To learn to box, Husna only needs a small, poorly lit box. In the Rwanga refugee camp, where she lives, there is no gym. For an hour a day, she and her “boxer sisters” turn this barrack into their sports club. The project Boxing Sisters tries to improve the physical and mental health of refugee women through this sport. Lotus flower, a British non-profit organization, launched it in 2018. The NGO works in camps in northern Iraq for internally displaced persons and is dedicated to restoring strength and confidence to women whose lives have been affected by the conflict and abandonment of their homes, who have lost loved ones in war, or who have witnessed or been victims of acts of violence, including sexual violence.
The women of the Rwanga refugee camp share a similar past. Some 15,000 people, the majority belonging to the Yazidi religious minority, they have lived in the facilities since 2014. They are families who had to leave their homes before the relentless advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS for its acronym in English).
When ISIS attacked the village of Husna in Sinjar, his family had to flee leaving everything to save their lives. “At seven in the morning, my uncle received a message from one of our relatives who lives in another town. He told him that ISIS was heading towards ours and that we had to leave immediately. When I try to remember those days, my heart begins to beat so fast that I can hardly breathe and I get dizzy, “says Husna. Memories continue to haunt her in the Rwanga camp. Several boxing sisters have lost relatives in the war. Others have experienced worse: ISIS took them prisoner and enslaved them.
Drive away fear with your fists
Now Husna and several dozen women have a place for them. It didn’t take long for boxing classes to become her favorite activity.
Cathy Brown, a women’s boxing champion, was involved in the project from its inception. Brown promotes boxing as a therapeutic weapon that empowers and restores confidence; She is dedicated to this in London and for this she receives the nickname of “soul trainer”. The athlete visited the camp and trained Husna and other Yazidi girls for 10 days.
Several boxing sisters have lost relatives in the war. Others have experienced worse: ISIS took them prisoner and enslaved them.
The project was well received, and it grew. Dozens of refugee women signed up for the following courses. Cathy Brown and other coaches soon recognized Husna’s talent, and after a year of daily practice, the young woman became a trainer for the beginners.
On her TikTok account, Husna often posts videos of her training sessions. In them, she and her students are seen hitting, attacking and standing guard while they roar, shout and laugh. “Here I feel as if I had a second family. We have all gone through similar adversities, and that brings us closer, as if we were sisters,” explains the young woman, who also recognizes that several colleagues and they have noticed that thanks to this sport they have improved their physical and mental health. Exercising regularly kept her good humor … until the new coronavirus reached Kurdistan.
The coronavirus and female boxers
The spread of covid-19 put an end to the project. Farm managers feared that an outbreak in crowded facilities with vulnerable populations would be catastrophic, and they limited collective activities. They also restricted the refugees’ contact with nearby cities, where new cases of infection are reported every day. That means Husna and other boxing sisters are forced to spend the day in their little booths for now.
The young coach thinks that you cannot drive away the coronavirus with your fists. “But it’s not the end of the world, I try to make the best of my time.” Husna is very busy with her studies. In a few weeks he will finish high school, and studying at the camp is not easy. School days were already intermittent before the covid-19 pandemic. Now, Husna is preparing for the final exams. She attends class through a mobile phone connected to a very unreliable Internet line. Despite this, the young woman does not lose motivation: “My average grades are high, and I would like to continue like this. I want to continue studying and go to university,” she says.
Live in a war zone again
Husna believes his future prospects are “a bit worrying.” Her family is thinking of going back to their town, in Sinjar and starting a new life from scratch. “There was nothing left there,” laments Husna. “There are no colleges or universities.”
Also, Sinjar is not totally safe. It never has been. The homeland of the Yazidis is at a strategic crossroads between Syria, Turkey and Iraq, and has always been a battleground for the most bloody wars. Yazidism is a heterodox faith that combines elements of the Abrahamic belief system with ancient religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mithraism. The religion of the Yazidis has historically been used as an excuse to demonize its practitioners and target them.
Although the ISIS presence has been wiped out of Sinjar for a couple of years now, bombs continue to fall on villages and kill civilians. This time they are thrown by the Turkish army in pursuit of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkish airstrikes have reportedly killed at least three civilians in recent months.
Because the coronavirus has forced the suspension of activities in the field, Husna and other boxing sisters are forced to spend the day in their small booths
The self-defense skills Husna has acquired through boxing are unlikely to protect her from bombs falling from the sky.
“My family cannot live forever in the camp,” he says. Husna is aware of this. However, she does not know how she will be able to fulfill her dreams in Sinjar. Recurrent violence has impeded the development of the area. The war has caused severe damage to infrastructure, and ISIS militiamen stole the belongings and livestock of the villagers and destroyed their houses. With Turkey’s bombings and occasional military operations, the prospect of development and stability remains uncertain.
The Rwanga camp was never a permanent home for Husna and the boxing sisters. Still, the brief period of stability that life in him provided was precious to them. Husna finished her studies and became a boxing coach. Other Boxing Sisters acquired new skills. Their strength and confidence increased, and they helped other women.
But as long as Sinjar is not safe, Husna’s talent and ambitions will be in mortal danger amid rubble and bonds.