Boxing helps Yazidi women heal – UNHCR Italy

By Rasheed Hussein Rasheed and Kristy Siegfried | June 23, 2022

Shaare Sharaf Sameer, 21, says boxing lessons help him “forget everything.” © UNHCR / Creative Pencils Agency

When Nathifa Wadie Qasim was a girl in Sinjar, Nineveh governorate of Iraq, her school had a punching bag that male students used to practice. Nathifa punched him almost every day.

“I remember being the only girl among my friends who had the courage to approach that red sack and throw punches,” she recalls. “It helped me relieve stress.”

At home, Nathifa mainly cared for her sick mother and younger siblings, while her father worked in the family fields. His mother died a few days before ISIS militants attacked Sinjar in August 2014. The militants attacked the majority Yazidi population of Sinjar, whose ancient religion is inspired by both Christianity and Islam, subjecting it to a reign of terror that the United Nations has called genocide. Thousands of Yazidi men were executed, while women and girls were abducted and often sold as sex slaves.

Nathifa and his family managed to escape and ended up in Rwanga, a camp for about 12,000 internally displaced people, mostly Yazidis, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Eight years later they are still there, even though Nathifa’s father has remarried and Nathifa, now 28, is the only one caring for her four teenage siblings.

The punching bag came back to life after he started working The Lotus Flower, a community organization that supports women and girls displaced in northern Iraq. When asked to think of a sports activity for the girls in the field, Nathifa immediately thought of boxing.

“Most of the women and girls in the camp had survived ISIS and suffered trauma as a result of their imprisonment,” she says. “I thought that if these women and girls had been physically strong, they would have been more likely to escape ISIS or defend themselves.”

Coincidentally, the founder of The Lotus Flower, Taban Shoresh, was thinking of something similar. She also survived the violence and observed the high levels of trauma among Yazidi women and their need for support for mental health and an outlet for their emotions.

“I have met many Yazidi women and girls who carry the consequences of ISIS inside,” she says. “I saw the anger and the emotions trapped inside them. I thought, what can help them regain their self-confidence and regain the power that has been taken from them? What sport is there? And boxing came out.”

In 2018, Taban brought in Rwanga Cathy Brown, a former professional boxer and cognitive-behavioral therapist, to teach Nathifa and other young women how to box and become coaches.

The Boxing Sisters program was born and since then Nathifa says she has trained over a hundred girls and women.

In a recent class, about 15 young women put on boxing gloves and practice cross-punching and punching with their training mates while Nathifa shouts instructions.

Shaare Sharaf Sameer, 21, is one of them. He has been attending Nathifa’s boxing classes since they started and says he gets bored if he spends a day without a class.

“It’s very helpful for our health and our mental well-being,” he says, after his turn with the punching bag. “No matter how sad or bored we are, as soon as we go to class we forget everything.”

“They said boxing wasn’t for girls.”

Nathifa says the community’s early resistance to the idea of ​​girls learning boxing disappeared as the benefits became apparent. “They used to say boxing wasn’t for girls, but they saw the participants getting stronger and that doesn’t happen.”

The Boxing Sisters program is just one of many projects he manages The Lotus Flower to help Iraqi women and girls affected by the conflict rebuild their lives. These include adult literacy courses, support for small women-led businesses, art therapy and training for women to become peacemakers and activists.

Taban founded the organization in 2016, two years after leaving his job in London and returning to the Iraqi Kurdistan region to help respond to the ongoing humanitarian crisis. He noted a gap in services to support displaced women.

“There was no space where women could heal, learn and grow,” she explains. “Men and children could leave the camps, they could move freely, but women and girls, due to social pressures, could not leave the camps or tents for no reason. So we created a reason why they could leave. ”

This month, The Lotus Flower it was one of seven organizations that won the UNHCR’s annual innovation award. This year’s winners are all women-led organizations working with refugees, internally displaced persons and their host communities.

Back at Rwanga camp, Nathifa says boxing helped the girls in his classes “drive away pain and suffering.”

“I am just proud of them. They became what they and I wanted them to be: physically and psychologically strong. “

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