Empowering Women in the Face of Conflict: Challenges and Responses in the Middle East

By : Karen Koning AbuZayd

My greetings to all of you gathered here today for this opportunity to recognize women who bravely face the challenges of conflict around the world, and to the vital role Senses Cultural is playing to advocate for these women.

I am very pleased to be with you to honor and pay tribute to the work of Tata Manfared and Senses Cultural on behalf of women in conflict, particularly in the Middle East, and proud to be associated with the ‘Empowering Women’ exhibition, as it highlights the challenges Middle Eastern women, from all walks of life, face, and how they respond to them.

This occasion, to speak about women, particularly refugee women, who have been close to my hands, heart and mind for the past 35 years, is most welcome. I refer to women who in many ways have borne the brunt of crises in their countries, often left to care for their homes and families on their own, women who have stood up to the challenges, becoming role models for other women around the world facing similar devastating circumstances.

My own ‘refugee’ journey began in 1981 when I left teaching political science at the University of Juba in southern Sudan to join the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sudan. Thus began the first eight of 20 years working among those assisted and protected by the refugee agency. My first experiences were with emergency assistance programs for Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in Eastern Sudan, Chadian Refugees in Western Sudan, Ugandan refugees and Sudanese returnees in Southern Sudan.

From Sudan I moved to Namibia, in 1989, to repatriate refugees as the country gained independence—a joyful event for those returning. In 1990, I traveled to Sierra Leone to ‘settle’ and assist 100,000 Liberian refugees in villages all along the eastern border between Liberia and Sierra Leone. From 1993-95, I headed the UNHCR Office in Sarajevo during the war, overseeing an airlift into the city, the delivery of supplies to locations all around the country, and the protection of those displaced from their homes by the ethnic conflict.

I later ran operations in South Africa, Kenya, Somalia and the Horn of Africa from Geneva Headquarters, and served as the Chef de Cabinet to High Commissioner Sadako Ogata. My final assignment with UNHCR, from 1998-2000, was as Regional Representative for the United States and the Caribbean, liaising with Congress, the State Department, the INS, other refugee-assisting agencies and the American public and Caribbean governments, appealing not only for funds, but also for support for refugees needing asylum, resettlement and at the very least, acknowledgement of their plight.

In 2000 I moved to Gaza first as the Deputy Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and from 2005 as UN Under Secretary General and Commissioner-General until 2010. The Agency is responsible for providing protection and basic social services, including education and health, for the five million plus Palestine Refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Since retirement from the UN, for the past four years I have been focusing on refugees and displaced persons in and from Syria as a Commissioner on the UN Human Rights Council’s mandated Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. The day before yesterday, I returned from Geneva where our commission presented its 10th report, detailing results from the last 400 of 4,500 interviews with refugees in countries neighboring Syria and with those displaced or in need inside Syria. In this, our latest report, we focused on groups of victims, the longest section under the label ‘Women.’ It is the women who have increasingly become a target and used as a ‘weapon’, particularly after the entry into the conflict of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which has committed unspeakable crimes against girls and young women, among others.

At the same time, we repeated our unheeded, or at least un-acted upon, refrains from our reports since 2011, regarding ending the violence, ending the supply of arms and bringing the parties to the conflict, and those arming and bankrolling them, to the table to negotiate, in the first instance, to agree on transitional political arrangements. We hope one day our mandate for accountability will be realized through the use of our data bank, describing war crimes and crimes against humanity on all sides of the conflict, leading to indictments at the International Criminal Court or at a regional or ad-hoc tribunal.

This has been a long introduction, intending to give you an idea of the groups of refugees whom I shall describe—glimpses that will not always be pretty ones, given the horrors of war and occupation, but ones which may provide hope and strength and courage from recognizing and appreciating these same attributes exhibited by refugees, especially refugee women.

The women have no choice but to stand tall and to act determinedly in the face of repeated, longstanding adversities, rarely wishing, or being able, to escape what is happening to their families. First and foremost among refugees, it is the women who search for the positive and meaningful, as they confront their initial, usually overwhelming, circumstances in a foreign land. They realize that they must deal with the deficiencies of their immediate surroundings, but they must also think about the future for their families, for their children. Women are the ones who are often left to take, seriously and confidently, responsibilities for the family, their children, their homes, even their neighbors. One of the most telling indications of how well they understand their predicament, is to observe their obsession with education, the first of all priorities among refugees everywhere. Education they know is the best, often the only, way to ensure a better future for their children.

