Adapted from a story by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A boxing project implemented by an NGO Innovation Award winner is empowering displaced Yazidi women and girls in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The “Boxing Sister” program helps displaced women and girls to “kick their grief and pain away”.

When Nathifa Wadie Qasim was a young girl in Sinjar, in Iraq’s Nineveh Governate, her school had a punching bag that was used by male students for boxing practice. Nathifa punched it almost every day. 

“I remember I was the only female among my friends who had the courage to get close to that bag and land some hard punches at it,” she recalled. “It helped me to take my stress out.”

At home, Nathifa was the primary caregiver for her sick mother and younger siblings while her father was out working the family’s fields. Her mother died just days before ISIS militants attacked Sinjar in August 2014. The militants targeted Sinjar’s majority Yazidi population, subjecting them to a reign of terror that the UN has called a genocide. Thousands of Yazidi men were executed while women and girls were abducted and often sold into sexual slavery. 

Nathifa’s family was able to escape, ending up in Rwanga, a camp for 12,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP), mostly Yazidis, in Kurdistan. Eight years later, her family is still there, only to have been abandoned by their father, leaving 28 year old Nathifa as the sole provider for her family. 

That’s when Nathifa began working for Lotus Flower, an organization that supports women and girls in Iraq. So many of the women and girls in the camps were survivors of unspeakable violence, many survivors of kidnapping and sex trafficking. Lotus Flower was looking for a solution that would help bring these young women hope and growth. Nathifa’s first thought was the punching bag she had worked at so many years ago.

“The majority of the women and girls in the camp were ISIS survivors,” Nathifa said, “who had trauma as a result of what they had been through in captivity,” she says. “I thought, if those women and girls were physically strong, they might have had a better chance of escaping from ISIS or defending themselves.”

The head of Lotus Flower, and fellow survivor, Taban Shoresh, was looking for an outlet to give girls and women facing similar situations, so that they could express themselves, get physically fit, and work toward healing their traumas. Together, Taban and Nathifa worked together to implement a program that would allow IDP women and girls the chance to start kickboxing. 

“I met a lot of Yazidi women and girls who were impacted by ISIS,” said Taban. “I could see the anger and the emotions trapped inside them. I thought, what will help rebuild their confidence and bring back that power that was taken away. What sport is there? And it was boxing that just came out.”

In 2018, Taban brought Cathy Brown, a former professional boxer and cognitive behavioral therapist, to Rwanga to train Nathifa and other young women how to box and become trainers themselves. 

The “Boxing Sisters” program was born and since then, Nathifa has trained over a hundred girls and women in the sport and self-defense art of boxing. 

Early resistance from the community to the idea of girls learning to box fell away once the benefits became clear.

 “They used to say that boxing was not for girls, but they witnessed that the participants got stronger and there is nothing wrong with it,” says Nathifa. 

The Boxing Sisters program is just one of many projects run by Lotus Flower aimed at empowering Iraqi women and girls affected by conflict to rebuild their lives. They include adult literacy classes, support for women-led small businesses, art therapy and training for women to become mediators and peace defenders. 

Back at Rwanga camp, Nathifa says boxing has helped the girls in her classes “kick their grief and pain away.”

“Now, I feel proud of them. They have become what they and I wanted them to become – strong both physically and psychologically.”

Life for IDPs in Iraq is extremely difficult. We support all efforts, in both our organization, and others like it, to start programs that will help facilitate hope, help and healing in the lives of IDPs and Iraqi refugees living abroad. 

The plight of IDPs and Iraqi refugees is a burden we feel strongly at American FRRME. Our organization is one of a handful that are specifically helping Christian and Yazidi refugees and IDPs in places like Iraq, and helping the Assyrian and Kurdish diaspora living as refugees in other countries, like Jordan. We want the world to know about the plight of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Shabak, and to mobilize Americans and partners around the world to make an impact in the lives of those touched by over a century of sectarian violence. 

As the Middle East becomes increasingly more hostile to ethnic and religious minorities, American FRRME stands committed to programs that provide hope, help and healing to those escaping sectarian violence. Our programs in Iraq are intended to help those who have lost everything to extremism with the hope to return to their homes and rebuild their lives. Our programs at the Olive Tree Center in Jordan offer vital assistance, as well as therapy programs and education to refugees and their children. 

American FRRME is committed to long term self-sustaining programs and opportunities to help empower refugees and IDPs. Donations to American FRRME go to programs that will aid in the survival of families facing persecution across the Middle East.