Illustration by Gayathri Satheesh

Refugee Issues are Women’s Issues

The first installment of a women’s empowerment lectures series organized by People to People International and Women’s Leadership Network.

“Evil was here,” Naida Kardas said after recounting the tragic events she witnessed and experienced as a young girl during the Bosnian conflict. In her lecture, Sarajevo to Phoenix: My Untold Story, Kardas, now an education and innovation professional, social entrepreneur and humanitarian, discussed the struggles she overcame as a former refugee, as well as what her life looked like afterwards.
The lecture, held on April 16, was a collaborative project between People to People International and Women’s Leadership Network. The event was the outcome of roughly six weeks of planning and was the first installment of a women’s empowerment lectures series.
Kardas opened the lecture by showing an image of the Sarajevo she used to know, now a distant memory. The beauty that was captured in the photo was immediately tarnished by the following photos: horrifying images of dead bodies, blood-soaked streets, destroyed buildings – photos of war. Despite the emotional weight that came with the task, Kardas proceeded to talk about her personal stories of experiencing the atrocities of war. One anecdote that stood out to me was when Kardas witnessed a boy who could not stop crying being shot right in front of her. The boy died with tears in his eyes and fear in his heart. Evil was truly among them. Kardas was so overwhelmed by this memory that she had to stop talking for a moment.
As a member of the audience, sitting in a lecture hall in A3 002, it was difficult for me not to shed tears for the innocent lives lost because of an ethnically rooted war. After fleeing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kardas admitted that life continued to be just as difficult. Her family had no proper food and the aid that was promised to them never came. One can only imagine the amount of strength she had to muster as she walked the audience down this painful path. However, human endurance is extraordinary. Kardas chose to move forward in life and has been able to become the person she is today. With the expertise she acquired from pursuing her education, she gives lectures and conferences on the refugee crisis and advocates for refugee rights and women empowerment.
A panel discussion followed the lecture. This was set up to start a conversation on the current refugee crisis, specifically on the plight of female refugees. The panel was comprised of Charif Hamidi, a corporate finance, economics and strategy professional; Emina Osmandžiković, a class of 2017 Political Science major from Bosnia and Herzegovina; Tiril Høye Rahn, a class of 2020 Political Science major focusing on Peace Studies and Raven Quesenberry, a class of 2019 NYUNY student majoring in Foreign Policy and Human Rights. Each panelist brought their own perspective on the crisis to the discussion, informed by their active involvement in movements and extensive research on the condition of refugees and refugee rights.
Rahn, for instance, pointed out that menstrual hygiene is a critical issue that no one is talking about. Not having access to underwear and sanitary pads does not only pose threats to women refugees’ health but also to their overall state of well-being.
Quesenberry emphasized that thought. “It is important that we realize … that refugee issues are women’s issues,” she said.
She highlighted that women are oftentimes forced to leave their home countries because of sexual violence but sadly, even in refugee camps or immigration centers, women refugees continue to face gender-based violence.
Ugyen Tsezomla Lama, class of 2018 and head student organizer, explained that her team wanted to hold the event to advance their continued focus on women empowerment. “We decided [that] the best way to tackle this and reach a huge audience was through a lecture and panel series,” said Lama, adding, “The [panel discussion was] important because there are many women-specific issues that women refugees go through [that] we need to tackle.”
For someone whose knowledge of the refugee crisis was limited to online news portals and university-sponsored discussions, hearing Kardas and the panelists’ firsthand experiences truly provided an opportunity for deeper understanding of the crisis. It is also enlightening to know that humanitarian initiatives like No Lost Generation, of which Rahn and Quesenberry are part of, exist to give students a platform to advocate for the issues that matter most to them. To paraphrase what Kardas said, there is hope in reaching others through compassion. This lecture and panel discussion may seem small in the greater scheme of things, but the awareness it generated among its audience is powerful enough to empower a movement.
Evangeline Louise Gerodias is a contributing writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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