There are two adjectives used by many outsiders to describe refugees from every part of the world. I find myself repeating these words whenever I speak about any of the many refugee groups in the 13 countries where I lived and worked over my 30 years with UNHCR and UNRWA. They pertain to every type and location of refugee operation—emergency influxes and outflows, repatriation, persistent and multiple displacement, active war zones and asylum-seeking.

The two words are ‘resilience’ and ‘steadfastness.’ I often wished the refugees would go beyond these honorable characteristics—to get mad, to show their anger, to make demands, to boycott, to strike. But I have come to understand that the women knew best—these ‘methods’ would have come to naught. They understood that they had to be patient, to take advantage of what was available and not yearn for what is impossible—to wait for the right time, the right moment to act, and to make that moment count.

These observations describe my understanding of the beliefs, the roles and attitudes of displaced and refugee women, sometimes displayed unconsciously, other times with awareness and tenacity. In multiple instances it is the women who are left to make decisions regarding their children, to ensure that the family’s health and well-being is provided for, even to be the ones to cross checkpoints or borders in search of food and safety. These vital tasks are performed with determination and bravery, in the interest of guaranteeing some semblance of a future for their children, and often beyond this, for their community.

Consider the Syrian woman today whose husband or sons are among the thousands who have been detained or killed during the ugly, ongoing civil war, in a country once among the favored destinations for visitors from the region and abroad. The mother—or grandmother—or sister–is the one who must brave the checkpoints to search for food or medicines for her family. Male relatives are likely to be abducted or abused when trying to pass through checkpoints, so this ‘trial’ is left to a female. She may have to negotiate a perilous route to another town or to flee the country to take her children to safety. Once there, depending upon conditions, she almost certainly will find herself fighting for provision of shelter, food and education. Worse, she may have to let her young sons go out to work instead of to school, or agree to an early marriage for a young daughter. I have met and talked with many of these mothers, listening to their grievous and heartbreaking stories, pained as they are about the decisions they have felt compelled to make. They lament these decisions and the consequences for their children, but they have no other recourse.

The appeals the humanitarian agencies have made for funds to meet even the minimal needs of the Syrian refugees and displaced persons, and the generous hosting countries, have been only 37% funded! Shamefully, not even HALF the funds requested have been pledged! Hence, the world is now witnessing, and scrambling to cope with, the results of this neglect and indifference, this lack of compassion and generosity, where until today, it is only the neighboring host countries who have demonstrated the willingness to offer asylum and services, to the best of their ability.

Every day we see in our newspapers, and watch on our television or computer screens, the chaotic, and many times fatal, last chance rush toward Europe of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants. Some are stranded, some fall ill, or are dying. Many too few are offered humanitarian assistance, even fewer granted temporary asylum and fewer still resettlement possibilities.

Results of political efforts have been equally abysmal. Over four years of meetings, conferences, Security Council Resolutions, journalists’ descriptions, UN and non-government agencies’ appeals and reports, such as those by our Commission of Inquiry, have had little impact on ending the conflict, or even stopping the violence and the consequences thereof. Instead, we have watched, angry and discouraged, as the conflict grows horrifyingly worse, involving the appearance of new and frighteningly vicious armed groups, and spreading into neighboring countries.

I have dwelt on Syria, not only because it is my current (pre)occupation, but because it is one of, if not the, worst of today’s refugee/displaced/female crises.

Moving on to other refugee situations, past and present, I hope to lift your spirits (as I do my own) with more inspiring examples of what women can do and have done when confronted with displacement.

Women I call to mind frequently, especially when feeling impatient with lack of results in one situation or another, are the Liberian females who were the majority among refugees who fled into Sierra Leone in 1990. We had ‘settled’ them, most unusually, thanks to the cooperation of local Sierra Leoneans, in 600 villages along the eastern border, as it was near impossible, given the country’s lack of infrastructure, to set up refugee camps for them (and just as well, given what occurred subsequently).

Hence, when the war in Liberia spilled over into Sierra Leone, we struggled to find a way to move the refugees closer to the capital, Freetown. Again, with little choice (no trucks, for a start), we moved thousands, mainly women and children, across the country, a distance of 200 miles–on foot. A few cars accompanied them with food and water, and transport when some simply couldn’t walk any further. However, most of them actively (Liberians are not known to be passive!) and with good-nature cooperated in the best interests of their children and the elderly among them. Such courage and generosity so often goes unnoticed and unacknowledged, despite attempts to tell the story.

