned by her community.

But, for Filali, instead of being protected, she was bonded to the man who had once brutalized her and ended up beating her. In response, she killed herself by ingesting rat poison. Two years later, following public outcry over Filali’s death, the Moroccan parliament abolished Article 475.

When news of Morocco’s decision reached Lebanon, where a similar law exists, activists at the gender-equality nonprofit ABAAD were inspired. They knew they had to take steps to have Article 522 abolished, to stop a case like Filali’s from happening in Lebanon. In November 2016, ABAADkicked off an aggressive campaign to demand that the country’s parliament abolish the law.

There are no reliable statistics on the frequency of courts in Lebanon that order rape victims to marry their rapists, but research by ABAAD showed that 30 percent of people polled said they knew girls who were raped and then forced to marry the men who had attacked them.

Women & Girls spoke with Alia Awada, advocacy and campaign manager for ABAAD, about the issue of honor and the campaign to abolish Article 522.

Women & Girls: When a girl is raped in Lebanon, how is she forced to marry her rapist?

Alia Awada: When an [unmarried] girl is raped and the case is presented in court, the judge will suggest to the girl and her family that she should marry her rapist to protect her honor. All three sides – the judge, the girl’s family and her rapist – must agree to the marriage. There will be pressure put on the girl to marry her rapist because, in Lebanon, if a girl is raped, no one will marry her in the future and everyone will be talking about her honor. She will never have a normal life. Her family will pressure her to marry her rapist because they see this as protection for their honor, too.

“The real work is on the ground, it is in changing mentalities. It is loudly saying that rape is a crime.”

We say [at ABAAD] that abolishing Article 522 is just the start of our work. The real work is on the ground, it is in changing mentalities. It is loudly saying that rape is a crime. It is about saying that women are the victims of social norms and rape laws in our society.

Women & Girls: How do you change the mentality that women are worth more than their virginity?

Awada: You can start with raising awareness [by] abolishing 522. You can talk about the consequences of forcing women to get married to their rapist.

The starting point is convincing people that rape is a crime, like any other crime. We have to encourage people to believe that there is a clear difference between rape and what we as a society consider a woman’s honor. There is a difference between losing your virginity and being raped.

We [at ABAAD] were all wondering how society viewed the victims of Article 522 and the victims of rape. We conducted a poll of 1,000 people from all over Lebanon. We found that only 1 percent of the population polled were fully aware that Article 522 existed. When told about the law, 85 percent of people polled thought that it compromises the dignity of the victim because it increases pressure on the victim to marry her rapist. When we informed people of the law and what it meant, people were really surprised and did not think the law was acceptable.

Abolishing Article 522 does matter, but what is most important is being on the ground and working on the mentalities of the communities, teaching families that, if your sister or your daughter gets raped, first, it is not her fault, second, she has the right to refuse to marry her rapist and, third, that rape is a crime and rapists are criminals.

Women & Girls: How does society view the rapist?

Awada: In the beginning the man would be shamed, but after he gets out of jail, society forgets about what he has done. People view the woman to be at fault; they don’t blame the rapist.

This is where feminist and women’s right organizations need to step in for the long haul. We can’t change society based on a one- or two-year campaign. We need to start by saying that women are victims and survivors of rape, and they did not do anything wrong. We need to start a discussion about dishonor and social norms towards women on all levels. In the MENA[Middle East and North Africa] regions, women do not have the luxuries of social rights, economic rights, political rights or the rights to control their bodies – we don’t have these social and legal rights. In Lebanon, we need to talk about society and the views of women’s rights – we are not on track [with women’s rights].

Women & Girls: How does ABAAD plan to get Article 522 abolished?

Awada: Seven months ago, we started thinking about pushing in an aggressive and positive way to abolish the law. We knew we had to be strong and we had to be smart, because, if we were able to get the public on our side, then we would have an army of supporters to get this law abolished.

