December 17, 2014
Life is a continuous learning process with abundant opportunities for those who seek them. But it needs the will and the desire to work for it. It requires one to utilize the benefits from the opportunities that come, in order to develop and accomplish the objectives that one dreams of. To guarantee a better future we need to work for it. In order to do so we – each of us women – have to have the will and the courage to go down that path.
I can’t imagine that I am here in New York City and writing this story. I come from a tribal society in a small remote village in the countryside of Kurdistan, at the triangle area between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. In an area where families rarely allowed “their” girls and women to go to school, where women had no choice but to assume only the family and household responsibilities. In localities like mine, women were consistently deprived of the opportunities and ambitions that all human beings live for and are entitled to. Instead of getting an education, discovering the knowledge that’s in the world, we women were forced into arranged marriages to raise families – this is the tradition and the norm.
Because education was the last and the least favored priority for girls during my childhood, I knew this was the path I wanted to take. Nothing was easy for women back then. We could not implement any of our own dreams without risking the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the societies we were born into. It was out of this darkness of tradition that I so desperately looked for the light at the end of the tunnel; I realized soon that education was my key out. It was the only tool and vehicle to secure a bright future.
From a young age, I have felt the way education enriches my life. It continues to change me in ways that make me feel powerful. Gaining knowledge is a never-ending process, which has made me grow in many ways. From my years in standard elementary school, my hunger for knowledge grew.
The fear of societal obstacles was my companion on my journey of trying to pursue my dreams and happiness. I was greatly intimidated by the influences from family members (both male and female) and by the rest of the neighborhood and the village. It was so difficult to be my own planer and decision-maker when no woman around me had ever made the same choices. It was frightening and bold to swim up the river, against the opinions and traditions of people whom I loved. The nature of our society and our lifestyle was and still is an interactive one.
The real challenge and obstacle that stood in the way of my education started with secondary school up to the university stage. I was told at each educational level that this would be my last. There was a huge attempt to bring the girls out of school and have them ready for marriage at a very young age. This happened to all my friends except me. Staying in school was a very tough fight, and I quickly learned that I had to stand firm to get through such a trial. I did as Kurds say, “go with your chance”. Facing this bitter reality: I embraced the challenges that I was confronted with by my family and society on the one hand, and I dealt with the financial conditions and traditional challenges on the other hand. There were many reasons behind preventing women from continuing their education. Staying in school means being exposed to outside interferences that impact and alter your family’s plan for you. This was, and still is a normal way of thinking, and it was accepted by many well-meaning families, including my own.
I believe, after struggling through such obstacles that were put between me and my right to an education, I have cherished my hard-earned freedom and to have chosen to live what I deem to be a fulfilling life. Whatever the condition, I was compelled to be satisfied, to reach each goal in order to continue with the life plan that I had set out for myself. I have fond memories of those days, how I made it through the tough part. Sometimes I had to be very stubborn and focused and other times I had to be very soft and careful to achieve my objectives. It was my decision to pursue education, and I therefore believed I was ready to confront the challenges. The most difficult challenge for me was attending college. We were facing financial difficulties at home, social difficulties in the neighborhood, and security challenges because of the politics at the time, but I was determined to finish my education.
As a result of the financial difficulties, I survived the four years of university wearing the exact same shirt and skirt the entire time. This was my family’s attempt to prevent me from continuing on my course. It was often hard to keep a balance between the respect I had for my family’s decision and what I considered my own destiny. I have faced this dilemma my whole life. Building a bridge of trust between my family and I was the key to getting them to understand and respect my choices, and eventually I succeeded. I was and still am proud of my accomplishments for I had been able to change the attitudes of many around me. I can say, proudly, that I did open the doors for many girls to follow in the same path and see for themselves what lay behind the tall walls that my society had build.
Women can play a role to change the society for the better through education and knowledge. Education is the key to empowerment. It is the best option for women to be able to stand alone and rely on themselves. As wives, as mothers, as daughters, and as the second pillars of society, women need to be able to be happy and free in their roles. It is important for women to be able to think, plan and to decide. Therefore, when I finally did finish school I was determined to work in order to enhance my skills and be engaged in collaborative work. I then had the vision to work supporting vulnerable women, to protect their rights and ensure their empowerment in the place I still consider my home.