In eastern Sudan, I keep a picture in my mind of Eritrean and Ethiopian women, children in their arms and at their sides, standing patiently for hours in long queues in the hot desert sun to ensure their children were vaccinated against measles when an outbreak began to ravage the refugee camps. No pushing, shoving, or complaining. Just stoicism and determination that their children would not fall ill. They accepted and made the best of living in refugee camps for many years, while their male ‘leaders’ negotiated the division of their country, and its spoils, so they could return to their homes.

Refugees returning to Namibia proceeded cheerfully to their former villages, with only a small amount of local currency, food supplies and materials to build a simple ‘tukul’ or hut. The women took charge, both of supervising the building and of doling out the food and the money, so that there were equal shares for all family members. Again, despite the meagerness of the assistance, complaints were few and the Namibians got to work, rebuilding not only a ‘new home,’ but also a new life, in their own country and their own village. These were refugees who had also waited, patiently, while the world, the United Nations and neighboring countries wrangled for years to agree on the conditions for Namibia’s independence, so that Namibians could return home.

These examples describe the state of many current refugee situations—a plurality of women and children languishing in camps while others ploddingly negotiate their future.

Under very different circumstances, while attempting not to exacerbate the conditions in crowded Somali refugee camps in Kenya, UNHCR acted against its mandated principle of insisting upon asylum in neighboring countries. We initiated an unusual approach of providing aid to border villages inside Somalia to allow Somalis to stay at home. Many were more than willing, avoiding the conflict elsewhere in the country, and relieved not to have to cross that border to the somewhat lawless territory where the refugee camps had been created in Kenya. It took some courage to make this decision, and the women were among the most supportive in what they viewed as a better solution than becoming a refugee.

From my time in Sarajevo. I have nothing but admiration for the women who stayed the course, queued up, under threat of bombing and snipers, for the rations, flown into the besieged city. Impressive, as well, were those who continued to live their lives as ‘normally’ as possible, using underground locations for concerts and lectures and places to gather for meals. Their intent was to ensure their children would grow up aware of their culture and be ready and able to rebuild their country once the war ended.

In the Caribbean, my task was mainly to encourage countries to sign up to the 1951 Refugee Convention. It was not so easy, as the refugees were few and far between, a Nigerian in one island, a Somali in another. But there was a family that stood out, from Macedonia. They had been searching for ‘the most peaceful place in the world’ where they, as a couple with different religions, could be confident their children could grow up successfully, without discrimination and prejudice. They chose Barbados, as a place they could reach more easily than New Zealand, which had been their other choice. They arrived on ‘holiday’ and claimed asylum for themselves and their two children. They succeeded, found jobs, and, as far as I know, happiness in a new home.

While my story telling could be multiplied many times, I have tried to illustrate the many situations in which refugees find themselves and the many different ways they take their lives into their own hands—positively and usually successfully. I hope I have been convincing about the crucial role of women in some of the most difficult circumstances families encounter—being forced to leave behind one’s home, one’s country, one’s belongings, and even, in some respects, one’s language and culture.

Nowhere do the refugees face as longstanding a problem and uncertain future as those of the Palestinians. They live under occupation with no prospect of achieving a state of their own. I cannot even begin to describe or represent their anger, their frustration or their anxieties about their future. Those who continue to confront the oppressive conditions, particularly in the Palestinian Territory of West Bank and Gaza are heroes in every respect, men, women and children alike. All of us have much to learn from the resilience and steadfastness of the Palestinians in the Middle East.

There are 20 million refugees and 40 million internally displaced persons in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, parts of Europe and elsewhere, many, if not most of whom are struggling, some of them dying in their attempts to change their circumstances, and others whose lives have been shattered and will not easily be rebuilt, as a result of conflicts, whose origins were NOT of their own making.

It is up to us, we who have comfortable lives, in safe places, to give thought to what we can do to help those less fortunate, to advocate for them, to press our elected officials to take heed and make the right political decisions and exert the right pressures on parties to the conflicts, and our business leaders to share some of their wealth, not only for the poor and oppressed abroad, but also for those who, so to speak, are in our own backyards.

These are some of the reasons I heartily welcome the work of Senses Cultural. I salute its efforts on empowering women affected by war in the Middle East and the outreach it achieves in universities and other institutions. It takes courage, in many communities in the United States, to take a stand on issues related to this region. We should appreciate and be grateful for the work of Tata and her organization. I encourage all of you to support the efforts of Senses Cultural and help to spread the word about its important and crucial work for Middle Eastern women.

I would be very happy now to take any questions, before we move to view the exhibition, the real purpose of our being together here this afternoon. I thank you for your attention.