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Utah refugee moms offer more than free food for Mother's Day

By Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - May 9th, 2013 @ 9:52am



SALT LAKE CITY — The phone rings. There's a heavily accented voice on the other line. She's a refugee woman resettled in Utah pleading for help.

Tasks such as filling out paperwork or speaking English are simple for the average Utahn, but for women who were forced to leave the lives they knew in another country, they can become stumbling blocks to success.

"These women are brave, kind, wonderful, beautiful, strong and talented women," said Samira Harnish, founder of Women of the World. "They're from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Central Africa, Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda and other countries."

Women of the World will host its third annual free cultural event with food, activities and live music on May 11 in celebration of Mother's Day. Utah refugee moms will cook their favorite dishes. The event is their way of showing gratitude to Utahns who have welcomed refugees with open arms.

The non-profit organization gets by with a few volunteers. As more refugees become self-sufficient, Harnish said they give back to the organization by showing support to newly arriving refugee families. Volunteers said refugees are eager to reach out to their adopted Utah families.

"Particularly two women that I work with, they are so motivated to study their English," said Lauren Beck, a Women of the World volunteer. "They worked really hard this year and they were able to get their driver license, which opened up a whole new world for them."

Beck has been volunteering with Women of the World for the past year. She said the women want to become self-reliant.

"They're really motivated to get on their own instead of relying on the government," said Beck.

These refugee women know they can reach Harnish and other volunteers any time of day to help drive them to fill out job applications and government forms, get to the hospital, translate and anything else they need to live their dreams. That's the mission of Women of the World.

There are roughly 15 million refugees in the world and advocates report less than 1 percent will be resettled. The U.S. Department of State reports a resettlement budget for roughly 70,000 refugees per year to be relocated to U.S cities like Salt Lake City.

Harnish said these are women who escaped war, poverty and oppression in their countries and they need help making the transition into another culture. This was the driving force for opening Women of the World in 2010.

"They need someone to listen to them, to hear them, and support them and give them some kind of empowerment," Harnish said.

It was her lifelong dream to "assist women refugees who had suffered mental and physical trauma in wars and camps (and) to help them achieve self-sufficiency in my adopted country of America."

As an Iraqi immigrant in the early '80s, Harnish escaped abuse in an arranged marriage only to face isolation in a new country and culture.

"I heard many times people tell me, ‘Go home, we don't want you to be here,' " Harnish said. "At that time, there were American hostages in Iran. They thought I was Iranian."

Harnish said the bigotry became so severe that a university professor ordered her to leave class.

"In front of the 200 students, (the professor) told me, ‘Go out of the class before I teach it,' " Harnish said.

Harnish struggled against bigotry and poverty as she worked to earn a degree in civil engineering, which later landed her a job with Micron as a semi-conductor manufacturing engineer. She said she knows how difficult it can be for some Utah refugee women to learn the language and assimilate into their new home.

Harnish said her organization does not have a central location to help serve refugee families, which limits the services it can offer. She said the budget for Women of the World is small, so it relies on donations from the community. For example, Harnish and a couple of volunteers personally make house calls to dozens of refugees' homes to teach English.

"I wish someone with a big pocket and a big heart would give me an office where we can have a large classroom to teach English," Harnish said.

Justin Barage is a strong supporter of Women of the World. He and his wife have been the recipients of volunteer services from the group. His family came to Utah in 2009 from the Central Africa Republic.

"When I came here, I didn't speak the language and I had a lot of paperwork from DWS and I could not fill it out. Women of the World helped me," said Barage. "I know it is very difficult to use your time here in America, to go house by house to help people."

Elena Balasa recently joined the volunteer efforts of Women of the World. She emigrated to the U.S. from Romania in 2004. She said she wants to help Utah refugee women become successful.

"They have the power, they have the brain," said Balasa. "They just need somebody to support them, to understand them and understand how difficult it is to be in a new country."

As some of the refugee women become more self-reliant, Harnish said they give back to the organization by showing support to newly arriving refugee families. Harnish said the traditional Mother's Day food and culture celebration allows Utah refugee moms to connect with the community, which can be difficult for some because of language barriers. But Harnish said the day is also to honor Utah refugee moms for all of their accomplishments.

"We tell them, ‘Congratulations! We salute you,' because they came here from the ends of the world to sacrifice themselves to show their kids a new future," Harnish said. "To be a neighbor for Utahns."

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