Women Who Inspire: Samira Harnish – Founder of Women of the World refugee organisation
A series of interviews with women who inspire talking to Dorothy Dalton
Nominated by Elena Balasa, originally born in Baghdad, Iraq, Samira Harnish came to America as a bride in an arranged marriage with her husband on his student visa. She had her first child, “the love of her life”, in that first year. Today she is the proud mother of five and grandmother of two wonderful girls, happily remarried to “an amazing man” and fellow engineer.
After 17 years in the semiconductor R&D environment, she resigned and began her dream job of helping refugee women to settle, get educated, and integrate into the community. She started her own non-profit organisation Women of the World and while the administration and fundraising for this effort is difficult, she loves everyday for the opportunity to help someone navigate the American social, immigration, education, employment, or health networks and get them started in their new, better lives.
3Plus heard her fascinating story!
How did you choose your career path?
I chose to be an engineer because I like math and theories. Working with semiconductors was challenging for me as women working with many males. Being an engineer helped to take care of my 5 wonderful children.
Resigning from my job as an engineer, starting my non-profit organization — Women Of the World — that helps refugee women was my dream when I was 10 years old. I want to empower women in their new country, to support women from all over the world to achieve self-reliance.
What are your greatest challenges?
Everything about organizational development is difficult as a start-up refugee service non-profit. Our programs serve a segment of the population that is under-recognized for courage exactly because of the dignified way in which they are strong and shut-in their suffering. Even their poverty in America is nothing compared to the war and oppression they escaped. So many suffer in silence and do not take steps to improve their situation until it is too late.
Another major challenge for me is navigating our social safety net. Our benefit system is available to refugee women and their families, but it is a bureaucratic nightmare of individuals without the motivation or ability to help, of expensive fees that seem punitive, and disconnected services.
Tell us about one special success story
As human right advocate I have many successful stories, one of them:
5 years ago I met one of the refugee ladies that had been abused in horrible ways you can’t imagine. She lived through war and rape. She saw her brother being kidnapped and saw his body thrown in front of her door all cut to pieces. When she had the great opportunity to come here with her children, I was taking her to the hospital since she suffered from thyroid cancer, carpal tunnel, and many other health issues. After interpreting and advocating for her for months, she asked my why I was doing this all free, even though I am not a part of her family. I told her I have been a volunteer for more than 25 years, I like to help people in need as much as I can because when I came to America I cried for help and I didn’t get it. She told that she wished she had money to pay me at least for my gas. I told her one day you will pay me by being strong and empowered and helping yourself and your children. She told me with tears in her eyes, I want to be one day just like you. She did just that! She learned how to drive and learned English for her doctor’s appointments. She got tools from Women Of the World to help herself, her family, and the new refugee women.
What are the challenges facing Women of the World today?
Refugee women face long-term poverty in America. Within one-year of arriving, their entire family is expected to find gainful employment. They have few workplace skills and no ‘nest egg’ to draw on.
The countries where refugee ladies come from have little history of integrating women into society and husbands and the male patriarchy are rarely accepting of women networking in professional or academic mixed-gender forums. Women are cut-off from other women and feel abandoned.
“ABUSED HUMAN RIGHTS”
Refugee women often do not have a strong concept of the human rights they deserve and are swindled or deceived if no one is looking. WoW advocates on their behalf in reforming immigration, reporting housing abuse, and ensuring equal employment opportunities.
Has any one person influenced you and how?
My first mentor was my older sister, who after a valiant fight with cancer, passed away leaving me with the sense of the glory of every day of life. She struggled for every minute with her growing toddlers and she fought with all her strength to live and see her beautiful daughters to grow. She passed on her strength to fight to reach to my goals.
Another mentor in my life is my husband who encouraged me to resign from my semiconductor-engineering job to chase after my dream of providing service and education to refugee women.
If you could give one piece of advice to any woman about their professional choices what would it be?
Follow your heart and your mind, step forward and don’t look back, get out from underneath the circle of doubt (why me, why me), and reach to your dreams even if you have to sacrifice your luxuries.
Which profession would you have hated to have gone into?
Working as case manager at a government institution, there are a lot of rules and laws for our new refugees that I don’t like.
Which song would you choose as your anthem?
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