My poor financial situation after college obliged me to accept the first job I was able to get outside the field of my specialty, because, just like in America, it was hard to be employed easily after graduation. I first worked as an accountant in an NGO. Then I was employed as a teacher, and later as a translator. Each one of these positions came with a different experience. But the desire for learning was always there especially when I started to work at the department of foreign relations and started to deal with foreigners – that opened hundreds of new doors for me.
My engagement at the foreign relations department was a true responsibility. It was the responsibility to lead a team and manage an office. My liability encouraged me to begin building my career within this department and take advantage by learning lessons from senior leaders. At the same time the vision of encouraging other women and supporting their rights to take proper positions in various fields was still a pressing concern.
The real opportunity to think seriously about my old standing vision to support women’s rights and the desire to learn more to materialize started when I received the offer to broaden my horizons at the McCain Institute in the United States. The first intensive weeks in DC illustrated the definition of real leadership through their rich programs and experiences.
The definitions of value and ethics were touched by all subjects and in all debates we went through. The confidence that made each of us act and interact with each other, to debate and discuss face to face in a friendly, encouraging and enthusiastic atmosphere, was new and empowering to me. The skills of the two experts made me eager to listen to their interesting experiences from history, as they pointed to the latest diplomatic negotiation. That was the starting path of understanding leadership value in personal aspect and its character.
The stories of successful leaders in various positions and their encouragement to us to build confidence at the beginning was also very significant. Their encouragement helped us learn how to transfer knowledge into practice. The exchange of experience with other candidates helped us to learn how to deal with all difficulties we are facing nowadays. That experience helped us to understand how to stand with justice and equality and how to contribute to a better future. That course opened our eyes in showing us how to be creative and innovative in such a way to adapt to the changes and be a trustworthy and a successful leader.
The visits and the meetings that we attended were the source of real evidence to learn how leadership could play an effective role in the community and in history. Of course we all know that leadership is partly human and partly experience, but in a great country like America there are lots of opportunities where one could have different experiences. The McCain Institute brings together candidates from all parts and all paths of life to discuss and exchange their stories and their plans for the future is a great initiative a great priceless experience. The visit to the Capitol Hill and the meeting with a great leader like senator McCain was inspirational.
The path of building leadership ability continued widely with the Concordia Summit in New York. The moment the inspiring opening ceremony speech described the meaning of leadership, helped in imagining a new and better world. This was a great opportunity and it opened the door for us to meet many successful leaders with their perspectives and leadership practices. It was truly a great moment for me to discuss Kurdish women issues with the Former President of the Republic of Latvia, Miss Vaira Vike-Freiberga – this was an unexpected moment, but one that I am very thankful for.
It was there where we started to build communication network with private and public figures who matter to our future leadership Action Plan – LAP.
The super technology of the conference used by the organizers gave us the image of successful leadership. It was also a valuable chance for me to be placed in New York City and to work at the Seleni Institute. I believe that both of these opportunities give me the chance of pursuing my goal to help the women back home, and I am confident that I will be able to achieve that goal in the future.
New York City is the place to be for all the right reasons. To get the chance to interact with diverse people from different parts of the world. To be able to interact with different government and non-government institutions that help you meet your expectations. While Seleni Institute is the only institute of its kind for American women, well, what about Kurdish women from the Middle East? The first question I asked the Director was, what do you want to get out of this organization? She replied with “our support and help to American women!” I asked this question because I saw everybody here is very loyal and committed to their work. The employees are there because they truly believe in the mission of the organization and have made it their personal responsibilities to make women happy.
The Seleni nonprofit organization, where I work, provides unique mental health care to women in need. The employees are there because they truly believe in the mission of the organization and have made it their personal responsibilities to care for the vulnerable women. Seleni is special in its strategy and system because the employees, all women, work as one team, under one roof, under the leadership of a profound leader. Before I stated at Seleni, I didn’t know what to expect. How different are my experiences as a woman in Kurdistan from the real struggles of American women? But here I can seize the chance to benefit from other women’s experiences. To put their insight into my leadership action plan. Because this kind of all-female support is one of the most important elements to making women happy and sending a message that we all stand united in the struggles that our gender faces in developed and developing countries.
For women to choose their own fate as equal members of society, we need organizations to support this change, because in my country, Kurdistan, we have just started the first steps. I still hold on to my biggest hope: to keep developing my skills in order to achieve my goals of educating Kurdish men and women on women’s issues with the rest of the Next Generation Program of the McCain Institute.