Hi Savraj, thank you for speaking with us. We are in awe of all the work that you have been doing…
Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself
I was born and brought up in London. Early on, I was always incredibly empathetic when it came to differences and inequalities. And after losing my mother as a child, I was brought up by a single father. It's something that is rarely celebrated and made me more aware of the hidden struggles that need to be heard about more. My education affirmed I could work with this, and I went on to work for causes that I hoped would better the lives of others.
What led you to your work with the Yazidi girls in Iraq.
I got involved as the opportunity came up and it resonated for three reasons
My background in international development means I recognise challenges faced after disasters, especially important gaps that are often overlooked by large NGOs
As a British Sikh, I was delighted to join Khalsa Aid on this mission with the Yazidi community as it truly reflects core teachings of promoting freedom from slavery and oppression, and equality for all
When a Yazidi girl or a woman escapes ISIS she has nothing and finds that official camps are full. It means she has to squat or live in a makeshift tented community. I was honoured not just to be helping locals who suffered in Northern Iraq, but to be focusing on those on the margins of the margins
What have been the most challenging aspects of working with these girls, and in Iraq?
The feelings that came with so many interactions... like details of captivity I'd never imagine hearing with my own ears, hearing that many refuse to sing or listen to music again until lost men, boys and other girls and women have not yet returned, and that some are simply waiting their turn to die.
What have been the most rewarding?
Seeing women and girls transform in a single shopping trip. Often, onw would enter the shop, head down, unsure, slow, feeling across rails... then when realising yes, it's true that I can choose whatever I want, check sizes, be smiling, head up, and heading to the cash register with armfuls of clothing.
Some even made new friends whilst shopping. Or met old friends: two girls who came from different refugee camps saw each other and emotionally embraced. It turned out they thought they'd lost each other forever after getting separated in ISIS captivity. But of course they were not only alive and well, but had both made it back! These stories of joy are so rewarding.
How important is the role of women in making changes in the world, and tackling global issues?
Everyone's heard of 'diversity' and the value it brings companies, steering them away from tired, homogeneous approaches and helping them fuel success. The same works with bringing more women of more backgrounds into the nonprofit world. We win battles daily, and some of us begin before we even leave the womb (!), so can use this power, and the momentum already built for us, to continue to fight systematic challenges. Not because of a man's permission, but because of our determination.
Why are establishing women’s rights so essential in tackling global issues, and what needs to be done to achieve them?
Women gaining true freedom - to learn, to choose, to dream, to contribute - won't diminish the rights of others. In fact, their inclusion would contribute to a healthier society and is critical in meeting targets to reduce poverty, and promoting health and education (as women, and especially minority women, are disproportionately affected). Institutionally, it's important that women are represented and part of decision making processes on every level. Efforts should similarly be made to include disabled women, ethnic minority women, migrant women, and lesbian, bisexual women and transgender women. Meanwhile, the rest of us can help contribute to changing mindsets.
The Yazidi girls that you worked with have just been released from ISIS. Do you have any of their stories that you can share? How did these women cope during their time with ISIS, and how did their stories affect you?
Below are stories of Hannah and Layla. At 15, Hannah still a girl, so I was overcome by the sadness and violence she endured at such a young age. Her current mood also inspired me, always smiling and clearly enjoying a chance to be a real teenager again. Layla's was also a dark story with detail about her being bought at a slave market, her missing young children and her attempted suicide. Again, it's difficult to sum up my feelings. It was actually unfathomable how these stories are still surfacing in 2018, that it happened at all, and that there would be no support for them if we weren't with them. I knew I wanted to continue to have their plight hear about, and to support them further.
What are your views and thoughts on the Oxfam sex scandal? What do you think needs to be done to stop sexual abuse and harassment as a whole?
No organisation that works with vulnerable communities (or any community, at that) should be complacent when it comes to safeguarding others. There is no point in giving aid at the cost of predators being given free reign.
I've always tended to work with smaller NGOs, including Khalsa Aid, who have openly strived from a leadership level to be transparent, accountable and act in accordance with the reason they were created to exist. There is too much at stake for them to act otherwise too.
I'm shocked that abusers were able to continue to power play on further work assignments. So, whilst the reality is that there will always be those who prey on others, the conversations that are surfacing about better safeguarding can only be for the better across the industry.
What advice would you give to someone looking to do something similar to what you are doing?
Persevere! Try to build skills at home, through formal study, and through work abroad so you can prove your abilities, explore areas of work, and be exposed to different people and issues. I appreciate it's not always possible for everyone to volunteer abroad out of their own pocket, so local organisations are also good options for part time volunteering, as are those like as VSO who fund the cost of a serious placement. Meanwhile, stay in the loop through reading, events and blogs (Dawn's Digest is my favourite).
I find that women don't tend to actively plan their paths in development as much, and if given the chance I'd give the younger me advice to push ahead and get a mentor earlier on in my career. They can be so valuable and give that extra boost of confidence in any aspect of life!
What’s next? Are you planning on returning to Iraq, or do you have any other missions planned?
I'm heading back to Northern Iraq with Khalsa Aid on the week of Women's Day, in March. We will be delivering essential aid and new escapees shopping (so far, there are 5 returned). We'll also be running a small campaign to collate the hardships women have overcome. The final output will be a video compilation of women around the world, like you, me, the Yazidi women, and those in other Khalsa Aid locations such as Haiti and the DRC. You'll be able to find out more on the Khalsa Aid social pages early March, and get involved too. Because in the end, we are all warriors!
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