Introducing Alya, Asifa, Atifa and Sharee. OMPowerment Serres Trainees, 2018.

“I wanted to go back to Iraq but thought about how we don’t have safety there. We want to continue to a safe life and we want to put our hand in the air and we want to stand up again and say ‘we begin again.’” Alya

Alya was studying to be a midwife in August 2014 when ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) forces entered Sinjar, Iraq and massacred thousands of Yazidi civilians and abducted Yadizi women. That day - the Yazidi Genocide - initiated a three and a half year journey for Alya and her family that eventually let them to Serres, northern Greece, where we met them in September 2018.

Alya, Asifa, Atifa and their mother Sharee fled their home to avoid slaughter and enslavement. They left their home, school, jobs, and friends behind and travelled across three countries, covering significant distances on foot, before finding safety and some sense of basic normalcy at Serres. They had only been at the camp for about six months when we met them as participants in the 4th official OMPowerment Leadership Training in conjunction with Lifting Hands International.

Alya came to the training as a translator, tasked with making our teachings accessible for the Kurmanji speaking group. She spoke with such fluency and ease that we assumed she had learned English in school back in Kurdistan. Half way through the training we discovered that she had only begun to learn English upon arrival in Greece, a little over one year ago.

“When I was (in Iraq) I studied to be a midwife working with pregnant women but I left. If I only stayed one more year and I would finish my university but I left. For 3 months or 4 months I didn’t study anything in Greece. Every time I thought about, I wanted to go back to Iraq but thought about how we don’t have safety there. We want to continue to a safe life and we want to put our hand in the air and we want to stand up again and say ‘we begin again.’”

As a family, the women studied English everyday while at Diavata Camp in Greece. After six months, Alya and Asifa had learned enough to work as translators, supporting volunteers and their community in Serres. Their dedication to this learning and optimism that it will help them to start a new life - hopefully in Germany - is truly inspiring. That they could learn as quickly as they did while homesick and living in an overcrowded refugee camp in Thessaloniki, enduring times of homelessness and living on the streets, separated from their brother, aunt, and friends is mind-blowing.

These extraordinary women, and the other 21 young women in the training, show signs of the trauma they have endured. Many are restless, especially in savasana. We are told that many of them have difficulty sleeping at night. But far more visible than signs of past trauma is their love for life and their excitement and optimism for the time ahead of them. I see a group of incredibly strong women with the will to return to a normal routine. Looking at them, it strikes me that these teenage girls I am chatting with could be the ones I sit opposite to on the bus in London. They are just like you and me.

Some of the women didn’t have much experience with yoga when they began the training. Sharee - a woman who has spent the past four years protecting her family from unspeakable danger - was one of the women with limited experience. On the last day of the training, she took the seat of the teacher and stood in a room full or 24 eager yoginis. With confidence in her voice, she taught the sequence she had developed. We could not understand her words as they were in Kurmanji but despite the language barrier, it was obvious that her words were clear and measured. She was focused in expression, voice, and body language.

She told us after her teaching, “One day we will teach some people and help some people. I am 37. I am from Iraq and I am mother for these 3 sisters. We are very interested and thankful for this certificate for yoga and we are very happy.” She and many of the other women in the room have hope that the practice they learned over one week in Serres will continue to be a resource for them as they seek safety and peace in their daily lives.  

As we prepare to leave the camp after the final day of training, Alya sends me a link to a blog written by her sister, Asifa. The blog tells the story of Asifa’s life as a refugee Yazidi girl searching for peace and stability in Europe. Reading it, I can’t help but burst into tears. Her story of escape and survival, of fearing for her life and suffering unbelievable circumstances in the search for safety, is a story that no one should have to tell.

Read Asifa’s story here.