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World Refugee Day: Stories from MENA Women

To mark World Refugee Day, Enheduanna collected stories and expert commentaries from women across MENA—Palestine, Syria, Sinjar, Yemen—and Afghanistan.

For more than 117 million people, the impact of forced displacement from their homes, either in their own countries or in neighboring host countries, is multi-layered, multi-dimensional, and tragically often invisible to policymakers outside this space. Beyond the occasional headlines that animate news coverage when refugee boats sink or a refugee camp tent is set on fire due to military conflict, there are lived experiences and stories that are not only rarely featured but difficult to capture.   

One of the least documented and assessed aspects of forced displacement is its gendered impact; how displacement impacts girls and women and how gender norms shift in refugee or IDP settings. Displacement affects the prevalence of gender-based violence and child marriage, and gender inequality creates poverty, deprivation of refugee households, access to health services, and thus the physical and mental well-being of these individuals and their communities.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), half of the world’s refugees and IDPs are women and girls, who disproportionately experience the grim impact of forced displacement. The World Bank’s “Gender Dimensions of Forced Displacement” report presents key findings based on the Women, Peace, and Security Index that showcase how displaced women fair worse than host women in the domains of “inclusion, justice, and security.”  

For example, in the labor market, employment for displaced men is 90% higher than displaced women. Further, the report’s analysis reveals the “compounding risks of displacement on women’s safety,” explaining why we see a surge in incidents of gender-based violence. For instance, among Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, we see an increase of intimate partner violence and child marriage. And in extreme cases, such as Sudan, we see a surge in rape, where war journalist Zeinab Mohamed Salih noted to me last week “is beyond our imagination” and severely “underreported in western media.”  

This report also highlights evidence that displaced women “face a lack of access to crucial services including sexual and reproductive health services, mental health support...and services needed after experiencing GBV.” In Gaza, as Israel’s campaign continues more than eight months after the Hamas attacks of October 7, women lack access to sanitary pads, and mothers lack sufficient healthcare services for their newborns and their much-needed postpartum care.  

On the ground journalist Ghada Abdulfattah told the Christian Science Monitor that “she heard from women giving up food so that their children could eat. From a woman who cut off her hair, and her daughter’s, because of the challenge of maintaining hygiene, often using seawater.” These are mere glimpses into the horrific experiences of forcefully displaced women in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA). 

This year as we mark World Refugee Day and in order to better understand the gendered impact of forced displacement on girls and women in MENA, we feature five articles that zoom into their harsh realities with a focus on Palestinian women in Gaza, girls and women in Afghanistan, Yazidi women in Sinjar, and refugee and IDP women in Yemen and Syria.  

On Yemen, Fatima Abo Alasrar explains how draconian Houthi “decrees” have constrained women’s movement, confining them to the private sphere, diminishing women's “personal agency but also their family's potential income, exacerbating the economic difficulties already caused by the ongoing conflict.” 

On Gaza, Yara Asi writes that “miscarriages have increased by 300%, while pregnant and nursing mothers, along with much of the rest of Gaza’s population, are suffering from hunger and even famine.” 

On Sinjar, Nadine Maenza references how many Yazidi women have lost husbands, fathers, and sons, becoming the primary caregivers. “These women face immense challenges providing for their families amid displacement, including limited or no access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. Moreover, the trauma of sexual violence and exploitation continues to haunt Yazidi women, exacerbating their already harsh circumstances.” 

On Afghanistan, Sola Mahfouz writes of her own refugee journey and what it truly feels like to be forcefully displaced. She reminds us that for those of us “who have not lived through displacement, it remains an abstraction, a distant political narrative. Politicians proclaim refugees are here to steal jobs, overlooking that most are escaping a homeland engulfed in flames and seeking safety.” 

On Syria, Nour Al Ghraowi also writes of her own journey to the United States as a refugee. She reminds us of what those who are forcibly displaced leave behind to survive: “How did I leave Syria knowing that they could be back? I won't be there to protect my brother’s body. I won’t be there to witness their barbarism. How could I be so selfish to leave?”  

These accounts are crucial to better understanding, even if once a year on World Refugee Day, how forced displacement impacts girls and women and why the international community should read and listen to these stories and experiences. 


