“Poverty taught me to be strong”: Khonaf’s story

Khonaf Saido Abdullah is 54-year-old Yazidi mother of 7 from Sinjar, Iraq where she was living with her young children and disabled husband in a small rental property. They worked as farm labourers to get a small income, but she still did not have enough money to be able to send any of her children to school.

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Khonaf’s village and she was forced to run away with her children and husband. 

"I saw a lot of people being killed on the streets and many left their parents and children because they couldn’t look after them anymore,” she says

Khonaf and her family fled to the nearby Sinjar mountains where they struggled to find food and water. Despite having many children and a disabled husband, Khonaf refused to leave anyone behind and single-handedly carried 3 of her children to safety.

"Poverty taught me to be strong!" she says.

Khonaf and her family eventually sought shelter in Rwanga displacement camp in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq. Despite being safe, life in the camp remained very hard and Khonaf depended on support from her neighbours to survive.

While living in the camp, Khonaf’s eldest daughter got married. Just one year after marriage though she tragically took her own life as a result of the relentless violence she suffered at her husband’s hands. Withdrawn and unable to socialize with others, she even sought medical help. 

Khonaf was one of the women chosen to be part of the women business incubator project run by CARE IraqThrough this project Khonaf was able to receive counseling from a psychologist through CARE’s partners The Lotus Flowerand she was offered business advice and support to set up her own shop.

"A lot has been changed in my life and I feel better psychologically, and feel very happy to see my kids can have food and clothes they need," says Khonaf. "I always wanted to have a job to get income for my family, so I no longer seek help from other people."

She remembers the first customer to come to her shop—a child coming to buy a cake.

"It was a very happy moment and I felt very proud of myself. "

With the money she has earned, Khonaf has been able to provide for her family, help her husband get the treatment he needs and send her children to school for the first time. It has also helped increase the respect she gets from her husband, and from her wider community. 

"I feel stronger than before and realized that I can also be a life saver for my kids and there is no difference between men and women,” she says.

Khonaf Saido Abdullah, 54, living in Rwanga camp, Northern Iraq is a mother of seven children and a participant of CARE’s and Lotus Flower’s business incubator project. CARE/Lotus Flower

With the lock down and curfews enforced as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Khonaf, like many other business owners, was forced to close her shop, incurring large debts restocking products that had expired.

Khonfa’s second daughter also felt the impact of the lock downs. She was seriously beaten by her husband and was forced to run away back to her mother’s home.

"This shop is very important for me, more now than ever, because I need money to help my daughter sue her husband who beat her very badly and married a second wife," says Khonfa, adding "My daughter has no milk to feed her son, I have to save and protect my childrenI will die if I lose this daughter as I lost the first one."

Domestic violence remains a serious problem in Iraq. The Iraq Family Health Survey (IFHS) of 2006/7 found that one in five Iraqi women are subject to physical domestic violence, while a 2012 Planning Ministry study found that at least 36 percent of married women reported experiencing some form of psychological abuse from their husbands.

According to reports published by UN Women, there is a rapid increase in domestic violence in Iraq during the COVID-19 lock down. Internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees are among the communities most vulnerable to violence, especially against women, girls and children.

Khonaf dreams of re-opening her business and providing her children with everything they need to continue their education. Just as she carried on climbing in the Sinjar mountains years ago, Khonaf continues to carry the future of her children, the hope for their family, and the strength it takes to overcome all odds.

You can help women like Khonaf and their families survive this crisis and help forge a more equal, more resilient world.