Rochester's refugee community put their own spin on International Women's Day

Mar 11, 2015

As pop music spills from a speaker, a group of women from the Rochester Refugee Women’s Network (RRWN) put the final touches on this get-together. The event, co-sponsored by Refugees Helping Refugees, officially started an hour earlier, but is running on what the women affectionately call “refugee time.”

Before the trays of Somali food are passed out and the traditional dances performed,13-year-old Rochester-born Asli Yusuf recalls hearing her mother Sahra Ibrahim’s stories of celebrating International Women’s Day in a refugee camp in Mogadishu.

“Back where she came from, she’ll have lots of food and celebration and dancing,” Yusuf says. “It’s just a whole bunch of women gathering to celebrate this day.”

In Rochester for the last 15 years, Ibrahim relishes the chance to merge those memories with her new life in Rochester.

“It really reminds me of a lot of things,” Ibrahim says describing getting together with friends and family back home and now with her new family in Rochester.  “I’m so glad to be here.”

With origins in a 1908 march for better working conditions and voting rights for New York City garment workers, the United Nationals officially recognized March 8 as International Women’s Day in 1975. Today, the holiday stands both for progress since made, and the gaps that remain in realizing equality globally. This year also marked 20 years since the 1995 Beijing Conference, at which 189 governments signed a roadmap for achieving women’s rights.

RRWN started the event in Rochester three years ago after refugee women said they missed the celebrations they used to mark the day back home. Now it’s a chance for Rochester women from all backgrounds to come together.

“It makes Rochester feel like a less anonymous place,” says Pilapa Esara Carroll a volunteer with both organizations.

Sahra Ibrahim agrees. “It’s really amazing. Rochester’s a second home right now and we are a big family,” she says.

As acting Program Director of Refugees Helping Refugees, Dr. Louise Bennett has seen the unique set of struggles women from refugee backgrounds face. Women often held the role of keeping the family unit together and alive as they moved through resettlement. International Women’s Day offers a way to recognize both the hardships and the triumphs.

“Many countries have made a lot of advances, but many countries have not made those advances and it’s a way to bring everybody together to celebrate this and to think about this,” Bennett says.

For Sadiya Omar, vice-president of Refugees Helping Refugees, the day is a chance to reflect on how far she and the other women have come.

“It’s so special to us to know that women are special,” she says. In Somalia, she explains, she was taught that girls should not speak up. “But here we have the freedom to raise our voice.”

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