  • When I arrived in the United States, everyone asked me: "Did you have a culture shock?" They expected tales of astonishment at paved roads and gleaming shopping malls, but these were just the objects through which I moved and insignificant in the bigger picture. My mind was elsewhere. 

    The refugee experience  

    The phenomenology (the study of lived experience) of being a refugee lingers in my mind. When I first arrived in the US, I experienced profound disorientation. The world around me abruptly transformed when night became day and day became night. The night felt deceitful—a shadow of true night—because it was day in Afghanistan. Daytime seemed equally fraudulent—a mere pretense—for it was night in Afghanistan. 

    The world transformed with unsettling rapidity. Languages, and even silence, changed. Familiar patterns of light and shadow, the textures of walls and streets, and the rhythms of daily life all shifted into something unrecognizable. In this flux, you struggle to grasp the essence of your being, trying to understand the new reality that envelops you. You live yet are disconnected from life.  

    Phenomena that once made sense now seem different, like childhood, when we first understand our life, grow familiar with places, and become aware of our existence. Sensory memories like the scent of jasmine in a courtyard, the sound of a river in spring, the warmth of the sun on your face, and a grandmother's smile connect us to our identity. 

    As a refugee, these anchors are uprooted. The scent of the new air is foreign, the sounds of the streets unfamiliar, and even the sunlight feels different. Each sensory experience is a reminder of displacement, of a life that is no longer yours. You become hyper-aware of every subtle change in the environment. This heightened awareness is not comforting but alienating, pulling you further from what you once knew. 

    Even if the new place is peaceful—perhaps the houses are more modern and the water warm when you shower—it feels like floating through life. When I think of being a refugee, this disorienting experience, where the body is in one country but the mind in another, comes to my mind. Your thoughts transcend the boundaries of space, traveling back to the alleys of your childhood. The shape and texture of being a refugee may differ for each person, but the phenomenon is the same. 

    Being a refugee means that you are wise, but your second language constrains your tongue, limiting what you can articulate. Frustration and foolishness ensue as your thoughts get lost in the struggle to find the right words. Speaking becomes a confrontation with your own dislocation. You want to express the depth of your experience, but the words escape you, slipping through the gaps in your unfamiliarity with the language. 

    Political narratives  

    For those who have not lived through displacement, it remains an abstraction, a distant political narrative. 

    Politicians proclaim refugees are here to steal jobs, overlooking that most are escaping a homeland engulfed in flames and seeking safety.  

    When we think of displacement, we must peel back the curtain that politicians use to obscure the truth. Behind it lies fear, sadness, and fragile optimism of a refugee child, mother, and father. We must ask: Why did they leave? What role did our country play in their departure? What are they feeling right now? By zooming in on their everyday reality, we see that the least we can offer is a space for them to breathe, live, and feel safe. 

    Being a refugee is not just about building a new home but about constructing an entirely new way of feeling, thinking, and experiencing. It is about connecting life that once made sense back in the alleys of childhood to the new place where you will never truly feel at home. 

  • The Palestinian story is one that contains countless manifestations of dispossession and violence beginning with the Nakba of 1948. The loss of Palestinian life and land has only accelerated since then, reaching a new apex in Gaza now. While there are an estimated seven million Palestinian refugees living in the Occupied Territories, as well as in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, in Gaza around two million people have been displaced from their homes due to the destruction by Israeli bombs, evacuation orders, or lack of services. Many do not have homes to return to. While most people remain in Gaza after moving multiple times for safety, some have left after paying thousands of dollars to Egyptian officials. Their future status is unclear. 

    While Israel has caused unprecedented destruction in the Gaza Strip—in a military campaign many experts have warned fits the criteria for genocide—it has also killed more than 500 Palestinians in the West Bank and demolished hundreds of homes, causing further displacement. The gendered impacts of these decades of violations have been well-documented, including the specific ways homelessness, violence against civilians, and collective punishment particularly affect women, who are often tasked with most caregiving responsibilities. 

    Dire conditions for basic health  

    Early on in Israel’s most recent military campaign, the United Nations warned that “women and newborns [are] bearing the brunt of the conflict in Gaza.” Indeed, while the death toll of women and children was unprecedented—estimated to be up to 70% in the first months of the war, and by April, an estimated 63 women were killed each day—the circumstances for those who have survived and been displaced are inhumane. One humanitarian worker on the ground called it, “The worst situation I've ever seen.” 

