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Woman helps refugees thrive in Utah



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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By Nkoyo Iyamba

Each Tuesday in January, KSL-5 TV features stories of Utahns who have found ways to live out their passions. Samira Harnish started her nonprofit organization Women of the World to help women refugees navigate the cultural and social landscape of their new homes in Utah.

In her modest home, Samira, who prefers to use just her first name, cooks and paints. She is an artist. Not just because of the oil-on-canvas artwork covering her walls but because she’s found a way to take the hardships of her past and create a more colorful and fulfilling life helping Utah refugees.

“We stand up for women. We rise for women's rights and give her the value of her voice,” said Samira. “Our mission is to support refugee women from all nations to achieve their self-reliance.”

That's not just a mantra for Samira; it’s her way of life, which is now a mission, magnified when she started her nonprofit Women of the World in 2009. She began with the help of her husband Justin and the kindness of strangers. They are “volunteers [who] come and go for a short time,” said Samira. In 2014, a grant made it possible for Samira to hire a part-time case worker. Samira and her volunteers teach refugee women communications skills using the practical English program she developed.

“That means there is no rule, there is no grammar,” said Samira. “My lady refugees tell me, ‘I want to speak English now. I want to go to my kid’s school and see how they are doing.’ ”

Samira and her volunteers also make house calls throughout Salt Lake County and other parts of the state to help with anything else her refugee women might need such as “immigration, work, housing and job,” she said.

Samira’s passion for helping women from around the world began at an early age.

“I was a victim of a culture that gives great opportunity to my brothers but not for my sister and me,” she said. “Women are just as well educated but don't have the opportunities. And when they get married, the men order them to stay at home.”

Samira decided that she would change that practice one day.

As a young mother of three, Samira emigrated to Utah from Iraq and studied engineering. She was new to the country and had very little support, she said.

“I used to take them (her kids) with me to school because I cannot afford the baby-sitter,” she said.

As a new immigrant to Utah, Samira explained that she was in an arranged marriage, a typical tradition of her culture. She also said she was depressed because “I didn’t know how to communicate my feelings to people.” Samira said while she studied in Utah, she faced discrimination during the Iran hostage crisis from November 1979 to January 1981.

“Everybody thought I am Iranian,” she said. “I was pushed away from the grocery store. Even the hospital, I got pushed away from there. Even my professor told me, ‘go home Iranian. I'm not going to teach a hundred students because you are in here.”

But Samira said she found angels of mercy along the way to help her.

“I did get a few people who were very kind to push me, to help me,” she said. “One lady even told me, ‘I will go with you so you don’t get discriminated.’ ”

Later, Samira began a very lucrative career as a semiconductor engineer in which she helped modernize popular electronic media.

“When you see your TV and your phone, your everything has shrunk, this is what I did,” said Samira.

But shrinking computers wasn't enough. Samira said she can help refugee women because, like them, she has had to walk the path of living in a world that was foreign from all that was comfortable and safe or at least familiar. Samira said her clients are survivors of oppression, rape, war and social ostracism.

“I didn’t know the law. I didn’t know the language,” said Samira. “My refugee ladies are afraid to speak up. They think they’re going to lose their rights or be sent back to their countries or to the refugee camp.”

Samira can measure her success by looking at the snapshots of refugees' accomplishments. Samira's Women of the World Facebook page has photos and accounts of refugee women who are now high school and college graduates, Utah driver's license holders and entrepreneurs.

Tamarah Al-Sarray will soon be added to the list of Samira’s success stories. Samira often makes house calls to check on her 23-year-old student. Al-Sarray, along with her parents and brother, emigrated from Iraq to Utah just 10 months ago.

“It was just a normal day in Iraq when my parents came to tell me that we have to leave to another country to be refugees,” Al-Sarray explained.

She said her family lived in Turkey for about two years before moving to Utah. When Al-Sarray arrived, she said she felt restless.

“I don't have a work. I don't know what to study. I don't know where to go,” said Al-Sarray. “But then I heard there is a woman called Samira, and everybody here in Utah knows who Samira is.”

Al-Sarray said she felt an immediate bond with Samira.

“Everything I want, she just make it so easy for me,” said Al-Sarray.

Samira said there is no salary that can compensate for the level of compassion she feels for her clients or the bond she so easily forms with strangers.

“When I hear from the families coming from Iraq, it hurts me so bad. I feel guilty I wasn’t there to suffer the way they suffered,” explained Samira. “Helping them now is really simple for me.”

In 2013, Samira won the Salt Lake City Human Rights Award from Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, and in 2015 she won the Workman Productions Online Award featured at the Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary Short Film online for her online documentary featuring Women of the World.

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Nkoyo Iyamba

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