Founder & Executive Director
Women of the World
Gina Damasco, Human Rights Committee Chair
Courteney Leinonen, Women's Rights Team Lead, Human Rights Committee
UNA – USA Northern NJ
On 15 October 2020, the consortium of UNA-UNA New Jersey community chapters held a collective UN Day virtual conference focusing on the challenges to advancing human rights during times of pestilence, such as the current COVID19 pandemic the world now faces. To underscore the importance of this issue, we not only had two panels filled with exceptional speakers and moderators to address the topic, we also included introductory and closing speakers that further enhanced this powerful line up. However, what made this conference unique is that, in addition to serving as a vehicle by which we can raise awareness of human rights issues for others, it has also been purposely structured to serve as a mechanism to advance these goals in its own right.
The thoughtful and purposeful decisions behind the selection of our highly qualified participants were designed to ensure inclusivity and diversity at every stage. To that end, we had also included a virtual networking session break in which groups led by extraordinary young women leaders of color who made invaluable contributions to the planning of this conference. Too often, women of color find that they have a hard time getting a “seat at the table,” and so in this conference, it is their table to which we had invited a remarkable group of participants to join.
In this conference, we found that we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the participation of exceptional women leaders - so much so, that in light of the limitations and “Zoom fatigue” posed by COVID19, the inspiring stories of some could not be shared within the context of our formal speaker program. One particular such woman leader, Samira Harnish, graciously joined our networking session to share her incredible experiences and the vital work she has been doing to help forcibly displaced asylee and refugee women of color find safety, community, and resources through the organization she founded, Women of the World (WoW) and leads as Executive Director.
Serving in several positions at the 68th Annual United Nations Civil Society Conference on Building Inclusive and Sustainable Cities and Communities, both as an invited and esteemed speaker and subcommittee Co-Chair, her participation in our community chapter consortium-led conference was a great and humbling honor. On 1 October 2018, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized Samira for her outstanding service to the cause of refugees, displaced, or stateless people with the prestigious UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. Under her leadership, WoW has supported women refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants that have fled their homes and resettled in Utah. Occasionally, Samira will share bits about her own remarkable story of resilience, such as the self possession, courage, strength and savvy to negotiate the application of her dowry to her college education in a forced marriage at the mere age of 16. As a young girl in Iraq, she had noticed the inequality between her and her brothers when it came to one of the most important decisions of her life - the person whom she would marry. She had been made acutely aware of societally sanctioned gender-based inequity, even at this young age, as it paved the path of her destiny for her that led far away from her family and to a future entirely foreign to her. During the times of great regional instability, when American hostages were being held in her neighboring country of Iran, she was merely a young girl forced to follow a man she just met to Logan, Utah. In a foreign country, surrounded by a language she didn’t speak, Samira faced the hostility of those who hated her because they mistook her as Iranian. Met with threats and demands in a language she didn’t understand to “go back to her country,” nevertheless, she persevered. She learned English watching Sesame Street and other children’s programs in lieu of the expensive language classes to which she had no access, as a young mother to young children of her own.
When she was 19, having no childcare, she would carry her daughter on her back while attending classes to become an engineer - a choice she made in order to work around the language barrier that might otherwise have been an insurmountable obstacle in other fields of study. The only time that she could complete her studies was while her daughter slept, assuming the responsibilities of work and home at the expense of her own health and wellbeing. During field surveys as part of her training to become a civil engineer, she would literally carry her young daughter on her back - because International students were charged nearly double the tuition costs, she could not afford a babysitter. Nevertheless, she persisted and was hired by the largest manufacturer of semiconductor memory in the US, in an industry rife with gender bias, where her skill led to a position as Senior R&D engineer.
Despite her own challenges, Samira had felt a lot of guilt for being separated from her family in Iraq during 40 years of war and crisis. So, when war-torn Iraqi refugees came to Utah in 2008, she felt compelled to help them, and help women from other countries as well. From her experiences as a woman, an immigrant, and an engineering professional, she wanted to carry their burdens on her own back as well. Understanding the needs of forcibly displaced women from all over the world led her to found her nonprofit WoW after 17 ½ years in engineering. A humble leader and unstoppable advocate, this is the topic to which she will invariably shift any conversation in order to keep the focus on the forcibly displaced women she serves, and how to still further expand those efforts.
The work of UNA-USA in supporting human rights participation at the UN, the UN Human Rights Council, and the acknowledgement of the basic rights afforded to all human beings as memorialized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in particular, is critical to the incredible work that Samira has been doing. Because of the President’s Muslim ban, many of the forcibly displaced women she serves were affected because they had family oversees that were supposed join them here in America, especially from Syria where so many citizens live with unfathomable trauma and devestation. Samira traveled to the US Capitol, where she marched in the streets and spoke on behalf of these refugees and asylees, taking the fears and burdens from these women onto her own shoulders, as though they were her own.
Yet, her organization not only advocates on the larger, conceptual level - they are doing the hard work with the populations in greatest need right at the community level. For example, Samira and WoW has advocated for women who don’t qualify for Medicaid, just recently securing $73,000 in financial assistance for a young mother to pay her hospital bill. The women she serves work predominantly in the industries most deeply affected by COVID19: manufacturing, hospitality, and retail. Samira, through her work with WoW, has helped them find financial assistance to cover their bills. One woman she serves is the primary caretaker of her disabled son, who lost his SSI & his Medicaid because he cannot raise his hand to take the oath to become an American citizen. WoW is providing legal support to help his mother obtain guardianship over her son so that she can take the citizenship test and hold her own hand up to take the oath for him. Despite the unwelcoming human rights climate toward refugees and asylees in which our nation finds itself, WoW is working tirelessly to help them find the security and solace in the American dream for which they strive, as their advocates, through the American citizenship process.
Unlike many other organizations, WoW increased its hours due to COVID19, expanding their operations specifically to help women apply for jobs, secure their benefits, and serve as their staunch advocates in these terrifying and uncertain times. Samira is quick to point out that refugee women face a double disadvantage - they face barriers to economic inclusion as women, and also as refugees. In 2019 alone, WoW facilitated a growth in income for the women they serve that exceeded $619,000, mostly from the job and career development programs they administered. Yet, as the reality of our pandemic-affected economy truly sets in, WoW has further adapted to find meaningful pathways of opportunity and resilience for her clients. In addition, Samira is helping her clients find ways to financially reduce expenses, saving her clients roughly $78,000 through the network of partnerships she has carefully built for her clients through WoW.
However, it is not just that Samira has served as a high level civil society advocate at the UN for forcibly displaced women around the world, or that she has created a constellation of services and supports for them through WoW, that was the most impressive thing about her. In the midst of the pandemic, Samira has been working hard to forge partnerships to create new, virtual opportunities for the women she serves, to build resiliency and financial independence. Samira recognizes the dignity, intrinsic value, and unique skill sets each of these women bring when they come to the US, and has been working to create an innovative way for them to market those talents. Her current efforts to build a virtual marketplace and outfit the women with the tech they need to become full participants and entrepreneurs thereupon have been slowed, but not deterred, by COVID. These women may not have been given a seat at the table, but Samira is working to build them a digital table of their own. All she asks of them in return is that they pay it forward, indeed, barely taking a moment to permit us to acknowledge and celebrate her own extraordinary leadership and accomplishments. It was truly an honor and a privilege to have her join our networking event, so that others can be inspired by this humble and indomitable hero.