We prepared a very strong campaign that exists on two levels. First, we had a public campaign which involved visual and audio materials that were able to touch people’s hearts. We posted a video about Article 522 and we had over 2 million views.

We also had a set of activities on a community level. For example, we put together a soccer match that was played by the most popular team in Lebanon in support of abolishing Article 522. Some of the most well-known journalists in Lebanon are women, so we brought them in to cover the match and to explain why the match was in support of abolishing 522. After that, everyone was talking about abolishing 522.

What has really made me proud is that we received calls from women’s rights organizations all over the Middle East asking us about our campaign. Tunisia has the same law [Article 277], and they have started to use our campaign material to ask for their law to be abolished as well.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Food4School: Getting Girls in the Classroom by Feeding Their Families

With her Food4School program, educator Marilyn Mosely Gordanier hopes that giving families money to buy food will allow them to pay for their daughters’ education and keep them from turning to child marriage to make ends meet.

PUBLISHED ON Jan. 25, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

MARILYN MOSELY GORDANIER’S life changed the day she sat down in front of a film about girls in the developing world who struggle to access education. The film, “Girl Rising,” was all the more significant for Mosely Gordanier because the Afghan segment was directed by her daughter, Ramaa Mosely. As she watched, Mosely Gordanier found herself deeply affected by the stories of girls who want nothing more than to go to school, but can’t because their parents don’t have the money to send them.

The founder of the Laurel Springs School, one of the early online schools, Mosely Gordanier has been advocating the importance of education for more than 35 years. In order to make a difference for girls in Afghanistan, she knew she would need the help of people who understood how to navigate the country’s political, cultural and religious landscape. Four years ago, she partnered up with Ramma and Afghan native and BBCjournalist Zarguna Kargar to form Food4School. The idea is to provide impoverished families in Afghanistan with a monthly stipend to purchase food, which then frees up enough money for parents to send their daughters to school.

Women & Girls spoke with Mosely Gordanier, who’s based in California, about the power of giving women control over family finances and how access to education can prevent child marriage.

Women & Girls: There are lot of people in need in Afghanistan. How do you decide which families you will help?

Marilyn Mosely Gordanier: Our team on the ground has been incredibly helpful in finding the families. Because they [the team members] work for the BBC, it started off that the families were people they had interviewed, and through them we were connected to other families. We are currently helping 15 to 20 families per year, and we continue to help them until their children have graduated from school. Most are in Kabul, and we also have four families [living in] Taliban-controlled areas.

The criteria we use is that these families have to be living below the poverty line and they either do not have a way to make money or they aren’t making enough money to feed their children or send them to school. Most of the families, when they come to us, are barely surviving.

Women & Girls: The Taliban prohibits girls from getting an education. How do you get around this for your families living in Taliban-controlled areas?

Mosely Gordanier: We can’t give too much information [because of safety concerns], but there are underground schools in those areas and they are participating, along with other local girls.

These families [in Taliban-controlled areas] are in extremely challenging situations. We can’t even post photos of the girls on our website. We had one case where two girls from a family living in a Taliban-controlled area heard about our program, because there was a small article done on us in a local paper. The girls traveled to Kabul, and they begged us to help them. Both of their parents are deaf and they desperately wanted an education, so of course we helped them because this was a family in great need and they were so brave to take the chance to come to Kabul and to continue their education.

Women & Girls: What type of aid does Food4School provide?

Mosely Gordanier: We provide families with between $60 and $120 per month, depending on the number of children, if the mother is widowed and what extenuating circumstances the family has. For example, we have a family that consists of just two orphans, and the older daughter is in school and also taking care of her little sister [so this family receives $120 per month].

When the money is delivered, it is given only to the women and what I love is that it has been very empowering to them. We have been told by the women that the program has increased their self-esteem, they feel like a new person.