    The destruction of the health sector in Gaza and the slow trickle of aid due to Israeli bombardment and siege have had significant effects on women’s health. Tens of thousands of women in Gaza are pregnant, with nearly 200 giving birth daily. These women have little to no access to pre- or post-natal care. Those who have been displaced are giving birth in underserved and unsanitary shelters, cars, tents, or makeshift structures. Miscarriages have increased by 300%, while pregnant and nursing mothers, along with much of the rest of Gaza’s population, are suffering from hunger and even famine

    IVF procedures were completely disrupted, like all other health-related services. In December 2023, Israeli planes bombed Gaza’s largest fertility clinic, destroying more than 4,000 embryos. An estimated 700,000 women and girls in Gaza are menstruating, with almost no access to sanitation pads, water for washing, or a private bathroom. Displaced women have reported using tissues or even pieces of their tents as sanitary napkins, putting them at risk for infections that there is little capacity to treat.  

    A multifaceted crisis  

    The mental trauma of living through and witnessing nine months of constant horror has numerous physical and mental effects on women, including disruptions in their menstrual cycle and their ability to nurse.  

    While many of the physical outcomes can be managed if they are given adequate access to resources, the mental trauma may last a lifetime. 

    While managing their mere survival today, Gaza’s women also face an uncertain future with their residence, education, and employment. 

    As gender equity and advocacy for women have become more consistent themes in development work, it is vital that institutions that purport to support women, reproductive rights, education, children, and human rights recognize how the multifaceted crisis in Gaza is directly targeting women. 

  • On August 3, 2014, ISIS attacked Sinjar, killing more than 3,000 Yazidis—most of whom remain in 83 uncovered mass graves. As they executed the older Yazidi women and men, ISIS kidnapped and sold over 7,000 women and girls into sexual slavery. They indoctrinated young boys and used them as human shields on the battlefield. Over 2,600 Yazidis are still missing. Lastly, ISIS destroyed about 80% of public infrastructure and 70% of homes in Sinjar.  

    Ten years later 

    Ten years after being targeted for genocide, 183,000 Yazidis are still displaced. Most remain in camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Their homeland, Sinjar, remains unsafe and uninhabitable. 

    Women have shouldered a disproportionate burden of this 10-year displacement, according to Hewan Omer, the country director of the Free Yezidi Foundation (FYF), based in Duhok, Iraq. 

    “Many have lost husbands, fathers, and sons, becoming the primary caregivers. These women face immense challenges providing for their families amid displacement, including limited or no access to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. Moreover, the trauma of sexual violence and exploitation continues to haunt Yazidi women, exacerbating their already harsh circumstances.”  

    Problems in reconstruction  

    In April 2023, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani announced that the Iraq Federal Government (IFG) allocated 50 billion Iraqi dinars (34.2 million USD) to infrastructure reconstruction in Sinjar. However, political disputes continuously block this money from being spent. Moreover, under Law No. 20 of 2009 Yazidi families are entitled to financial compensation for the loss of property or livelihood, but not one person of the 8,300 claims and 3,500 approvals has received these promised funds.  

    Now, the IFG is set to close the displacement camps and end aid and services by July 30, an effort to force the 30,000 Yazidi families still in 23 camps to return to Sinjar or relocate elsewhere. It is reported that each family is being offered a payment of four million Iraqi dinars (about 2,750 USD), a plasma TV, an oven, and a refrigerator. Many counter that it is not enough for food and rent, let alone to rebuild their homes.  

    “The prospect of secondary displacement looms over the hundreds of thousands of Yezidis who have endured makeshift existence in tents for a decade,” shared Omer. While she admits that the camps are far from a sustainable solution, it is problematic to compel them “to return to a homeland lacking job opportunities, clean water, safety, security, and basic resources.” She admits that “many among us are hesitant to return to Sinjar, particularly the younger generation and women and girls. Furthermore, for women who are caregivers and heads of households, the absence of stable housing and support networks in Sinjar presents a significant obstacle.”  

    Community rebuilding 

    To strengthen the Yazidi community during this time of transition, we should uphold a survivor-centered, grassroots, and community-led approach by directing investments toward respected Yazidi- and women-led organizations embedded within their communities. It is paramount to support organizations comprised of Yazidi women who are IDPs and survivors of genocide to amplify the voices of those they serve and foster resilience within the community. This is especially important in a landscape where gender inequality still persists.  

