A parable of what we do at Women of the World

There has been a little bit of rain overnight but not enough to water the plants outside the office. The plants are freshly planted, some of the first from Home Depot’s fresh stock. The pots in front of the office will be replanted three times this year, something fresh, alive looking… most people won’t consciously notice.

The open sign goes up on the handle of the north-most door. The puddles in the parking lot and on most of Main Street are still undisturbed.

Samira runs past the corkboard and front desk, disturbing the papers that announce the CCS’s, IRC’s, or RSO’s latest event, a survey to take, someone’s PhD thesis collecting data. Anti-gossip proclamations in Arabic and English – a policy to protect this vital place – settle as Samira strides by.

There is an Arabic saying that you never enter as a guest in someone’s home by pushing open the door with your hands… instead you enter with your rear-end first – because your hands are full of gifts. Samira leaves a trail of keys, purse, computer bag, and the various food, gift, and work-product du jour.

She is on her way to her second cup of sometimes countless cups of tea. This is a fact none of you likely know, Women of the World started with a tea party in the cafeteria of the Horizonte School on 13th and Main. We did our tea party at the same time “the Tea Party” was coming into prominence – it was clear then, as it is now, that we would have to grow up as an organization in an interesting political climate.

Tea in hand, Samira is across the world. Justin gives her a terrible time about her Facebook habit, but, by-and-large it is done to aggregate the refugee news of the day for the 3,500 followers of the Women of the World Facebook page. That is where the refugee story starts. It is easy to see the resettled refugee as another hand outstretched in need until you understand how they got here.

Refugees are the unluckiest people in the world. Due to no fault of their own, refugees have been presented with suffering we are incapable of understanding, that we are afraid to imagine. It is hard reading the specifics because the pain – simply written on the page – alters you in ways we are not comfortable with…

The working world is awake and Samira is fielding calls. Citizens of Utah, teens and retirees ask for education, media outlets seek expertise, partners rework plans for clients, individuals donate goods or seek out ways to improve their time as mentors, yoga classes or workshops form, and community leaders seek us out in hopes of unity.

Then the bell rings and the door opens.

Early in the morning it might be on of our ladies, but most likely it is Abby, starting her day.

She and Samira’s greeting is warm. Theirs is a female relationship of living eulogy. Samira’s pride in her role in forging Abby’s increased tough-love is matched by Abby’s willingness to reason through the most emotional issue. There is laughter, irreverence, and above all, respect. Abby is patient in a way that conveys years working with English Language Learners, Samira is nurturing in a way that is deep, lasting, and personal – a commitment of her whole-self.

Samira Harnish, Executive Director and Founder of Women of the World with women from the Salt Lake community

The first person to come into that door is the luckiest refugee or partner of the day. The office is freshly clean, the staff is smiling, and the mood is not one of problem and solution but of neighborliness – the perfect fit for Utah.

In an earlier iteration of the Board of Directors, we questioned what would we call our clients. Clients seemed like something too cold, too quota driven, too non-profit industrial complex. That committee came up with new neighbors and it stuck. When I think of Utahns, I think the majority just want to be good neighbors. The other way we talk about our new neighbors – and this is all Samira – is as “our ladies.”

Most people don’t remember before Starbucks came to prominence, but one of the things they tried to do with their early stores was to become the “third place” for their customers. Everyone has home and work, but if that third place could be Starbucks, they figured they’d sell more coffee. Women of the World is that third (and sometimes second or only-other) place for our ladies. Comfort and confidentiality characterize this special place.

The first client of this ordinary day in May does not initially share in the mirth of a new day. N– is one of our long-term clients. Our services have improved her life but, as a single mother, the deck was already stacked against her; that she and all of her teen children suffer PTSD increase her need. 

Graduates and teachers of Women of the Worlds Intensive English class

The first client of this ordinary day in May does not initially share in the mirth of a new day. N– is one of our long-term clients. Our services have improved her life but, as a single mother, the deck was already stacked against her; that she and all of her teen children suffer PTSD increase her need.

N– has an appointment with Abby and this is a positive sign. Planning is one of the intrinsic values Women of the World tries to instill in our ladies. N– is Abby’s biggest fan, she will cry for over an hour on the day Abby leaves to medical school.

