Local nonprofit helps refugee women thrive in Utah

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Samira Harnish (center) with Women of the World certificate recipients, photo courtesy of Women of the World

UTAH (ABC4) – When Samira Harnish moved to Utah from her native Iraq to study engineering at Utah State University, she felt isolated and discriminated against. Harnish arrived in Utah in 1979, shortly after the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis, when 52 United States diplomats and citizens were taken captive by a group of militarized Iranian students. The events inspired an intense backlash against Iranians in the United States, causing Harnish to feel frightened in her new home.  

“The other students pushed me away and told me: ‘Iranian, go home,’” she remembers. “It was devastating for me.”

During those early days in America, Harnish desperately sought someone to trust and talk to about her situation, but she couldn’t find the help she was seeking. That’s why – 30 years later – she founded Women of the World, a nonprofit focused on providing resources to refugee women.

And in doing so, she became the support she always wished she had.

“Before, I felt very scared of the U.S. because I didn’t know anyone except my husband and my kids,” says Saja Abbas, an Iraq native who moved to Utah from Turkey. “I didn’t have anyone else from my family here. Whenever I see Samira, it’s like my mom is here.”

During her first five years in Utah, Abbas didn’t know English, so she felt uncomfortable leaving her home and had to ask her husband for help with many things. Since getting involved with Women of the World, she’s not only become fluent in English and passed her official U.S. citizenship test, but she has also earned certificates in medical interpretation and phlebotomy, with the ultimate goal of becoming a nurse.

“I am very proud of myself because I did all these things,” Abbas says. “That’s because Women of the World helped me.”

And although Women of the World has been a resource for countless other women like Abbas, the organization started small, with only a dream and Harnish’s iron will.

After finishing her studies at USU, Harnish moved to Boise, Idaho to work as an engineer for Micron Technology. She returned to Utah after her husband’s job transferred him to Lehi. Having resigned from her position, she began volunteering as a medical interpreter in local hospitals, in addition to working with local resettlement agencies. Through this work, she became even more aware that there was a large area of need within Utah’s community of refugee women.

“Women that come to our country have needs that are underfunded because the resettlement agency says: ‘Let’s be sure your husband gets a job and your kids are in school, and when we have time, we’ll come to you,’” she says.

After taking courses in nonprofit management from local schools, Harnish got to work doing all she could to fill this area of need. She founded Women of the World in 2009.

“For the first 7 years, my Honda Pilot was my office, going around Utah and helping women from all over the world,” she remembers.

But devoting herself to this type of advocacy work didn’t become a goal just upon Harnish’s return to Utah. In fact, she is actually realizing a childhood dream.

“When I was 10 years old, living in Iraq, I would always think that someday I am going to help women in the Middle East,” she says. “We see our brothers always getting great opportunities, but not us as women. We do study like them, but we don’t get jobs like the men do.”

But with 34 women employed through help from Women of the World in 2020, Harnish is doing her part to change this inequity. And her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, Women of the World received the Salt Lake City Human Rights Award. And in 2018, Harnish was recognized internationally when she was named a regional finalist from the America’s for the prestigious Nansen Award, given by the United Nations for outstanding service to refugees.

This year, Women of the World will celebrate its 12th year, in addition to honoring over 20 refugee women who have made strides in the local community in an annual celebration taking place on December 4.

“This event is a life changing moment,” Harnish says of the event. “These women are really working hard to thrive in our state.”

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