    FYF does spectacular work at the Enterprise and Training Center (ETC) outside the Khanke IDP camp in Duhok, Iraq. It provides protection, legal aid, skills training, jobs placement, educational courses, and livelihood programs. I have seen this programming myself and am encouraged by how it trains and empowers Yazidi women to create sustainable income—wherever they end up living.  

    When considering World Refugee Day, Omer asks the international community to not forget their plight. “We urge you to direct your efforts toward supporting the Yazidi community, including the perspective and needs of women and girls. Confronting multiple vulnerabilities, Yazidi women navigate a male-dominated society. Empowering them across all sectors—from education and livelihoods to civic engagement, justice, and protection—not only uplifts the broader community but also lays the foundation for a brighter and more hopeful future.” 

  • I am not a painter, but from observation and a little bit of research, I found out that the first step in painting is finding the subject: me. Step two is the style of painting: how do I envision the final product? It’s decided. Step three is choosing the surface of the painting: a white blank canvas. Step four is picking the tool: fingers. The rest of the steps don’t matter.  

    As I’ve seen with many artists, they start their paintings in the middle and work their way out. They draw the solid line that holds the whole painting. What comes on the outside, touching the canvas frame doesn’t matter as much as what the heart holds. If my life were a painting, it would be in all colors, light to dark. 

    What I left behind 

    The last time I wrote about my journey from Syria to the United States, it was about what I had left behind and the turns I took to get where I am today. Now, I am writing about what came after.  

    When the path is so hard and long and you finally cross it, you think the hard part is over. I did it, and now it will be rainbows and sunshine. Little did I know that the rocks on the road only get bigger, harder to jump over, and easier to trip on.  

    I thought leaving my mother and my father crying behind me at the airport in Lebanon was the hardest part. But the passing years taking shape on their faces, bending their bodies, stripping the color of their hair away is even harder. 

    I arrived in the US on New Year's Eve. The next chapter of my life started on January 1st, 2014. Three years passed without me kissing my mother’s hand and wrapping my arms around my father. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t only the fact that they were far away. It was the fact that I was constantly on my phone checking news channels and social media—all possible outlets. “Falling bombs in the outskirts of Damascus.” The comments followed: “Where is it?” “How many are dead?” “Are they still there?” “Any survivors?” I would jump onto my WhatsApp and ask, “Are you alive?” “Yes.” Then, I would continue my day.  

    There is a seven-hour time difference between my family and me. But the fear makes it grow even longer. 

    What if I wake up tomorrow and they are gone, under rubble, hit by a bullet, or victims of another car explosion?  

    I sat at my desk in my house in Austin surrounded by windows, one behind my bed and two on the sides. The room felt darker and the air thin. I felt helpless and regretted every decision I made. But then I thought again: I did not make this choice for myself, not this time.  

    Deciding to leave 

    A year after the revolution started, my parents wanted me out of the country—I wasn’t given a choice. I did not understand. I knew my country needed me. I couldn’t let my people fall one person at a time, just like the jasmine flowers falling on my grandpa’s building entryway at the beginning of autumn.  

    I am a traitor; I betrayed the trust that my country put in me. After my senior year of high school, I got into college to become someone and change the future of my country. Still, here I am, running away at the first bomb going off outside of my house and running away right after the army burst through the metal door at my building. I can still hear it. “BANG. BANG. BANG.” I could not forget the look on my father’s face. “Don’t say a word. Only answer when they ask you.” I stood there with hate dripping out of my eyes; I despised them.  

    When they left, I could almost hear my parents’ sigh; it was so quiet, yet it shook Mount Qasioun. This time, they left with no one handcuffed, marching to the end of their story. But we can never know if they will be back.  

    A stranger to my country 

    How did I leave Syria knowing that they could be back? I won't be there to protect my brother’s body. I won’t be there to witness their barbarism. How could I be so selfish to leave?  

    I sit right now at my desk, different from the one before, this time in New York City, another place I moved in search of a home, a place to belong. And I am still searching. The only place I found a glimpse of belonging is my work; I sit with Syrian refugees as they tell me their stories. I listen, forgetting that I need to write it all down and record it. But I get lost in their eyes, which hold back tears, and their trembling hands as they recall leaving their home—the same home I left.  
    As Syrians, the search for a home will never be over. I am a stranger to my country and will always be a stranger to the strangest country.  

