For an hour every day, a dim room made from two shipping containers is transformed by a sack of boxing gear and twelve young Yazidi women.
The ‘‘Boxing Sisters’’ gather here for a well-being program sponsored by Lotus Flower, a non-profit that supports women and girls impacted by conflict and displacement. Developed with retired British professional boxer and therapist Cathy Brown, the program offers boxing classes as stress relief and anger management, as well as a practice that builds confidence and physical strength, mental focus, and community.
Among the 15,000 internal refugees living in Rwanga, a camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, this opportunity to improve physical and mental health is more than welcome. Here, every single woman and girl is haunted by traumatic memories from ISIS occupation and warfare, including displacement, rape, and the disappearance and loss of loved ones. The classes (which are raising funds here) offer new ways to feel a measure of control and to expand personal agency in a chaotic world.
Seventeen-year-old Husna al-Ibrahim (above) has been at Rwanga refugee camp since 2014. She’s discovered she has a talent for boxing, and has been recruited to become a certified trainer herself so she can teach other women and girls.
Last September, Canadian boxing coach Rosana Burgos visited the camp to give a two-day workshop. Explains Vian Ahmed, the regional manager for Lotus Flower, ‘‘the girls felt closely related to Rosana as she shared her own experience of being abused and bullied by men.”
Enthusiasm for the pilot program has encouraged dozens of new students to sign up. The class’s next visitor will be Cathy Brown, the retired professional British boxer and certified cognitive behavioral therapist. She will train select participants, including Husna, who will then pass the skills to other women of the community. “This is a great opportunity to do something I enjoy and help the others at the same time—to feel powerful and make other girls feel the same way,’’ says Husna.
Rwanga is one of the twenty-five camps around Dohuk, a northern governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, which sits at a strategic crossroads between Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, has long been a target of violence from various military forces, most recently from ISIS. Though Sinjar is now removed from ISIS control, only a few families have decided to move back.
Husna describes her family as ‘‘my greatest source of strength and my only weak point.’’ Her sister, grandmother, aunt, uncle, and a few other relatives took shelter in Rwanga camp in August 2014 after fleeing ISIS brutality in Sinjar. Since then, says Husna’s aunt, it’s been like ‘‘a relentless limbo.”
Like most Rwanga residents, Husna’s relatives are split over their future plans.
Her grandmother doesn’t want to live anywhere but her ancestral village. The others feel differently. ‘‘Houses are ruined, farms have been burned down, and our herds and livestock have been stolen,’’ says Husna’s 30-year-old uncle. ‘‘Plus, we do not feel safe anymore.’’
Husna is fed up with this conversation. Things for her are way simpler: ‘‘I love life and I don’t hate anyone. I can trust and be friends with all who want to help the others, regardless of their faith, race, or gender.’’ For her, the future matters more than past. ‘‘I want to go out, see the world and learn as much as I can. Then I will come back to help my loved ones.”
Even before the ISIS invasion, Husna experienced profound loss. ‘‘My father was in the army, and he died a few months before I was born. My mom followed him before I remember anything,” she says. “That’s why nothing can discourage me.’’
In Husna’s opinion, the biggest problem of camp life is the limited school time. ‘‘I used to have good marks and I’m still the best in our mathematics class. But our grades all have dropped because we don’t get proper education.’’
Still, regional Lotus Flower manager Vian notes positive trends in the camp. “Reporting domestic violence is more common while it used to be a big taboo,” she explains. “Families that wouldn’t send their children (especially daughters) to school, now find it impossible to do so.’’
The Boxing Sisters are under no illusion that they could take on armed militants like those in ISIS, says Vian. Instead the point is, “to learn how to team up to support each other. It’s an achievement incomparable to those of the world-class athletes.’’