N–’s appointment is not any easy one today, she has received a collection notice for $822, the total bill for childcare during her pregnancy. Her contract with the state’s welfare agency was to pay a percentage of this bill based on her income but her pregnancy prevented her from working for the last month and neither the state’s portion nor N–’s portion was paid.

N–’s improvements has been thanks to the collaboration between all of WoW’s staff and its partners. The two hour phone hearing was complicated but resulted in the removal of the bill from N–. For a single mother expecting a new child, the removal of this debt is truly a life-saver.

The next person to come into the office is the other Case Manager working at Women of the World at this time, Courtney. Courtney has an infectious smile and is the nicest person you will ever meet. She has a calm effectiveness that allows her to manage a heavy caseload and maintain our volunteer mentor program including all of the interest forms, the orientation meeting, client match meetings, and the followup on necessary case management issues. Courtney and Abby seamlessly communicate about life, cases, and politics.

In an earlier iteration of the Board of Directors, we questioned what would we call our clients. Clients seemed like something too cold, too quota driven, too non-profit industrial complex. That committee came up with new neighbors and it stuck. When I think of Utahns, I think the majority just want to be good neighbors. The other way we talk about our new neighbors – and this is all Samira – is as “our ladies.”

Between calls to partners or meetings with various friends of Women of the World, Samira swings around to the Case Manager office, leans against the doorframe, and the three women talk in an open and engaged manner. The conversation is friendly, dealing mostly with the issues in recent cases and brainstorming solutions. These women act on their intrinsic care and compassion, they are confident that their solutions are leading to self-reliant outcomes for the women refugees they serve. Laptops and phones are at the ready, ears are ready to listen as mid-day nears and our ladies begin to stream in.

Over ten hours of service and capacity building will be done today. An ordinary day only in its flow and tempo. For while most service occurs after noon and many of the faces are familiar, the situation is ever changing, as diverse as the women of the world that enter our office.

M– has received a letter about her Medicaid recertification, a complex set of healthcare choices that are very meaningful for her and her family. Courtney slowly went through the different plans she could choose, until she understood them and could be confident in her choice. M– also brought a hospital bill that did not apply her Medicaid, so Courtney called the caregiver and had them resubmit the bill through insurance. In just an hour, M– renewed her healthcare insurance and had a bill reduced to a fee she could actually pay. She left Women of the World greatly relieved.

S– was not feeling well when she entered our office but knew she did not have a lot of time to rest, she needed to get back to work and to her family. A refugee woman’s self-reliance is a hard-fought. Most of our ladies start their day preparing the family, work a labor intensive job on odd shifts, take English late into the night, and return home to prepare a late meal for family and friends. This schedule would be taxing enough on mind and body, but refugee women are often additionally tormented with the demons of PTSD, domestic violence, denigrating traditional roles, and worry about the integration of their children into their new home.

S– had a stack of mail and a missing piece all of which she had been trained by the WoW staff to understand its importance. This is another slight step on the road to self-reliance that Abby was proud to see, S–’s knowledge of the urgency of some of her mail and concern over an IRS mailing she had not received. Not knowing how to deal with the bureaucracy is acceptable, not recognizing something that needs your attention and not reaching out for help is too common and can land our ladies in a far greater plight.

Abby prioritized S–’s health first and got her a doctor’s appointment on a day she could fit it into her schedule and with a provider that took her insurance. Abby checked with the IRS and got the timeline for when the form was being sent, making a note to followup with S– and help her fill out the form. Finally, in going through her mail, Abby noticed that S– qualified for a moderated Section 8 benefit for her housing and called and got her application moving.

 

An ordinary day only in its flow and tempo. For while most service occurs after noon and many of the faces are familiar, the situation is ever changing, as diverse as the women of the world that enter our office.

 

Volunteers arrived for the late afternoon English class they teach and all of the students duck their heads into either Samira’s or Abby and Courtney’s office to say hello. Women learn English from volunteers that mentor them in their homes and from those that use the office for a classroom setting. There English improves with each class and we like to think this is a greater incentive than the donated hygiene products we hand out to those that have attended the majority of classes that week.