  • Yemen’s protracted conflict has precipitated a severe humanitarian crisis, including 4.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), as well as external migration. 

    Many have fled Houthi-controlled territories, concentrating in the western regions of Yemen such as Marib, Hajjah, Al Hudaydah, and Taizz. These IDPs, predominantly women and children, face dire conditions due to limited access to essential services, such as healthcare, clean water, and education, exacerbating their vulnerability. 

    Internally displaced women 

    The Houthi authorities in Yemen have implemented several decrees that significantly impact women, particularly concerning their employment with international organizations. For example, women are required to be accompanied by a mahram(a legal male guardian) when working with these organizations. This is part of broader measures to control women’s mobility and freedom. These restrictions not only diminish women's personal agency but also their family's potential income, exacerbating the economic difficulties already caused by the ongoing conflict. 

    Moreover, these constraints reinforce conservative gender roles that confine women to the private sphere, hampering their participation in the public and professional domains. Consequently, a number of women, driven by the desire to pursue personal freedoms, employment opportunities, and a life where their rights are respected, have felt compelled to leave the Houthi-controlled area. The decision to leave is fraught with difficult trade-offs: some women exhaust their life savings, others embark on a temporary escape hoping to return eventually, and many face the painful necessity of separating from family members.  

    Yemeni women abroad 

    In addressing the displacement crisis in Yemen, international organizations typically focus on the acute and considerable needs of IDPs. However, among the Yemeni population displaced abroad in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Malaysia, affluent Yemenis who can initially sustain themselves using personal resources remain overlooked. The movement of Yemenis across borders has been shaped by a variety of push factors, including safety concerns, economic instability, and the breakdown of social systems. Many Yemenis abroad continue to face hardships, including high costs of living and legal barriers that affect their status and ability to work or receive aid.  

    The challenges intensify in Europe, where expectations of a better life often clash with harsh realities. Despite higher living standards and more comprehensive welfare systems, Yemeni women struggle with integration. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles highlights that language barriers, unrecognized qualifications, and protracted asylum processes significantly hinder their ability to secure employment and stable living conditions. Furthermore, the high cost of living in Europe compounds these difficulties. 

    Despite their relative financial independence, many of these self-sustaining refugees still live in precarious conditions, managing to survive month-to-month without the guarantee of long-term stability. The prevailing humanitarian response frameworks are geared towards immediate relief and fail to adequately support this group, especially in the areas of reintegration and long-term resettlement. As such, these financially better-off Yemenis, while not grappling with the same immediate survival challenges as other IDPs or refugees, still face significant barriers related to integration, legal status, and economic sustainability in their host countries. 

    A comprehensive policy 

    The policy landscape that Yemenis navigate often embodies a dual approach. While integration into host societies is promoted, there is also an emphasis on the potential for eventual repatriation to Yemen. This creates a state of limbo that can be psychologically taxing and limit effective participation in both host societies and potential roles in rebuilding Yemen. A coherent policy framework that supports both integration and considers the complexities of eventual return is needed.  

    International responses should also consider the diverse profiles and needs of the displaced populations. Programs that focus on the economic integration and long-term stability of all Yemeni refugees, irrespective of their initial financial condition, would more effectively address the overall scope of the displacement crisis. 

    Amid these challenges, more affluent Yemenis in the diaspora are increasingly taking the initiative to support each other. Through community-led programs, cultural events, and business networks, these individuals not only aid in the preservation of Yemeni culture but also build a structured support system that alleviates the integration difficulties faced by many. This self-organized assistance is pivotal, especially where formal aid programs fall short. 

    Addressing the needs of Yemenis, particularly women, effectively, whether they are IDPs or refugees, requires comprehensive support systems that acknowledge their crucial role in the long-term recovery and stability of Yemen. 

    By providing robust support and clear pathways for integration and eventual return, the international community can help these women not only survive but thrive. 

    Such policies should facilitate meaningful engagement in host communities while preparing for a future role in Yemen’s reconstruction, ensuring that women have the support necessary to contribute to peacebuilding efforts. 

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center. 


Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

Middle East Women's Initiative

The Middle East Women's Initiative (MEWI) promotes the empowerment of women in the region through an open and inclusive dialogue with women leaders from the Middle East and continuous research.  Read more