Before I started working with Mercy Corps' Women’s Awareness and Inclusion (WAI) program, I was working with another non-governmental organization on land mine awareness and education. Since joining Mercy Corps, I've had more of a chance to visit and learn more about southern Iraq's rural communities — and the women who live there.
My work with WAI has showed me how much women suffer to get their basic rights, opportunities and break the chains of the old traditions. The program teaches women how to read and write, which gives them the confidence to stand up for themselves and claim what is rightfully theirs. Over the last four years, 3,164 women from the city of Basra have graduated from the program — overall, more than 25,000 women from across southern Iraq have participated.
One of them is 34-year-old Ahlam.
This beautiful young lady, mother to two children, lives near the middle of Basra. When she was young, she had to quit school and flee the country because of the conflict between Iraq and Iran. She became a refugee and didn't come back to Iraq for seven years. When she returned, she got married and began a family.
A year ago, Ahlam heard about the WAI program. She decided to pursue her long-lost education in order to provide a better standard of living for her family. Soon after she enrolled at a Mercy Corps-supported literacy center near by her house, she was diagnosed with blood cancer.
But, knowing what a dream deferred feels like, she never stopped learning and continued on until her graduation. She received her certificate before going into the hospital to fight her illness. We all wish this strong woman a quick and full recovery.
Another woman who's chosen to take control of her life through education is 68-year-old Haleema. Her back is bowed and her faced etched with the misery of years past, but the smile on her lips as she sat in the classroom was unforgettable. A widow, she is one of the students in Al-Thuraya literacy center in Shatt Al-Arab district, 10 kilometers from Basra.
She is one of the most distinguished students in this center, clever and coming to school every time to learn reading and writing. She has good relationships with her fellow students, as well as with her teachers.
Haleema is like thousands of women living in the old traditional context of southern Iraq and has been heavily burdened by continuous violent conflict for the last three decades. As a result of this constant turmoil, most Iraqi women remain immobilized, unskilled and illiterate.
Haleema lives alone; her husband is dead and she lost four sons in the wars that have gripped Iraq over the last 25 years. Now she depends on charity from others for her livelihood, since she has no any source of income on which to live.
“When I started attending the literacy center, I was unable to read and write," Haleema said. "But I’ve learned so much in a short period. I love school because it is now all what I have.”
I am proud to know women like Ahlam and Haleema, and count them as colleagues in this important work in southern Iraq.