In order to help U– to adopt her nephew, left with her by her brother-in-law that simply left town, Courtney has to learn about legal adoption processes in Utah. It is not the first protocol that Samira, Abby, or Courtney have to pick up the gist of from our partners and from research on the internet… and it won’t be the last. After some research and a call to get the process started, they agree to meet again tomorrow on a call with the State’s representative. U– will finalize the adoption in the months to come, adding a wonderful boy to the family she loves and cares for with a quiet deliberateness.

T– is starting at Salt Lake Community College and will be a great asset to the classroom. She is bright and kind, quick to smile and to help her family and her community. She is one of the rising stars that Women of the World is fortunate enough to see on the occasion where she is not working, having been promoted to a supervisor at a local retailer that has placed numerous ladies from our community. T– is a recent recipient of Women of the World’s Certificate of Accomplishment, certificates handed out each December at our awards ceremony to recognize goal accomplishment and outstanding efforts by our ladies.

T– is someone you love to help. She is appreciative and makes the best of each opportunity. In this instance, Abby calls the Humanitarian Service Center of the LDS church and the Jewish Family Services Society to split the $700 cost of T–’s Autocard which she will use for books and fees at SLCC. She pokes her head into Samira’s office, conveying her family’s regards to Samira. To the Arab speaking women and men of the Salt Lake Valley, Samira is addressed as “sit-Samira,” translated roughly as a combination of respect for her professionalism (as an engineer and non-profit executive) and of family-ties (like Aunt).

Courtney will finish her day outside of the office, on one final case to get C–’s Housing Application complete at Bud Bailey Apartments. Handling a case over the phone can require numerous iterations, so Women of the World often meets our ladies at their appointments. Courtney and the Utah Housing Authority agent stationed at Bud Bailey work well together and with C– there to fill in the required details, the appointment is effective and efficient, ending in C– being on the waiting list only one hour later. Before Courtney drives away for the night, she notices that C–‘s car doesn’t start and after helping to diagnosis the problem, C– and Courtney are off to Autozone to fix the problem. Courtney problem solves our clients’ health, home, and auto (!) issues – to name just a few of the ways she has helped during this ordinary day in May.

Back at the office, Abby ends her day by taking in a new client, R–, helping her complete a resume, and apply to an employer-partner that manufactures medical devices. R– is excited about the application, eventually she will get the job, and starts out in a place where she can work hard and have a career.

Women of the World often works late into the night, delivering you podcast content, visiting our ladies, or attending events. And the list goes on.

Abby finishes up her case notes from the day and enters them in the database, talks with Samira about the cases she has upcoming or is drawn into a discussion about operational improvements at WoW, and then with an energy that doesn’t convey the long, emotional day behind her or the late night of study ahead, is out the door.

 

There are days when it feels like the early days of Women of the World, where Samira’s office was her SUV and she served our ladies door-to-door.

The volunteer-developed case files run the end of day backup and show capacity building activities in the Economic Empowerment program including FAFSA, College, and Scholarship Application Assistance; certificates and ongoing training research and applications; employer partnerships, job search, resume and interview training, job applications and advocacy for pay, termination, and harassment issues; partnership w/ startup incubators, business plan assistance, and business promotion. The database highlights other days were services include successes in straightening out billing or timing of immigration status, housing, food assistance, insurance, social security or disability payments; health is cared for around PTSD and mental health, dental, and medical issues including chronic, acute, and terminal issues. Women of the World has English successes from volunteer home tutoring and classroom teaching. Workshops are held on all of these topics to educate our ladies on our best known methods.

Samira is often hard at work long after the last client has left. Her day has been full of speaking with partners, volunteers, funders, clients, and helping the staff navigate to solutions for some of the cases. She is as likely to go to an event in the community as she is to go home, she’ll often stop by a client she hasn’t seen in a while, just to visit. There are days when it feels like the early days of Women of the World, where Samira’s office was her SUV and she served our ladies door-to-door.

Samira does a few dishes and makes sure the homemade food she had for someone’s birthday or for a milestone for a class or workshop is put into the refrigerator. Leftovers are just one of the many perks of being a refugee woman assisted by WoW. Hummus, tabouli, saffron rice, and kabab go out in take-away containers and are seemingly always available. Once the office is tidy, inviting, and able to offer the comforts of home to our new neighbors, Samira switches off the lights and locks up. Night has fallen and Women of the World is again the first location open and the last to close in this strip-mall on Main Street.