Many people carry a certain image of Iraq in their heads. They see it as a place of endless warfare and little else, a place that was hopelessly mired in chaos long before ISIS came on the scene.
But Gozê dispels this image with a few simple words:
“We had work. We had a home. Life was really nice.”
“Shingal was so nice,” adds Marwa, Gozê’s sister by marriage.
Shingal. That’s what the Yazidi people call their homeland. Others know this patch of earth that hugs the border between Syria and Iraq as Sinjar.
For Gozê and her sisters, life in Sinjar changed forever on August 3, 2014.
The world they knew was suddenly and violently ripped apart. A terrifying new hell emerged: heavily armed militants overran Sinjar, bent on wiping the Yazidis from the earth. Most Westerners know these militants as ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State. But Gozê and her friends call them Daesh, a pejorative acronym that sounds like the Arabic word for “one who crushes underfoot.”
ISIS crushed everything Gozê had.
After ISIS came, Gozê and her family fled up Sinjar Mountain, along with other Yazidis. They endured days of deprivation under a blistering sun. “There was no food, not even stale bread,” she says. “There was no water, either.”
All around them, people began to die.
Each of Gozê’s sisters has a similar story. Marwa had to watch as ISIS turned up suddenly and murdered her father, mother, and brother; she was left to clean their bodies and figure out what on earth to do next.
Sozan lost her 7-year-old daughter; she died of starvation when her family took refuge on the mountain. The militants below were all too happy to let time and hunger do their genocidal work for them.
Still another, Hazno, had to flee while pregnant and sick.
Almost two years later, the pain is still visible on the faces of these women. But they also exhibit a quiet strength. Their courage and resilience have carried them through the unthinkable.
After escaping Sinjar, Gozê, the other women, and their families traveled on foot to Syria, a land ripped apart by its own brutal civil war. From there, they went by car, in search of somewhere beyond the reach of ISIS.
They had nothing left.
“Not even a tent,” Gozê recalls.
What would you do if you lost everything you had to those bent on your destruction? Where would you go, assuming you managed to escape?
For Gozê and her sisters, the answer was Iraqi Kurdistan. This region offers relative safety and security, but it is a far cry from their homeland. Nearly everyone here speaks a different dialect. There is no work for the men in their families—those who didn’t end up in a mass grave, that is. There are no schools for their children, either.
How do you make a home out of a leaky shipping container in the middle of a muddy field?
Gozê and her sisters started by making soap.
The soap trade goes back at least 4,000 years in this part of the world, when the people of ancient Mesopotamia started mixing water, alkali, and cassia oil—history’s first recorded soap recipe. But it was new to Gozê and her sisters.
When they came to Kurdistan, we showed them how to make soap. We helped them start a soapmaking business so they could earn a living and provide for their families.
By learning this ancient craft, they’ve begun to undo the devastation wrought by ISIS.
Every bar they sell is another step toward reclaiming their lives. Every new soapmaker who receives training and equipment is another step toward a more prosperous future.
To us—and to you—Gozê and her family are more than refugees.
They are more than what others have done to them. They deserve better than a bandaid solution to their current situation. By teaching them a trade and helping them start a business, you are providing something more than mere aid. You’re providing a future.
You’re giving them a source of income, a way to pay for diapers and milk and other essentials.
You’re empowering them to care for others in need, as they produce thousands of bars of soap for use in refugee camps, to prevent the spread of disease.
You are standing with your sisters in Iraq, providing a hand up rather than a handout.
Their soap is as beautiful as the hands that labor over it. It’s beautiful not just for what goes into it—natural ingredients like olive oil, herbal tea, chamomile, and eucalyptus—but also for what it’s done in the lives of Gozê and her sisters.
“This is my work. It supports my children.”
“Making soap makes us happy.”
“Without this soap, we wouldn’t have survived. We couldn’t have provided.”
Sisterhood Soap does more than cleanse. It washes away the effects of hatred. It unmakes violence. It empowers women who have lost everything, so they can remake their world.
As we prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day, honoring the women who nurtured and sustained us, we can also pay tribute to mothers like Gozê and Sozan, who have carried their families through the unthinkable.
Most of their soap is sold locally in Iraq, but we’re also bringing some to the U.S., to share with you. You can purchase Sisterhood Soap as a way of remembering their story… and helping them as they begin writing a new one.
But this is about more than buying a few bars of handmade soap.
This is about empowering your sisters, standing in solidarity, refusing to give ISIS the last word over their lives.
There are many, many more families who were driven from their homes, displaced by violence, and left with nothing. There are many more sisters who are just as determined to carry their families through the darkness. And you can stand with them.
You can empower and equip more soapmakers like Gozê, Sozan, Marwa, and Hazno.
Grow the sisterhood. Empower a soapmaker.
Photos: Matt Willingham, Erin Wilson, Christine Anderson