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SALT LAKE CITY — Even before arriving in the United States, refugee women honored Saturday by the nonprofit organization Women of the World had proven themselves as survivors, said WOW founder Samira Harnish at a ceremony at Salt Lake County Government Center.
Many have survived sexual violence used as a tactic of war.
Others have been separated from their families because their home countries are engaged in conflict, experiencing famine or other upheaval.
Take Sara Al-Janabi, who fled Iraq in 2006, living in Syria and Turkey before being resettled in Utah in 2009.
She and her husband left behind most of their family members. Their daughter, Sedra, was born in Turkey.
"It was hard but finally, we made it," she said, embracing her 2-year-old son Ahmed.
Last month, Al-Janabi became a U.S. citizen. She plans to start a business where she can sell deserts such as baklava with pistachios, which is very popular in Iraq.
When her husband graduates from college in 2017, she plans to attend, too.
Bit by bit, their family members have been resettled in Utah as well.
"We're becoming a big family here, now," she said.
Women of the World, or WOW, works one on one with women refugees because "when you focus on woman refugees, you impact an entire community," said Harnish, the organization's founder. Harnish is an Iraqi immigrant who left a successful career as a semiconductor engineer to launch the nonprofit organizations five years ago.
Four out of five refugees and internally displaced persons are women, children and young people, according to WOW's website. Among Utah refugees, the majority are women and children.
Some of the honorees were so busy completing coursework for college graduation that they could not attend Saturday's events, which also included a buffet of international cuisine, dance and music.
Harnish shared the story of Siham Mhalul, a wife and mother whose husband and son were killed by a car bomb in Iraq.
Although she was very depressed after losing her spouse and child, Mhalul wanted to come to the United States to give her daughter, Fatima, a better life.
"She was very, very sad. Today she is optimistic, working hard to reach her goals," Harnish said.
This summer she became an American citizen "and she is happy," Harnish said.
The honorees, refugee women from countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, shared their stories on how they've succeeded in America despite many challenges. The hope, Harnish said, is that they will inspire other refugee women and their families to continue striving to learn English, seek employment, learn how to drive, and get involved in the community.
"Do not give up on your dreams. Keep going," said Harnish.