Out of all the families we have this year, there is only one father who is working, so that is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, most of the fathers we work with are addicted to opium and that makes them less than capable of working. Therefore, we never give [the fathers] money directly. When the money is delivered, it is given only to the women, and what I love is that it has been very empowering to them. We have been told by the women that the program has increased their self-esteem, they feel like a new person.

Normally when we give the women the funds they are able to go out and food shop for themselves, but we have one woman who was a widow and her family was very strict so she wore the burqa and could not go out [of the house]. So we brought her food every month and then after about three months she told us that she thought she was ready to go to the market by herself. After that, she stopped wearing the burqa and started going to other places alone, such as the bank.

We have discovered that when you give women power through funding, it makes a big difference.

Women & Girls: How sustainable is the Food4School program?

Mosely Gordanier: That is one of our biggest concerns. We have been encouraging the mothers of the families to get an education and start small businesses. These women are ingenious, and they are starting small companies and we are working to help and encourage them. These are very simple products, like fruit markets and weaving. So we are looking for different ways to make this sustainable and to figure out how we can continue to help these families as their children grow up.

Women & Girls: You started Food4School to decrease child marriage. Do you think the program can be translated to other parts of the world where child marriage is practiced?

Mosely Gordanier: This was our prototype program. We stepped into a place that was one of the harder areas to gain entrance and we felt that if we made progress here it would be easier to expand in areas where we have strong contacts, such as parts of Africa. I think it is a very simple process that makes it clear that if you feed a family and if they know that their child will be educated, they will want that to continue.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lina Sergie Attar: ‘We are Watching the Dreams of Syrian Girls Die’

Through her U.S.-based charity Karam Foundation, Lina Sergie Attar is focusing on education for displaced girls in Syria, helping teenagers develop the skills they need to start rebuilding their crippled country.

PUBLISHED ON Dec. 27, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

LINA SERGIE ATTAR never imagined she would end up working to alleviate suffering in the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time – or that the crisis would be happening in her homeland. She grew up in an environment of giving, as a child watching her father dedicate his life to helping Aleppo’s disadvantaged citizens. When she left the city in 1998 to study architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design at MIT, she still felt a longing for the charitable life she left behind in Syria. So in 2007, she co-founded Karam Foundation with the goal of finding ways to give back to local and international communities.

At first, Karam Foundation, which gets its name from the Arabic word for generosity, worked on small projects, like helping with Iraqi refugees in Boston and supporting microfinancing projects for women in Africa. But with the outbreak of civil war in 2011, the foundation shifted its focus to providing aid for displaced Syrians.

When at the end of 2012, Attar and her team visited an internally displaced peoples (IDP) center outside of Aleppo, she met hundreds of Syrian children who were no longer able to attend school. The conflict has left 1.7million Syrian children without access to education. The widespread need for schools in IDP and refugee camps inspired Attar to expand the support Karam Foundation gives Syrians to include education programs for refugees.

Women & Girls spoke with Attar about the work Karam Foundation is doing and how its education program has helped train over 3,500 Syrian girls for a better future.

Women & Girls: What is life like in Aleppo for women and girls today?

Lina Sergie Attar: We have been watching the evacuation [of Syrian civilians and fighters from rebel-held parts of Aleppo], which is not really an evacuation: It is forced displacement, the eviction of tens of thousands of people.

It is estimated that up to 100,000 people were taken from their homes, put onto buses and taken into opposition-held areas for them to be able to access humanitarian aid. We are hearing from women on these buses that people are freezing to death, they are without water, food or even bathrooms. Imagine you are a mother who has lived under bombs for years, then in a besieged city for the past few months, and then you are forced to leave your home and everything you have. And [then] only being able to take the belongings that you can carry, spending a few nights on the streets of Aleppo and then being held on a bus for many hours without food, water or bathrooms – and then transported to IDP camps where you are left in no man’s land.

So being a mother, being a women, being a child in these circumstances is truly devastating. And their nightmare when they are settled has really only just begun, because they have joined the millions of other internally displaced people.

Women & Girls: What type of future is there for Syrian women and girls?

Attar: The future is really bleak. We have been watching people becoming internally displaced for many years now, and they are living in tents or caravans. They are lucky if their children go to school, there are no employment opportunities and they become dependent on humanitarian aid.

Families often become dependent on girls to care for younger siblings so that the parents can work, to take care of injured family members, or to enter into early marriages.

There is a lot of pressure on girls because they are not able to continue school. Families often become dependent on girls to care for younger siblings so that the parents can work, to take care of injured family members, or to enter into early marriages. We have seen it all.

The saddest part is that when we are working with teenage Syrian girls, they are so bright and so motivated, their dreams are so huge. We meet with Syrian refugee girls who dream of going to university and really being something, but their actual reality is that they will never able to access these dreams. We are watching the dreams of Syrian girls die.

Women & Girls: A lot of your work at Karam Foundation focuses on providing technology training and entrepreneurial mentorship to Syrian teens. What inspired you to focus on this?

Attar: Originally, our education initiatives were focused on elementary school-age kids, and then one day we were confronted by a group of high-school girls who asked us why we weren’t doing these kinds of programs for them. It was really interesting to see these girls demanding that we think about their futures as well. So we started a mission to focus on Syrian refugee teens which provides them with technology and entrepreneurial classes.

The technology aspect of the program is really important for girls because it allows them to access the world in a way that they would otherwise not be able to. Having access to a worldwide community allows these girls to learn and develop new skills which will be valuable for employment. The internet also allows them to find employment opportunities that can be done virtually. For instance, we have a journalism workshop program where they are learning how to become storytellers – they are living in one of the biggest conflicts of their time, and we want to help them tell their story. We have had some of our students go on to full-time journalism jobs.

We found that these kids [in the education program] are hungry for extra inspiration – so hungry, in fact, that we are opening Karam House in January, where teens can access computer labs, libraries, science labs and all sorts of courses where they get to use the latest technology and learn from mentors.

Our tag line for Karam House was created by Sarah, a Syrian refugee girl: “I have an idea. I can build it at Karam House.” That is what Karam House is, a place where teens can come with a dream for their futures, and together we can make that dream happen.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Milk and Mentors: Helping Syrian Women Support Their Families

From getting formula to hungry babies to teaching women how to run their own businesses, NuDay Syria gives aid and support to millions of Syrians. For the nonprofit’s founder, Nadia Alawa, it’s about helping women and children survive the war with dignity.

PUBLISHED ON Aug. 31, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

WHEN NADIA ALAWA moved from Japan to New Hampshire with her family in 1996, she intended to focus on raising her eight children. But years later, a single incident from the Syrian civil war compelled Alawa to turn her focus halfway across the world to help families suffering through the conflict.

When the conflict in Syria first began in March 2011, Alawa, who had never been politically active, found herself taking a keen interest. “I am half-Syrian and my husband is full Syrian, so I felt a sense of responsibility to the people in Syria to know what was going on there and a responsibility to my own children,” she says. “I wondered what my children would think if I didn’t pay attention to what was happening in Syria, if I turned my cheek to the extreme suffering of the people there.”

Then, on April 29, 2011, 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib was captured by Syrian security forces in the town of Daraa, where he and his family had taken part in a protest march against the government. Hamza was held in prison for four weeks, until he was tortured to death. A video of the young boy’s body showed his face and body covered in bullet wounds, cuts and bruises, and his genitals had been severed.

“Hamza’s death made an impression on me that children are really the victims of what is happening inside Syria,” says Alawa.

Alawa became particularly concerned about the plight of women and girls who are left with no money and, often, no home after their male relatives are killed. So she created NuDay Syria, a U.S.-based organization that brings aid to millions of Syrians and provides opportunities for women in the country to support themselves.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Alawa about the impact that NuDay Syria is having in the devastated country.

Women & Girls Hub: Where did the inspiration for NuDay Syria come from?

