Photograph of Simona Toretta (L on the picture)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–In the hallway of an elegant old house on the Tigris River that serves as the Iraq headquarters for Women for Women International, Amena Lazim Benwan, 34, pulls out a photograph of her American sponsor.

“I only have God and her,” she says looking fondly at the image. The sponsor is helping Benwan with a monthly donation of $25. Although the two women will likely never meet, they exchange photographs and letters, which are translated by members of the staff in Iraq.

Benwan was widowed in 1999 when her husband was killed in a train accident. The mother of two young children, she lives in the Horreya district of Baghdad, next to a police station.

She is afraid of explosions–police stations are common targets for the insurgents–and is hesitant to leave her children alone.

But she manages to come to the center for weekly classes in women’s-rights awareness and looks forward to the next phase of the training: vocational skills such as sewing, upholstery and beadwork that could give her the means to support her family.

Benwan is one of the hundreds of women who have benefited from the Iraq program of Women for Women International, an international aid group based in Washington, D.C., that has stuck it out in the country even as escalating violence here has driven out other humanitarian groups.

It is the gratitude and hope visible in women like Benwan that fuels the work of the agency’s Iraq director Manal Omar.

She is one of a small group of foreign nationals who have been doing humanitarian work in Iraq despite the dangers. Last spring, Omar saw that events were “spiraling toward choas” with an attempted ambush of a staff car outside of Karbala was followed by the brutal murders the next day of two fellow women’s rights workers, Fern Holland and Salwa Omeishi.

As the violence in Iraq escalated in April, many aid workers left the country during this period, but Omar and Women for Women International stayed on.

Now, the Sept. 7 kidnapping of two Italian humanitarian workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, both 29, along with an Iraqi man and an Iraqi woman, are making her wonder what to do. The incident marks the first time that women were targeted by kidnappers since April, when a Japanese woman was kidnapped along with male colleagues and released a week later.

“The facts surrounding the two Italians makes me feel like a prime target,” Omar told Women’s eNews. “It is clear the Iraqi police, the U.S. military, and the government cannot help or prevent such an act. These people seem to be very much in control.”

Other aid workers, many of them female, are also shaken.

“There is absolutely no way they should have been targeted,” said Helen Williams, 35, an activist from Wales, referring to the two Italians. “They are not in Baghdad making money out of the occupation. They do not work for a company or security firm and they are not soldiers. They are here working for the Iraqis, making life better for so many.”

Working with Street Children

Williams has been living in Baghdad since November and working with street children through a group that she and others have formed, called Youth Aid Iraq, which funds a temporary accommodation for boys who have left home and are now living in the downtown area around Sadoun Street.

Helen Williams in Nagaf

In April, during the military actions in Fallujah, Williams and fellow activists traveled in to the besieged city to deliver medical supplies when few foreigners dared to leave Baghdad.

In August, she joined a convoy of Italian Red Cross volunteers to Najaf to provide humanitarian relief and medical assistance. She spent a night in the besieged shrine with members of the Mehdi Army. Their convoy came under attack both traveling to and returning from the holy city. On the return trip two members of the convoy were killed by a roadside bomb.

She writes extensively of her experiences and observations, lamenting what she views as an occupation gone bad and the underreporting of the plight of the Iraqi people by dominant media.

She says the situation is getting worse day by day, and despite plans to remain in Iraq for the long-term, she is considering leaving. “I feel so sad and have to keep reminding myself that the Iraqi people have all suffered so much more than me and they have no where else to go. They have no choice but to stay and do their best in a worsening security situation and make the best of things.”

Omar arrived in Iraq in 14 months ago to establish operations. Fluent in Arabic, the 29-year-old Palestinian-American is primarily responsible for training the trainers–Iraqi women who implement the core program.

The core of the Women for Women International program here it reach out to the poorest of poor women–usually single heads of households with no source of income–who receive direct sponsorship from a foreign ‘sister.’

In exchange for the financial aid they receive, the women are expected to attend rights-awareness and leadership training classes, where they discuss topics related to health, education and politics. This phase of the program is about helping clients develop more of an ability to participate in civic life. In the second phase, women undertake job-skills training to start small businesses and qualify for micro-credit financing.

As part of the Women for Women International program, Omar also trains and supports staff members from other local nongovernmental organizations that have been established in Iraq in the past year. Omar and one other foreign woman are currently the staff of the operation and they plan for it to be eventually run entirely by local personnel.

This is a return engagement in Iraq for Omar. For two years in the late 1990s she worked with the United Nations in Baghdad and spent subsequent years working with a variety of programs in the Middle East and North Africa focusing on development and women’s rights. Even someone as experienced as Omar, however, is growing more uneasy.

“I cannot bear to think what would happen if they kill the Italian women and the two Iraqis,” Omar said. “I think of the Iraqi woman that was dragged from her scarf into the car and I cannot help to think of my own brave Iraqi staff. The idea that I am putting them in danger kills me more than anything.”

Dana Smillie, a Cairo-based photographer, video journalist and writer, has been covering the region since 1996. Her photographs have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

For more information:

Women for Women International–
Journals . . . Iraq/A Moment in History:–Iraq Diaries: