International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Sarah Wayne Callies: Talking and listening

I have been anticipating and dreading the Domiz camp women’s meeting for weeks.  It was from Domiz camp that I heard the reports of sexual violence I wrote about in my first blog.  Two days ago we finally sat down to talk together, the Domiz women refugees and I – although I’d been warned that it was not culturally appropriate for me to ask directly about sexual assault.  (For what it’s worth, I didn’t need to be told – can you imagine asking any woman say, been raped lately?). I planned to begin by asking them how they felt about camp safety, whether they felt that their daughters and mothers were being adequately protected.  

It all changed when I got into the room.  There were probably thirty women crammed into an office in a portable building.  There were a few elders among them, some college-age women, and the rest fell somewhere in between.  All but two covered their heads, which is a sign that they value piety and modesty.  What changed everything were the translators:  as I speak neither Arabic nor Kurdish and the women don’t speak English, two translators were provided and both were men.  
 
They are good men: they work for the IRC and have been trained in helping refugees. They’ve been more than generous with their care, time, and personal cell phone numbers in their efforts to assist the residents of Domiz.  But they are men nonetheless.  And I think because there were men in the room, my questions about female safety went utterly ignored by the women.  Instead they were answered with concerns about other issues – health care for the elderly, job opportunities, and access to education.  I heard two women say they felt safer in Domiz than they did in Syria, but if you’ve watched the news lately, that isn’t saying much.  
Sarah Wayne Callies with Syrian refugees at Domiz camp, Iraq
Actress and IRC Voice Sarah Wayne Callies with Syrian refugees in northern Iraq.

Photo: Ned Colt/IRC
 
 
The one gender issue they raised freely was the problem of sharing latrines with men.  It’s a major cultural issue for them, and they felt strongly that all new sections of the camp must provide gender-specific latrines, ideally one per household. If you consider a culture dominated by women who, out of modesty, cover their hair in the presence of non-familial men, I’m sure it makes sense that doing their business in the same space is a non-starter.   
 
This conversation gave me the idea to approach women’s issues from another angle: are there enough feminine sanitary supplies in camp?   The translator blushed just a little bit as he asked it, I think, but relayed the question.  Again unrelated answers came back: the camp needs more tents, cheaper bread.  But just then I happened to catch the eye of a young mom in the room – one who had her son with her.  She looked right at me and slowly shook her head no.  I nodded I hear you, and looked around the room some more.  Three other women silently met my gaze and shook their heads in answer to my question about once-a-month girl stuff: no, there is not enough.  But they would not say it out loud. 
 
Syrian refugees walk in muddy street in Domiz camp, Iraq
Mud is an almost constant unpleasant companion for refugees at Domiz camp in the winter. One of their main complaints however, is the lack of privacy. Men and women from different families currently share toilet facilities, which is anathema to most. 

Photo: Ned Colt/IRC
 
Eventually time was up on the meeting, and I thanked them for sitting with me to discuss their concerns.  I had written everything down and would relay it to the IRC.  At this point discussion bloomed again for a few minutes and in that time someone mentioned that they could use a female doctor.  There aren’t any? I asked.  There is one came the response.  And she is not an OB/GYN.  One female doctor serving a camp of approximately 42,000 people?  I was later told that there is one female OB/GYN who comes in from neighboring Dohuk city once a week, but given that at least half the camp residents are women, the odds of getting to see her are- well, you can do the math. This is a community of women who will not to discuss tampons in the company of men, and there is essentially no gynecological care available from a female physician.  
 
To whom are these women supposed to turn in the event they are raped?  While I’m told there are Arabic and Kurdish speaking female aid workers at Domiz, I didn’t see any. I would certainly hope that Syrian Kurdish women would not be forced to rely on the translation services of a man to convey their violation and all but one of the physicians in camp are male anyway. From my short experience with them, that is simply not going to happen, which means that these women have no way to speak about their experiences and we have no way to hear about them. That will ideally change next month when a women’s center opens at Domiz, but we have to do better. 
Elderly Syrian woman stands outside a tent at Domiz camp, Iraq 
This elderly refugee has only one pair of shoes. The plastic bags are essential to protecting feet and shoes during the winter rainy season. 

Photo: Ned Colt/IRC
 
 


The To-Do list at Domiz is enormous right now, but we have to get these women someone they can talk with. We cannot ask a population of Muslim women to seek medical and psychological care for sexual abuse from male doctors.  They won’t do it, and we won’t be keeping them safe.  

As the women’s meeting ended, one of the matriarchs spoke up.  She thanked me for asking her about her opinions.  She’d been at the camp seven months, she said, and no one had asked her for input.  It gave her, as she put it, psychological ease to speak.  
 
Being heard can be healing in and of itself.  Without being able to prove it, I believe there are women in Domiz who have critical, painful, vital things to tell us.  We need to find the right way to listen.
 
This piece also appears on the Huffington Post.
 

Syria: A Regional Crisis

The International Rescue Committee is calling attention to the plight of those uprooted by turmoil in Syria and doing our part to support thousands of Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. 

 

 

5 comments

Comments

As an old woman and former

As an old woman and former teacher, I feel for these people. If all peoples went out and did volunteer work with other races and ethnic groups, they would find especially among woman that life is horrible for the oppressed and downtrodden. The middle and upper classes in the U.S. have turned inward and away from the traditional values that brought us all together in the first place. A few people will help out, but where are the rest of us? Money is not the answer......self sacrifice is a must.

I yearn to hear women's

I yearn to hear women's voices. I read about what "the people" are experiencing, and often in situations like this the people are men because women are not in a position to speak freely. It breaks my heart that females are born into these situations where they have no control. That's another reason why I support IRC.

Is it possible for NGO’s like

Is it possible for NGO’s like IRC to partner with institutions like John Hopkins to provide female doctors for these women? The program could be occur twice a year for 3 months at a time depending upon how many female doctors or even nurses were available. I don’t imagine it would take too long to establish all of the scope and scale of what a project like that would take. The logistics and implementation is another thing entirely but it can be done.

Thank you for this article.

Thank you for this article. It saddened me, yet had it's share of hope as well. Certainly eye-opening and making me want to do something more. Thank you

I work as a professional

I work as a professional interpreter and know how essential it is that people can communicate and express themselves. I work with a population who have been silenced for almost a century, and I see the devastation that comes from not having a voice. It is so important to have interpreters who can be a neutral as possible. Not necessarily fading into the background, but one who can turn off their own voice and facilitate others being heard. Part of my education process was learning that culture and language cannot be mutually exclusive. They are connected and rooted in one another in a way that cannot be severed. In order to communicate in a truly meaningful way we must understand the grass-roots and the culture behind the language. At the age of thirteen I was living in a single parent low income home. My father used our local food-bank as a means of subsidizing his income in order to provide for our family. He would request donations of feminine hygiene products, but often there were none available. It was a humiliating experience, at the tender age of thirteen to request them from the local women's center or from the school nurse. In retrospect I realize how fortunate I was to have access to these resources and support systems. I would like to know what I can do to help alleviate the issue of feminine sanitary products specifically. I realize that that may be almost inconsequential when considering the mighty list of issues faced by the camp, but it is one that I can readily relate too. Thank you, Sarah, for drawing attention to this issue.

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