Nadia Alawa: After about a year of just watching what was happening in Syria, I started to get involved in community fund-raising events in New England. At the time I called myself a freelance humanitarian activist because I didn’t have aspirations to start an organization. I started connecting aid organizations inside Syria with the money I raised. By doing that I started to connect with people inside of Syria, and so I was forming a network of people who wanted to help.

At the same time, I was putting together aid containers of goods to send to people in Syria, but I started to feel like this was a waste of time. I was doing a lot of work and other organizations were using the aid I raised and my network inside of Syria to deliver the aid but I was still having to beg them [the organizations] to take on projects inside Syria that I felt needed the most aid. This encouraged me to start my own organization.

Women & Girls Hub: How did you build up your network of volunteers inside of Syria?

Alawa: Initially when I started doing events in New England I was working with people who had strong connections to Syria and knew people who had been detained by [Syrian president] Bashar al-Assad and who were now released and working in government opposition in Syria. So I started to ask them to help me with aid, to do things like locate orphans who needed milk so that we could deliver it to them.

We built up our own reliable network for NuDay Syria very slowly, because it is very important when you are working with people inside of Syria that there is a lot of vetting. The people we work with have to be well-known and trusted members of the community. So we work with a lot of local council members.

We now have between six and eight teams in Syria and under each team we have five to 20 people.

Women & Girls Hub: Are the people working for NuDay safe in Syria?

Alawa: No one is safe inside Syria. These are people who have made a conscious decision to risk their lives to help others.

Women & Girls Hub: What kind of tangible relief has NuDay Syria provided?

Alawa: Right now we are building and reinventing schools in northern Syria. We also support different schools that are in besieged areas near the capital. We just piloted a program to build 100 cinder-block homes in a camp for internally displaced people. We had the blocks fabricated locally in Syria because we are trying to encourage the economy in areas we work in and we wanted to get manufacturing going. We also do aid containers where people send clothing, stuffed animals for the children and food items. And we run soccer camps in northern Syria for the children. All of these things might look small to us [in the U.S.], but to people who have been starved from war and are just waiting to hear more bad news, all of these small things really empower them and give them hope.

Women & Girls Hub: NuDay Syria places a special emphasis on creating programs that help women in Syria…

Alawa: Our focus is on women and children and we want to empower women and provide aid with dignity. We run social businesses where women can work to make money, we want to empower women who have lost everything. NuDay Syria is known for setting up mentorship programs for women and girls, thus encouraging involvement and the potential for learning. Empowerment for us is an attitude and a way of interaction where we build up women instead of viewing women as passive or too fragile to have a voice of their own.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sundara: Recycling Hotel Soap and Cleaning Up for Impoverished Women

When children lack basic hygiene education, they become vulnerable to potentially deadly but easily preventable diseases. With her organization Sundara, Erin Zaikis has found a way to cut illness rates and create jobs with a simple bar of soap.

PUBLISHED ON Aug. 23, 2016

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

WHEN ERIN ZAIKIS arrived in India seven years ago on a college break to volunteer at an orphanage for abandoned and abused children, she envisioned a summer reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire. Instead, she met Priyanka, a 10-year-old girl who would alter the path of her life.

Priyanka came to the orphanage after she was rescued from the bed her grandmother had strapped her to, so that men from the village could pay to rape her. Priyanka “was convinced that I could read her palm,” says Zaikis, 26. “She would come to my room every day and ask me to tell her future.”

A few weeks after Zaikis returned to the University of Michigan to continue her studies as an astronomy student, she received news that Priyanka had died from AIDS. “I was so bothered by the fact that she had such a different upbringing than I had,” says Zaikis. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why do I get to go to college and she doesn’t even get to live?’”

Priyanka’s death caused Zaikis to reassess her life. She changed her major from astronomy to public policy, and after graduation moved to Thailand where she worked for an organization that sought to help girls who had been sexually abused as a result of trafficking.

Traveling between villages for research, Zaikis realized that many of the villages did not have any soap, and the children lacked basic hygiene education. That made the children vulnerable to potentially deadly but preventable illnesses like diarrhea, the second leading cause of death among children under the age of five.

So she took a new path and created Sundara, an NGO which takes used soap from the hospitality industry, sanitizes it and distributes it to impoverished communities in India, Myanmar and Uganda. The organization also trains underprivileged women in hygiene education and then employs them to go back into their communities to teach what they have learned. To date, Sundara has made over 67,800 bars of soap and taught more than 2,330 lessons on hygiene education to children in 51 schools in impoverished communities.

Women & Girls Hub spoke with Zaikis about the impact of something as simple as soap and her organization’s philosophy of sustainability:

Women & Girls Hub: Where did the inspiration for Sundara come from?

Erin Zaikis: I used to visit villages in Thailand to survey how likely children were to be trafficked and I would stay in the homes of the village locals. And I noticed that there was never any soap in these children’s homes. One time I was at a school and I went to the bathroom, and again there was no soap. So I asked the children, “Where is your soap?” and they had no idea what it was. So I ended up buying soap and bringing it to them and doing an impromptu hand-washing class.

The kids had never seen soap before; some of the kids were trying to eat it, and one was balancing it on his head.

I kept hearing stories about parents who lost kids to preventable diseases like diarrhea, or a simple skin rash. The hygiene situation was so bad in this village [Baan Hoi Saak] that it was leading to preventable deaths. I thought, “Maybe this is something I can do.”

Right after this, I contracted dengue fever and I was hospitalized for a month, and then my boyfriend at the time broke up with me over email while I was in the hospital. I was at rock bottom. I had a lot of time in the hospital where I couldn’t move, so I did a lot of thinking. I was actually lucky this happened because it forced me to quit my job and take the leap to start Sundara.

Women & Girls Hub: What types of success and failures have you had with Sundara?

Zaikis: In the beginning, Sundara [“beautiful” in Sanskrit] was a very simple soap company. I was making soap out of my small kitchen in New York and selling it and using the profits from that to support soap hygiene efforts in India, Uganda and Myanmar. I realized though that what I was passionate about was the education around soap hygiene, so I decided I should stop trying to be a soap company and instead create an NGO and focus all of my efforts on soap hygiene. I applied for a pitch competition from LinkedIn and I won.

The winnings from that gave me seed funding to move to India and start the soap hygiene project there. I convinced a couple of my friends to move to India with me, where we pitched our butts off to every hotel we could find in Mumbai. We hired a few women in the slums and started a workshop, so we piloted the project in India. Once it was off the ground and running for a year, we expanded into Myanmar and then also a program in Uganda.

Women & Girls Hub: Through Sundara, you work to promote female leadership in the towns you work in …

Zaikis: It is very important to me that I involve female community members in the countries I am working in, because I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t foisting my Western expectations on someone. So I made it a priority that in each country we work in, we tailor our program to fit the needs of the individual community.

So for example, in Uganda, the women we work with are interested in the female empowerment aspect of our work. Because of this, we work with people who are widowed or victims of domestic violence, single mothers and disabled women. The fact that these women are able to work and provide for themselves really carries them. As an organization, we just try to find out what aspects reverberate with people and then we focus on that aspect with them.

Women & Girls Hub: What long-term goals do you have for Sundara?

Zaikis: I started this organization to really focus on children in terms of soap and hygiene education, but I have been surprised at the way I have really fallen in love with the women who work for us. Hearing their stories about how, even though they are illiterate, they feel empowered because we took a risk on them; employed them and gave them the opportunity to pay their dowries so they can get married, or pay for their school fees for their children, so that their children won’t be illiterate. Hearing these stories really keeps me motivated, so I would like to focus more on empowering women with business skills.

At the end of the day people don’t want handouts. They want to know that they can provide for themselves.

The Fight Against FGM in Singapore’s Malay Muslim Community

The practice of female genital mutilation among the Malay Muslim community is not widely discussed in Singapore, although most girls are cut before the age of one. The AWARE advocacy group is working to end the practice via grassroots activism.

PUBLISHED ON May 10, 2017

By Alexandra Bradford

This article originally appeared in Women & Girls Deeply

FILZAH SUMARTONO WAS a teenager when she found out that as a baby she had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). In a common practice in Singapore’s Malay Muslim communities, young female babies undergo a type of FGM known locally as “sunat perempuan.”

The procedure, which involves the removal of the clitoris, is legal in Singapore and practised by both traditional midwives and medical doctors. It is categorised as Type 1 by the World Health Organisation and can be extremely painful for the child, damaging sexually sensitive tissue.

Sumartono says that 99 percent of the 253,300 Malay women in Singapore are Muslim, and almost all of them undergo sunat perempuan as babies. Sumartono’s own mother was against the custom, but her female relatives demanded she have her young daughter cut.

Today, as project coordinator at women’s right group AWARE, Sumartono works to raise awareness of the practice of sunat perempuan.

Women & Girls: Why is AWARE working to raise awareness about sunat perempuan?

Filzar Sumartono: We advocate for gender equality and we view sunat perempuan as a violation of women’s rights. In Singapore, FGM is usually done when a baby is less than one year old. A baby cannot give consent or have a say over a procedure that is permanent and will change their life forever – their rights to their bodies are taken away at infancy.

We believe that FGM is a form of violence against women. When FGM is performed at infancy, it is the starting point of a cycle of violence and control over women.

We also feel that FGM hypersexualizes the baby because it prioritizes the community’s fear of her as a sexual being over her health and well-being.

Women & Girls: How does undergoing sunat perempuan impact the life of a woman?

Sumartono: There isn’t any research [specifically] on the consequences of FGMType 1, and because of that we know very little about the health impacts.

We have anecdotal evidence that we hear from girls. Some women we speak to feel angry that they did not consent to the procedure, and yet it was done to them. We also see from the community that there are women who do not see an issue to the practice, because they feel that it has not impacted their sexual life and because they feel that it is part of their culture and community.

Women & Girls: Is sunat perempuan only practiced in Malay Muslim cultures in Singapore? If so, what makes the Malay community different from other Muslim communities in Singapore?

Sumartono: We found that it is only practiced within the Malay Muslim community [in Singapore] and not other [Singaporean] Muslim communities. The Malay follow the Shafi’i school of thought, which makes the practice of sunat perempuan compulsory. No other Muslim sect in Singapore makes FGMobligatory for women.

The Shafi’i have very conservative ideals about women, and these ideals are justified by religion. But these ideals go beyond culture – it is just more entrenched in the Malay culture because religion is used to justify it.

Women & Girls: How do you dismantle the practice of sunat perempuan since it is justified by religion?

Sumartono: In the local context, sunat perempuan is considered to be very different from FGM, although if we go by WHO definition, sunat perempuan is FGM Type 1. But the local community does not view sunat perempuan and FGMas the same thing.

“It cannot be a top-down approach because a blanket ban on the procedure may cause it to go underground, or the community may just go overseas to have the procedure done.”

We [at AWARE] are not religious scholars, but there are many religious leaders and scholars who have spoken out against it. In Singapore, the community still thinks sunat perempuan is a religious requirement, so it is helpful and makes our jobs easier when Muslim leaders speak out against it.

Women & Girls: Has AWARE petitioned the Singaporean government to make sunat perempuan illegal?

Sumartono: We are focused on community engagement right now, increasing awareness about sunat perempuan. It cannot be a top-down approach because a blanket ban on the procedure may cause it to go underground, or the community may just go overseas to have the procedure done.

We recently published a book called “Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out,” which includes stories of women speaking about their experiences.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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